In a decision which hopefully will resonate with Victoria’s Labor Attorney-General Rob Hulls in regard to proposed changes to his state’s Equal Opportunity Act, Britain’s House of Lords has blocked amendments to an Equality Bill that threatened to curtail freedom of religion.
The Gordon Brown Labour Government’s proposed laws would have deprived churches in the United Kingdom of the right to “restrict jobs to believers and to refuse to hire people whose private conduct is inconsistent with their teaching”.
Leaders of the Catholic and Anglican churches, not to mention leaders of other faiths, had campaigned against the amendments, which were subsequently rejected by the peers by 216 to 178, in a humiliating defeat for Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality. She can try to force the measure again through the House of Commons – and risk losing the whole bill – or leave the UK at odds with an existing European Union directive.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, warned: “The Government has faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of religious agitation in the Lords. The NSS will once more complain to the European Commission. It is quite likely the Government will be prosecuted in the European Court of Justice.”
During the debate in the Lords, Baroness Detta O’Cathain (Conservative), who led the rebels, said: “Organisations should be free to choose their staff on whether they share those beliefs. How would a rape crisis centre operate if it was forced to employ male counsellors? This is the state trying to tell people who they can and can’t employ.”
The Anglican Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, added: “Where are the examples of actual abuses that have caused difficulties? Where are the court rulings that have shown that the law is defective? The truth is that there are none because the status quo has been working perfectly satisfactorily.”
The Opposition Conservatives’ shadow minister for Community Cohesion, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim, hailed the vote as a “victory for common sense”. She said: “We delivered a blow against the Government’s attempt to narrow the definition of ’employment’ for the purposes of religion. The Church of England, the Catholic Church and other faiths have all campaigned in a true spirit of community cohesion to protect an important religious freedom.”
Mike Judge, spokesman for the Christian Institute, said: “We are delighted that the House of Lords has voted to protect freedom of association for churches. It is a shame the Government didn’t listen to churches earlier. It’s almost as if they don’t care about Christians.”
Labour peer Lord Garfield Davies added: “My support for my Government is second only to my Christian view. My view is that the standards and morals of the Christian church makes this country a much better place and I shall always oppose any measures that seek to marginalise the Christian Church.”
Church groups said the proposed amendments lacked sufficient legal clarity and could have exposed them to legal challenges if they refused to hire homosexuals or transsexuals.
Echoing Rob Hulls’s recommendations for Victoria, the British Labour Government’s Equality Bill amendments sought to restrict the exemption for religious organisations solely to ordained ministers of religion and other positions that wholly or mainly “exist to promote or represent the religion or to explain the doctrines of the religion”.
The Church of England called for a return to the status quo, which allows it to reject candidates for senior lay or unordained posts, such as senior youth workers or pastoral assistants, if they cannot demonstrate an ability to “live a life consistent with the ethos of the religion, as well as sharing the faith”.
Baroness O’Cathain said, “I know that very many Christians were praying that justice would prevail as the House of Lords voted on this important issue. Many also wrote wise, sensitive letters to peers, seeking to persuade them of our case.”
The Christian Institute’s Mike Judge commented, “Surely churches should be free to employ people whose conduct is consistent with church teaching. Surely that’s not asking too much. It’s called freedom of association, and it’s a key liberty in any democratic society. The fact that the Government couldn’t see this will concern many Christians.”
Dr Don Horrocks, head of public affairs for the Evangelical Alliance, said the Government’s amendments to change the current law “would have left churches and organisations unsure whether they could prefer practising Christians for the majority of their roles. Now, they can continue to appoint people who are committed to the ethos of the organisations they are supposed to represent. It’s a victory for common sense.”
Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of Christian Concern For Our Nation, also praised the vote. She said: “This is a great day for religious liberty in the United Kingdom. Let us be encouraged that, even in an increasingly secular society, the voice of the Church can still be heard.”
Babette Francis, B.Sc. (Hons), is national co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc.