Additional material added
I wrote earlier about the attacks being made upon this bill. Time now to comment on some of them.
First of all, there were two reports, in the Catholic Herald and in the Telegraph, which tried to put words into the mouth of Michael Foster MP, the Minister of State at the Government Equalities Office.
These were published under strong headlines: Get ready to be sued, Minister tells Christians and Minister predicts legal battles between churches and atheists over Equality Bill were used. In one article it was claimed that
[Foster] admitted that the legislation would open the floodgates to a tide of sexual and religious discrimination cases.
The other version was only slightly less sensational:
[Foster] admitted that the controversial legislation could trigger the launch of religious and sexual discrimination cases against Christian denominations.
I was present at this press conference, the day after the Lords First Reading, and I know that he didn’t say either of those things. The purpose of the conference, limited to the religious press, was to encourage churches to support the bill.
Following a lengthy discussion with all the journalists present about the new definition of the “purposes of an organised religion” in Schedule 9, Clause 2, Paragraph 8, he showed no inclination at all to accept any modification to the existing wording – several suggestions for that were made. He was then asked if he thought it likely that, if the bill passed with the current wording, there would be a challenge to it in the courts.
Here’s what he actually said in reply:
“Both sides will want to be lining up, no doubt. Government is used to the fact that its legislation will be challenged and if we could find the holy grail of avoiding challenge outside of an authoritarian state which says ‘you can’t’, we would. But I think that people feel strongly about these issues. We can’t do anything about that and neither would we want to.”
After which, as reported by the Telegraph, he added:
“I would like to see the churches being more bold. I would like to see the faith groups stand up and be counted for what they think and to challenge secularism, if that’s what they want to challenge. The secularists should have the right to challenge the Church and if the Church’s argument is good enough – which I believe it is – then the Church should win through.”
The Catholic Herald went on to say:
He declined to offer a solution to how conflicting rights of religious freedom of employers and sexual expression of employees, for instance, could be resolved.
Nor did he deny claims made by the Catholic bishops that the Bill would allow non-Christians who work in church premises to sue for victimisation if they were offended by crucifixes on walls. Instead, he said he thought such a scenario “unlikely”, even though an atheist last month successfully sued the Italian government over its policy of having crucifixes in schools.
But in the paper handout issued at the meeting, it says this about the crucifixes issue:
MYTH: Religious organisations that display holy images in the workplace are vulnerable under the Equality Bill.
RESPONSE: Religious organisations are free to display holy images. Some people have suggested that the Equality Bill willl mean that workers will be able to sue religious organisations for harassment because they are offended by religious images ih the workplace. This is just mischief-making.
An example often used is that of a cleaner working in a care home who is offended by crucifixes on the walls – it is completely untrue to suggest that the care home would be required by the Bill to take them down. The cleaner should expect to see these images in a religious organisation.
9. Harassment is defined as ‘unwanted conduct … with the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment’ (clause 24). The burden of proof for this highly subjective definition is reversed in legal proceedings.
10. In relation to religion or belief, the provision is only applicable to employment (clause 37). The practical consequences of this are that a Catholic care home, for example, may have crucifixes and holy pictures on the walls which reflect and support the beliefs of the residents. A cleaner may be an atheist or of very different religious beliefs. Nonetheless if a cleaner found the crucifixes offensive there would be no defence in law against a charge of harassment. To avoid this provision having serious unintended consequences, a test of ‘reasonableness’ is essential.