Thinking Anglicans

Equality Bill: Friday update

There are further reports about this today:

In the Church Times there is a report by me, subscriber-only until next Friday, headlined Change fails to silence critics. A longer account by me is below.

In the Catholic Herald Simon Caldwell has a report headlined Equality Bill still a threat, say bishops.

On the other hand, the National Secular Society has a press release, NSS battles to minimise religious opt outs in Equality Bill.

A new Marshalled List of Amendments has been published. I will review the changes in a later post.

What follows is my full account of events of the past week.

The Government’s efforts to clarify the exemption for churches in the Equality Bill have not been welcomed by either the Archbishops’ Council or the Roman Catholic bishops conference. The Bill is due to complete its Committee stage in the House of Lords next week.

The new amendment wording is:
Employment is for the purposes of an organised religion only if—
(a) the employment is as a minister of religion, or
(b) the employment is in another post that exists (or, where the post has not previously been filled, that would exist) to promote or represent the religion or to explain the doctrines of the religion (whether to followers of the religion or to others).

When the amendment text was published last Thursday, a spokesman for the Archbishops’ Council said “The Government amendment reflects a recognition that the concerns expressed all along by the churches have been well founded. But it still falls short of what we have been arguing for and leaves too much for the courts and tribunals to interpret. That is why we shall continue to support the deletion of clause 2 (8) as the surest way of preserving the status quo for churches and other faiths.”

Asked to clarify this on Monday, Mr William Fittall, Secretary-General of the Archbishops’ Council, confirmed that the church would prefer that the existing wording should simply be deleted. Consultations had been held with Government since last June, but the new amendment was not satisfactory.

On Friday, Mr Richard Kornicki of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales had said “The Government amendment goes some way to meeting our needs – particularly in putting the position of Ministers of religion beyond doubt, and identifying ‘promote’, ‘represent’ or ‘explain the doctrine’ as functions to be covered. However, the phrase ‘exists to’ might, according to legal advice, be interpreted narrowly by courts as meaning the whole purpose, which would get us straight back into the problems caused by the ‘wholly or mainly’ formulation”. He believed that deletion was “the only sure way of guaranteeing that the Bill neither extends nor narrows the scope of the current legal provision.”

A spokesman for the Government Equalities Office insisted on Tuesday that the new definition made no change at all in the current law. He pointed out that the wording reflected very closely what Lord Sainsbury had said in the House of Lords in June 2003 and putting this wording on the face of the bill would give greater clarity. Speaking for the Government at that time, Lord Sainsbury had said: “When drafting Regulation 7(3), we had in mind a very narrow range of employment: ministers of religion, plus a small number of posts outside the clergy, including those who exist to promote and represent religion.”

These amendments to Schedule 9 Clause 2 of the Bill will be debated in the House of Lords next Monday.

Another amendment proposed by the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, Baroness Butler-Sloss, and others, would remove the word “proportionate” from the clause. This word, which did not appear in the corresponding 2003 regulations, was included by the Government to clarify the requirement of the European Equal Treatment Directive 2000 for a proportionality test to apply. The recent “reasoned opinion” sent to the UK government by the European Commission argues that “exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for religious employers are broader than that permitted by the directive”.

An attempt will also be made to amend Clause 3 of Schedule 9, which deals with employment discrimination on grounds of Religion or Belief. This exemption applies to any employer “with an ethos based on religion or belief”. The amendments, proposed by Lord Lester and by Baroness Turner of Camden, seek to remove this freedom when an employer is “operating on behalf of a public authority”.

The Government has accepted the need for two amendments, proposed by the Bishop of Winchester and by Baroness Gould of Potter Newton, concerning the religious marriage of somebody who has undergone gender reassignment. These ensure that clergy of any denomination with conscientious objections will, as now, not be obliged to perform such marriages. The House of Lords approved them on Tuesday.

Back on the 13 January, the Bishop of Winchester also spoke in the debate last Tuesday about the issue of harassment. This was in the context of an amendment dealing with Clause 14: Combined discrimination: dual characteristics. The Bishop’s remarks can be found here.

Ruth Gledhill blogged about this yesterday, in Bishop of Winchester: Equality Bill ‘irrational and ignorant’. I added a comment there as follows:

The Bishop of Winchester’s remarks about harassment are interesting, and – as Lord Lester said – this topic will come up in its own right later, but the issue is entirely separate from the Schedule 9 clauses that are upsetting CARE, Christian Institute, and CCFON so mightily, and in my opinion unjustifiably.

It is incorrect to suggest that the bishop described the Equality Bill per se as “irrational and ignorant”.

When he said “It is an irrational and ignorant way of behaving by authorities and others” he was not referring to the wording of the bill, but to the behaviours by local authorities that he had enumerated in the previous paragraph. He said that he thought the proposed wording of the bill “may exacerbate that set of problems”.

It is a rare occasion indeed when I defend the Bishop of Winchester…

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