Opinion: The Equality Bill & religious faith – Church v State? Not so much.

This has been, for me, a very sad and confusing week. Last weekend I received an email asking me to sign a petition about amendments to the Equality Bill “which potentially will take away the right of every citizen to live according to their religious faiths and consciences.” The email contained the phrase: “By not signing the petition you are inviting your own oppression” – aimed at church-goers.

Naturally I was very alarmed by this email and commenced research on this subject.

Demurring from signing the petition, I watched the relevant House of Lords debate very closely.

Quite frankly I am still confused by the whole business.

Fortunately there are greater minds than mine which have focused much more intensely on this. Simon Sarmiento – who writes for the Church Times and the Guardian’s CiF Belief, and founded Thinking Anglicans website – has boiled the whole thing down. As the law already stands, (Category 1) when selecting priests the church can restrict appointees based on gender and lifestyle to comply with religious beliefs. When selecting (category 2) bookkeepers or others not involved in promoting or explaining the doctrine of the religion, churches can make no such restrictions. The government proposed to clarify where the line is drawn between those two clear extremes.

In fact, if you sit down and look at church roles it is not difficult to separate them between the two categories. The one job example which was thrown up as vaguely defined was “youth worker”. Most youth workers who lead worship, bible classes, etc, fit into category 1. The government explained that if the youth worker was mainly arranging entertainment, then they would fit into category 2.

And er that’s it. All that needed to happen was for a drafting debate to make the above clear, while keeping true to the well established principle of “proportionality”.

So I am personally very saddened that the whole debate got ridiculously blown off course and was characterized as a “church v state” showdown. It was nothing of the sort. It was a drafting exercise to make sure that youth workers (for example) get categorized correctly. End of.

The whole House of Lords debate left a very bad taste in my mouth. The government’s secrecy in their dealings with the EU on the matter did not help. But the debate was improperly used in my opinion. The whole tenor of the debate (from the anti-government side) was an illegitimate use of our democracy.

For that reason I do not think the House of Commons should hesitate for a single second to reverse the Lords’ decision in order to properly clarify the law in relation to church roles.

* Paul Walter is a Lib Dem who blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Hear, hear.
    I personally also don’t see why purveyors of superstitious mumbo-jumbo should be allowed to get away with being bigots in category 1 either ….
    (Where’s Laurence now we need him?!)

  • What’s confusing? That the church guards its last institutional bigotries so jealously that it will oppose any legislation that even brushes against them, or that they will act dishonestly in order to do so?

    Both acts are entirely in character as far as I can see.

    Demanding that these twits be booted out of the Lords is such a cliche now that I can rarely even be bothered to say it.

  • ““By not signing the petition you are inviting your own oppression”

    Why don’t they go & pray for deliverance from it, then, rather than bothering the rest of us?

  • David Langshaw 29th Jan '10 - 9:45pm

    Toleration is alive and well in the Liberal Democrats, I see….

    What puzzles me is why everyone immediately assumed that this legislative problem was to do with Gays and the CofE. Let’s try to widen the debate a bit – what does this legislation mean to a Mosque who want to appoint a Youth Worker (Category 2) when the “best candidate” (however defined) is a Sikh? Would they be obliged to hire that person when that Youth Worker could not reasonably be expected to represent the institution or abide by its general ethos?

  • David, is it not discriminatory to assume that a Sikh could not do a good job as a non-officiating employee of a mosque? If they could not do the job for which they’re being hired, that’s one thing – but to automaticaly assume they can’t because of their faith seems wrong.

  • David Langshaw 29th Jan '10 - 11:33pm

    But Dave, surely the point is that the Mosque exists for a specific purpose, to serve the requirements of a particular group of people. Like all groups (of whatever nature, not just religious) they will want to attract new adherents. Why should the Mosque be forced to hire someone, even the “best” candidate, if that person has views which are inimicable to theirs? To take another example – should the Lib Dems be required to hire a Constituency Agent , who is clearly recognised as the best of the applicants, but who happens to be a member of the Conservative Party?

  • This reminds me of how the BNP were forced to change their constitution to allow black people in. Surely we LDs should be opposing the law that requires them to do that?

  • Richard Church 30th Jan '10 - 12:15am

    So who are you going to allow to discriminate?

    The Church of England for refusing to allow gay people to undertake certain roles?
    Or the BNP for refusing to admit black people to membership?

    Who is allowed special priveleges to discrcrimate and on what grounds? If the privelege to discrimate is granted to religious organisations, how far does it extend? Sexuality? Sex? Race?

    Where are the boundaries? It is easy to criticise a religion for requiring a woman to wear the Burkha, but why is it harder to criticise a religion for denying a job to a gay person.

    I look forward to a coherent and liberal response to these questions from someone who argues for special priveleges for religion in equality law.

  • David Langshaw:
    “– what does this legislation mean to a Mosque who want to appoint a Youth Worker (Category 2) when the “best candidate” (however defined) is a Sikh? Would they be obliged to hire that person when that Youth Worker could not reasonably be expected to represent the institution or abide by its general ethos?”

    The intention of the government’s amendments was to clarify the law so that if that youth worker was expected to “represent the institution” (as you say) and that their role “wholly or mainly involves…leading or assisting in the observation of liturgical or ritualistic practices of the religion, or promoting or explaining the doctrine of the religion (whether to followers of the religion or to others)” then that youth worker would fall into category 1 and the Mosque could legally require that person to share the tenets of their Muslim faith.

    Indeed, that is the position as the law stands at the moment. The government amendments thrown out by the Lords were merely strengthening the clarity of the law.

    If the job role of that youth worker in the Mosque was purely to organise entertainment and/or sport events, then they would fall into category 2 – no discrimination.

    But I touch on the following point above. I have known several youth workers in the Church of England. A friend of mine organises youth workers at a Dicoesan level across several counties. I would be very surprised indeed if there are any youth workers who purely organise entertainment or sport. Everything they do is intertwined with the faith. They lead worship in the church sometimes and lead what used to be called “Sunday school” where they lead bible study and explanation of the faith. So I would be very surprised if most CofE youth workers don’t fall into category 1.

    By the same token, I highly suspect youth workers in a Mosque would also fall into category 1.

  • The problem is really that there is no job that does not fall into category 1, Paul, under that definition, as all Christians are required by the Bible to ‘promote and explain’ their faith to others. In fact it is their main purpose as Christians: to fulfil the Great Commission.

    It’s really the church’s fault that this binary distinction is made. If the church hadn’t opted for a sacred-secular divide between clergy and laity (in whatever form that divide takes in each denomination) it would be much clearer that the Christian faith affects the whole of life, rather than for a couple of hours on a Sunday.



    WHAT EQUALITY…. BETWEEN GOD & devil….. homosexual bishops are devils challenging
    GOD !!!!!!!


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