Churches issue grave warning over Equalities Bill


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Churches of all denominations have voiced grave concerns over the Equalities Bill - due to be debated in the House of Lords on Monday - because they will say it could pressure them to go against their faith in hiring staff.

The bishops' concerns centre on a clause in the Bill which dramatically narrows religious organisations' existing exemptions from employment equality laws.

As a result the Church could not require that priests and prominent lay employees behave in a manner consistent with Church teaching on sexual behaviour.

The Church could be sued for turning away applicants on grounds of their sexual lifestyle.

Government Ministers have offered assurances and compromise wording, but legal advisors have told the bishops that courts are likely to interpret the legislation in a way which severely restricts the Church's employment freedoms.

Archbishop Peter Smith, Archbishop of Cardiff and chairman of the Bishops' Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, voiced his regret at the Government's refusal to "sit down earlier with religious groups and work out an amendment with the right wording".

He continued: "As it is, legal advice indicates that a court might construe the wording too narrowly and if there was a doubt about the legal effect then the only prudent course is to support the rival amendment which deletes the definition entirely.

"That is the only sure way of guaranteeing this Bill neither widens nor narrows the scope of the current exemption."

Three Anglican Bishops: Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter and Chair of the Churches Legislation Advisory Service and the Rt Revd Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, issued a statement on Sunday morning urging Peers to support amendments tabled by Baroness O'Cathain

"This Monday, as Peers meet to consider the Government's Equality Bill, they will be asked to vote on an issue of great importance to Christians and all people of faith. At stake is how we, as a liberal democracy based on Christian values, strike the right balance between the rights and responsibilities of different groups to be protected from harassment and unfair discrimination and the rights of churches and religious organisations to appoint and employ people consistently with their guiding doctrine and ethos.

"The Christian Churches, alongside many other faiths, support the Equality Bill's wider aims in promoting fairness in society and improving redress for those who have suffered unjust treatment.

"However, unless the present drafting of the Bill is changed, churches and other faiths will find themselves more vulnerable to legal challenge than under the current law. When regulations on employment discrimination were passed as recently as 2003, churches and other faiths were granted certain limited exemptions by parliament to be used when recruiting ministers of religion or others to a small number of lay posts. These enabled religious organisations to apply requirements that candidates for certain senior lay posts that involve promoting and representing the religion are able to demonstrate an ability to live a life consistent with the ethos of the religion, as well as sharing the faith.

"The government have said that they share our view - that the current limited exemptions for organised religions are balanced and should not be further restricted. Yet they are proposing to modify them. They have produced no convincing case for change. They have now offered to amend their original proposals in the Bill but instead of reverting to the status quo have produced words which will still create difficulties for churches and religious groups. This despite our raising the problem many months ago and offering various ways of resolving the issue.

"We must conclude therefore that the only way to maintain the status quo in exemptions for religious organisations is for Peers to support amendments 98, 99 and 100 on Monday, tabled by Baroness O'Cathain and the Bishop of Winchester, over and above the Governnment's compromise amendment 99A."

Christian Concern for our Nation describe the Bill as the "biggest state intervention into people's private expression of their faith since the Reformation".

To see their three-minute video, and a petition, click on: