Brussels says churches must lift ban on employing homosexuals

Thanks are due to the National Secular Society and the European Commission for ensuring that the British Government redrafts the controversial exemptions in the anti-discrimination laws that allow church bodies to refuse to employ lesbian and gay people.

The European Commission sent a reasoned opinion to the United Kingdom on Friday for incorrectly implementing EU rules prohibiting discrimination based on religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation in employment and occupation. The Commission pointed out that exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for religious employers are broader than that permitted by the directive.

The exemptions were granted as a result of intensive lobby by conservative Christian groups claiming to represent Christian opinion in this country. In reality, they represent the opinion of a minority who oppose the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Church of England.

This ruling is the result of a complaint from the National Secular Society, which argued that the opt-outs went further than was permitted under the directive and had created “illegal discrimination against homosexuals”. The commission agreed. A “reasoned opinion” by its lawyers informs the government that its “exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for religious employers are broader than that permitted by the directive”.

The government has already inserted new clauses into the equality bill in anticipation of such a ruling from the commission. Under the new proposals being drafted by the government, religious organisations will be able to refuse to employ homosexuals only if their job involves actively promoting or practising a religion. A blanket refusal to employ any homosexuals would no longer be possible.

This is likely to prompt a fight-back from conservative Christian groups. One group has already expressed alarm at the move. The Christian charity, Care, said: “If evangelical churches cannot be sure that they can employ practising evangelicals with respect to sexual ethics, how will they be able to continue?”

The employment directive outlawing discrimination in the workplace was finalised by the European commission in 2000 and became law in the UK in early 2003, following a public consultation exercise. At the time there were accusations that the government had “caved in” to religious groups that mounted a fierce lobbying campaign to be exempted from the new laws.

Under the terms of the exemption, religious groups were allowed to refuse a position to a homosexual employee “so as to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers”.

Peter Tatchell commented:

“This ruling is a significant victory for gay equality and a serious setback for religious employers who have been granted exemptions from anti-discrimination law. It is a big embarrassment for the British government, which has consistently sought to appease religious homophobes by granting them opt-outs from key equality laws. The European commission has ruled these opt-outs are excessive.”

Keith Porteous-Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society commented:

“In other words, if a significant number of followers of an organised religion didn’t like it, there was no protection for a gay employee. Now the government must demonstrate its commitment to equality, rather than continuing to jump to the church’s tune.”

The EU’s equal opportunities commissioner, Vladimir Špidla, said:

“We call on the UK government to make the necessary changes to its anti-discrimination legislation as soon as possible so as to fully comply with the EU rules. In this context, we welcome the proposed Equality Bill and hope that it will come into force quickly.”

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