The Equality Bill that was passed in the House of Commons recently is now before the House of Lords. The first debate, i.e the Second Reading, will occur on Tuesday 15 December, starting soon after 2.30 pm.
Earlier reports of the Commons debate can be found here.
My own report is in today’s Church Times at Attempt to remove ‘religion’ clause in Equality Bill fails. That is currently available only to subscribers, but the full text is below the fold.
Meanwhile, the RC bishops have issued a briefing, which has been reported in a somewhat alarming tone in several places:
Catholic Herald Equality Bill threatens integrity of the priesthood, bishops tell Harman by Simon Caldwell
Catholic News Service English, Welsh bishops say Equality Bill redefines who can be priest also by Simon Caldwell
There is also a less sensational report by Isabel de Bertadano in the Tablet but that too is subscription-only.
More on this topic to follow.
Church Times 11 December report
Attempt to remove ‘religion’ clause in Equality Bill fails
by Simon Sarmiento
AN ATTEMPT to remove a clause in the Equality Bill defining the “purposes of organised religion” was defeated in the House of Commons on Wednesday of last week. The Church of England had raised objections to the wording (below) when it first appeared (News, 20 November).
The Bill received its Third Reading, when only eight MPs voted against, and it now passes to the House of Lords. A Second Reading debate there is scheduled for next Tuesday.
The amendment, proposed by David Drew, MP for Stroud (Labour), sought to delete the new definition entirely. Speaking in support of Mr Drew, Mark Harper, MP for the Forest of Dean (Conservative), argued that the phrase “wholly or mainly” was too narrow. Many full-time ordained Christian ministers would be excluded, since only a small proportion of their time was spent leading worship or teaching doctrine.
When voted upon, the amendment was defeated by 170 votes to 314.
On 26 November, the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, had also spoken about this clause during the debate in the House of Lords on the Queen’s Speech. He said: “I cannot imagine that any Christian would recognise their faith in those descriptions. . . In practice, especially in smaller churches or faith groups, many employees play a multi-tasked role which could fall foul of the requirement that their employment wholly or mainly involve leading worship.”
During the Commons debate, several MPs referred to a “reasoned opinion” that the European Commission had issued to the UK government on 20 November. The Commission stated that the exceptions in current UK law to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for religious employers are broader than permitted by the EU directive.
The EU Commissioner for Equal Opportunities, Vladimír Špidla, said: “We call on the UK Government to make the necessary changes to its anti-discrimination legislation as soon as possible so as to fully comply with the EU rules. In this context, we welcome the proposed Equality Bill, and hope that it will come into force quickly.”
The Government has not yet released the full text of the opinion, but Mr Harper, who had obtained a copy from Brussels, told the Commons that it said: “The UK Government has informed the Commission that the new Equality Bill currently under discussion before the UK Parliament will amend this aspect of the law, and bring UK law into line with the Directive.”
Two other amendments sought to permit religious care-homes for the elderly and religious adoption agencies to restrict their services on the grounds of sexual orientation. They were not adopted.
During the House of Lords debate, an amendment is expected to be tabled to allow religious buildings to be used to hold civil partnership ceremonies. Ben Summerskill of Stonewall, a gay-rights group, said: “We are very clear that this is an issue of religious freedom, and if faiths want to celebrate the ceremonies of two men or two women, it’s not for someone else to say you can’t do that.”
(8) Employment is for the purposes of an organised religion only if the employment wholly or mainly involves —
(a) leading or assisting in the observation of liturgical or ritualistic practices of the religion,
(b) promoting or explaining the doctrine of the religion (whether to followers of the religion or to others).