Sunday, 28 March 2004

Carrying the Vision

What follows is a portion of the 8th Adullam Homes Housing Association Annual Lecture, given to an invited audience at Keele University. Adullam was established in 1972. It offers accommodation and support to some of the most marginalised, vulnerable and at risk people in our society.
This was reported briefly in the Guardian as Bishop gives warning on equality law.

I hear rumours that as faith based bodies revisit their employment and recruitment policies, partly in the light of the recent implementation of directives outlawing discrimination on grounds of religion or sexual orientation, a number are coming up with a maximalist position. The claim is that every board member, and in some cases every employee, must be firstly an adherent of the particular faith and secondly satisfy additional requirements regarding sexuality.

I want to stick my neck out and say that I find this trend quite alarming. I urge those who are giving consideration to this specific point to be aware of a number of risks in that approach:

i. Confusing the faith with the values.
When we substitute adherence to the tenets of a particular faith group for commitment to a set of values or ethos we risk losing the latter. Despite all the evidence from the fall out over homosexuality and bishops last summer many religious people retain a touching and naïve belief that the person next to them holds the same values as they do themselves. In some cases it may be fear of discovering otherwise rather than simple naivety.

ii. Excluding valuable contributions.
Some years ago I heard of the formation of a new body to support Christians engaged in the Housing world. When I approached it I found that I was only eligible for membership if I could subscribe to a particular understanding of the doctrine of salvation. I still fail to see the connection. Narrow religious requirements inevitably limit the range of views and perspectives that an organisation can bring to the task of working out its values. Some of the best board and senior staff members of Christian organisations I know are those who stand sympathetically but outside the church structures and can ask the rest of us the sharp questions.

iii. Avoiding or abusing the law undermines the policy of exemptions. Government rightly continues to give faith based organisations scope to claim exemption from aspects of equalities legislation. But when I hear rumours of substantial organisations claiming that every staff member has a “Genuine Occupational Requirement” to be an adherent of a specific faith I fear we are stretching the law to breaking point. If we are seen to be exploiting loopholes in order to operate policies that discriminate widely on grounds of religion or sexuality then we are likely to find the law tightened up so that we lose the exemptions that are justifiable.

iv. Discrimination contravenes our values.
Most faith based agencies have somewhere in their list of core values that they take equalities issues seriously. To suddenly resort to special pleading diminishes that commitment.

v. Inconsistent application of exemptions is illegal.
This is particularly relevant to the exemptions organisations make claim on grounds of sexual orientation. The legal advice published on the Church of England website makes it clear to me that the Christian ethic here is about the restriction of sexual activity to marriage. Any organisation that seeks to exclude gay employees whilst condoning or ignoring extra-marital heterosexual activity could find itself on very shaky ground.

vi. It isn’t necessary.
There is nothing that we want to achieve that cannot be achieved through having a clear core of faith adherents who take responsibility for the carrying forward of the vision both at board and senior management level. Moreover it is in the very nature of faith based organisations that they will tend to attract at all levels of staff those who are adherents of the faith in question. To revert to biblical imagery, there is plenty of leaven in the lump.

Posted by David Walker on Monday, 29 March 2004 at 12:36am BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: equality legislation