BY SIMON CALDWELL
A PROPOSED EU equality law has been branded an “instrument of oppression” by Britain’s Church leaders.
The bishops of England, Wales and Scotland denounced the European Commission’s planned Equal Treatment Directive, which would transfer powers over equality law to Brussels, as “wholly unacceptable” because, they said, it would force Christians to act against their consciences.
The directive is aimed at harmonising and enforcing a ban across the 27-member bloc on discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, age, religious belief and disability outside the scope of employment law.
But the bishops said the directive would simply have the result of sharply curtailing the rights of religious liberty and freedom of expression.
They said they would be powerless to stop witches from hiring out Church property, for instance, or from insisting that people at Church events behave in a way consistent with Christian teaching.
Mgr Andrew Summersgill, the general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said the Church “recognises that groups which do not agree with its teaching should be free to organise themselves and to propagate their views as they wish”.
“What the Church is seeking from this directive is simply the right to maintain its own teaching and activities with integrity, according to its own ethos,” he said in a written submission to a public consultation.
He said that the proposals, on the contrary, would require “Catholic organisations to act against their ethos”.
He argued that the organisers of a Catholic conference, for instance, would be legally obliged to make double rooms available to gay and unmarried couples as well as for married heterosexuals.
He said: “At this point the EU would effectively be dictating to religious bodies what their faith does or does not require – a wholly unacceptable position.” The definition of harassment in the directive would also mean that any person who decided they were “offended” by an expression of Christianity could bring a case against the churches.
“This subjective approach to ha rassment will apply in all walks of life, including academic discourses, sermons, theatre, television and radio discussions,” said Mgr Summersgill.
“Various pressure groups are likely to use the provisions of the directive to curtail the expression of views they disagree with by the simple expedient of declaring themselves to be offended.
“Homosexual groups campaigning for same-sex marriage may declare themselves to be offended by the presentation of the Catholic Church’s moral teaching on marriage,” he said, and “an atheist may be offended by religious pictures in an art gallery, or a Muslim may be offended by any picture representing the human form”.
The directive fails to explain how conflicting rights could be reconciled, leading to fears that the EU will subordinate the rights of some groups, especially Christians, to the rights of others, he said.
“If the directive is unable to provide a means of balancing those competing rights there is a risk that practical implementation may effectively turn the directive into an instrument of oppression,” said Mgr Summersgill.
Equality legislation has already been used to attack Church institutions. The Sexual Orientation Regulations, introduced under the 2006 Equality Act on the back of a European directive on the provision of goods and services, had the effect of closing Catholic adoption agencies that refused to assess same-sex couples as adoptive parents.
The bishops of England and Wales in June complained that under Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill Church schools and care homes could be forced to remove crucifixes and religious pictures from their walls in case they offend atheists.
EU directives are overarching laws introducing a minimum standard which all member states must meet. A directive can only become law if all member states agree to it at a meeting of the council of the EU.
The European Parliament voted in favour of the proposed directive in April but MEPs put forward changes to the text that would reduce protection for churches and faith schools. They also recommended deleting an assurance that the directive did not apply to national laws on marital status or abortion.
The EU council will now have to consider whether to adopt, amend or reject the directive.