Equality Bill: 'Churches must not face further restrictions'
A statement issued on behalf of the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter and Chair of the Churches Legislation Advisory Service and the Rt Revd Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, as bishops who have taken a keen interest in the progression of the Bill:
“This Monday, as Peers meet to consider the Government’s Equality Bill, they will be asked to vote on an issue of great importance to Christians and all people of faith. At stake is how we, as a liberal democracy based on Christian values, strike the right balance between the rights and responsibilities of different groups to be protected from harassment and unfair discrimination and the rights of churches and religious organisations to appoint and employ people consistently with their guiding doctrine and ethos.
“The Christian Churches, alongside many other faiths, support the Equality Bill’s wider aims in promoting fairness in society and improving redress for those who have suffered unjust treatment.
“However, unless the present drafting of the Bill is changed, churches and other faiths will find themselves more vulnerable to legal challenge than under the current law. When regulations on employment discrimination were passed as recently as 2003, churches and other faiths were granted certain limited exemptions by parliament to be used when recruiting ministers of religion or others to a small number of lay posts. These enabled religious organisations to apply requirements that candidates for certain senior lay posts that involve promoting and representing the religion are able to demonstrate an ability to live a life consistent with the ethos of the religion, as well as sharing the faith.
“The government have said that they share our view - that the current limited exemptions for organised religions are balanced and should not be further restricted. Yet they are proposing to modify them. They have produced no convincing case for change. They have now offered to amend their original proposals in the Bill but instead of reverting to the status quo have produced words which will still create difficulties for churches and religious groups. This despite our raising the problem many months ago and offering various ways of resolving the issue.
“We must conclude therefore that the only way to maintain the status quo in exemptions for religious organisations is for Peers to support amendments 98, 99 and 100 on Monday, tabled by Baroness O’Cathain and the Bishop of Winchester, over and above the Governnment’s compromise amendment 99A.”