Catholic bishops say UK equality bill fails to treat Christians equally


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London, England, Jun 14, 2009 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- Catholic bishops in Britain have voiced "significant concerns" about a proposed Equality Bill, saying it treats the rights of religious believers as secondary and could force Catholic schools and care homes to remove crucifixes and holy pictures if someone finds them "offensive."

It has also been suggested the bill could force churches to hire youth ministers who do not support Christian ethics. The bill, supported by Equality Minister Harriet Harman, penalizes "harassment." The newspaper The Catholic Herald says this 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."

However, the way this plays out in the legal system is more sinister.

The bishops of England, Wales and Scotland said that the bill's burden of proof is reversed and would excessively burden Catholics if people complained about any manifestation of religious belief, even on church property.

Msgr. Andrew Summersgill, general secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, presented the bishops' statement to the House of Commons' scrutiny committee. He said that if a cleaner who is an atheist or of "very different" religious beliefs found crucifixes to be offensive there would be "no defense in law" against a charge of harassment.

The bishops have argued that a test of "reasonableness" be included in the bill. They also objected to a proposal restricting religious exceptions only to cases of employment which principally concern "formal worship activities" or the promotion or explanation of doctrine.

"If this Bill is serious about equality, everything possible must be done to avoid it having a chilling effect on religious expression and practice," Msgr. Summersgill said.

The bishops' statement also said that the bill would privilege some rights over others. They expressed concern that some rights, like those of homosexual people, will always trump the rights of religious freedom.

"There have been suggestions that in some way religion or belief should have a lower status than other protected characteristics covered by the public sector equality duty," their statement read.

"Exempting Catholic staff from a gay pride recruitment event could be seen as failing to tackle prejudice against homosexuality - but obliging them to participate could be seen as failing to tackle prejudice against religious belief, to say nothing of harassment," Msgr. Summersgill explained.

The Equality Bill is reportedly designed to collect into one package the different aspects of discrimination laws created in recent decades. According to the Catholic Herald, employers' equality and diversity guidelines have already been used against Christians who have expressed their faith at work.

The government has also said that certain provisions in the Equality Bill are intended to ensure churches can no longer insist that employees live in agreement with churches' sexual ethics.

Speaking to the Catholic Herald, lawyer Neil Addison argued that British law already covers harassment and warned the proposal is "tailor-made for people to come up with silly objections and be petty-minded because it puts the emphasis on the person being offended rather than on an objective test of what ought to be considered reasonable."

Equality Minister Harman reportedly did not mention equality for religious groups in announcing the proposals to the House of Commons. She also recently refused to allow a debate on the increasing numbers of Christians complaining about discrimination against them in the public sector.

"Publicly funded Church schools, adoption agencies and even hospital chaplains have all come under attack while the Government has given taxpayers' money to groups that promote atheism," the Catholic Herald charges.

Fr. Tim Finigan, a south-east London priest who writes on his blog the Hermeneutic of Continuity, said the demands of transsexual activists who support the bill could mean that if a Catholic school teacher decides to cross-dress, action against his or her behavior will be considered "harassment."

"Remember - it's what you do, not what they do that creates the discrimination," he said.

Fr. Finigan said it was "stupid beyond belief" for the government to promote an "extreme form" of the equality agenda at a time when the political system is suffering "unparalleled contempt."