Following representations from the Archbishop’s Council and other church groups, the government agreed to include a clause in the British version of the European employment directive granting religious organisations the legal right to exclude gay and lesbian people from employment for the first time. It says gays can be discriminated against if the “nature and context” of their job “conflicts with the [strong] religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers.” Employers can dismiss or fail to hire an individual if they are “not satisfied” that they fit their “ethos based on religion or belief”. The decision was criticised by MPs from all parties as well as liberal sections of the church and gay rights groups. The legislation will enshrine in British law for the first time the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians in employment. It will allow any religious organisation to sack or refuse to employ a person on the grounds of “sexual orientation”.
In a four-page submission to government, the Archbishops’ Council argued the European directive would mean that “actions taken by the church to enforce its own doctrines and beliefs in relation to sexual conduct could be found unlawful. For example a bishop who denied ordination to someone in a gay or lesbian relationship might be found to be discriminating unlawfully on grounds of sexual orientation.”
The European employment directive — known as the “equal treatment directive” — is an attempt to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, disability or faith. The government is introducing the European directive into UK law through a statutory instrument. It is planned to bring it into force on December 1. The Department of Trade and Industry conceded that the new clause would affect not only clergy but also teachers in church schools and employees of religious charities or hospitals. Sources close to the DTI claim Downing Street forced it to accept the clauses.
The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement said the move would institutionalise homophobia in a way that “makes section 28 look like a tea party”. LGCM’s general secretary, the Revd Richard Kirker, said it would give Churches protection and privilege if they chose not to employ lesbian or gay people and added that government ministers had allowed themselves to become “apologists for the most intolerant religious bigots”. LGCM accused the Government of capitulating to right-wing fundamentalists: the concessions won now allowed them to discriminate against lesbian and gay people.
The Rt Revd Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, said “The proper legal protection of individual rights, which we support, needs to be consistent with the rights of the Churches and other faith groups to religious freedom.” He said. “That must include the ability to set our own requirements about belief and conduct in respect of those who serve and represent us. We shall be closely monitoring the implementation of the regulations.”