Government agrees to amend new legislation amid fear of legal action against churches
BY ANNA ARCO
THE GOVERNMENT was preparing to back down over a controversial clause in the Equality Bill as The Catholic
erald went to press, after vocal criticism from the Church and other religious groups.
The Government has said that it will change the offending part of the Bill, which is being overseen by Equality Minister Harriet Harman.
The move comes after religious leaders raised serious concerns that the Bill could force the Catholic Church to ordain women as well as making it impossible to discipline errant priests without facing crippling legal action.
Michael Foster, the Minister for Equality, said that, contrary to reports circulating in the mainstream press last weekend, the Equality Bill “will still allow churches to hire only male clergy”.
He also said that the Bill would allow employers to “continue to recruit people of the same faith where this is a requirement of the job, such as care staff who may also be asked to pray with the people they look after”.
He claimed that the Government had been “absolutely clear on this throughout the Bill’s passage, but as there has been some misunderstanding around our intentions we will amend the Bill to make this clear beyond doubt”.
According to a Government spokesman, the changes will clarify the legislation in order to prevent the Church and other religious organisations from facing lawsuits because of its employment requirements.
Bishops fear that in its original form the Bill could mean that disciplining priests engaged in scandalous – but lawful – sexual behaviour could go against the regulations that the Equality Bill would enshrine in law.
The Church also worries that the wording could force it to abandon its teaching on priestly celibacy because a priest could get married or enter into a civil partnership under the proposed legislation.
If bishops chose to defy the regulations, they might not only be faced with lawsuits but also fines, imprisonment and sequestrated Church assets.
As The Catholic Herald went to press a spokesman for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said that he had not seen the Government’s proposed revision. He said he thought there might still be some problems with it, but that the outlook over the Bill was “not as gloomy as it was because at least the Government is finally addressing some of our concerns”.
He said that the Government sought to change the law about employment in religious organisations after job advertisements appeared in the press which went beyond what was legally permissible. These were mainly from small organisations which were unclear about the law. Instead of publishing guidelines, he said, the Government decided to tackle the matter in the Equality Bill, saying it would not broaden or narrow the law but write it more fully. From the beginning, he said, the bishops had been engaged in making sure the wording was clear and appropriate.
He said: “Since the Bill has been published the Govern
ment has refused to move or listen to our concerns over the wording.
“It’s only now that they are facing difficulties ahead of an election that they start to show any interest in the problem
atic parts of the Bill.” Baroness O’Cathain, a Tory Peer, tabled an amendment together with the Anglican Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt and Lord Anderson of Swansea, which proposed striking the clause out entirely, leaving the provisions for employment as they were defined in 2003. The 2003 Employment Regulations allow employers to discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation with respect to employment for the purposes of organised religion.
The bishops’ spokesman said the amendment “returning the law to pre-existing points” was the “only prudent option unless and until the Government met all the concerns and legal uncertainties” that the new legislation brings with it.
The offending clause in the Equalities Bill, Schedule 9, narrowly defines the type of religious employment exempted from sexual orientation regulations as “employment that wholly or mainly involves” a “leading or assisting in the observation or ritualistic practices of the religion” or “promoting or explaining the doctrine of the religion”.
CARE, a Christian charity involved in public policy work, has published a booklet warning of the dangers of the Equality Bill posed by the section on employment.
Dan Boucher, the author of the booklet, A Little Bit Against Discrimination, and the director of parliamentary affairs for CARE, explained that the charity had always seen the Bill as consolidating all the existing equality legislation in one place, to add to it and further develop it.
He said: “The employment provision was defined in 2003 and that was a hard-fought battle. It was the result of a lot of compromising on our part and if any part of the existing law should remain the same then this is it.” Dr Boucher dismissed the Government proposal and said that the section defining religious employment should be deleted, not amended.