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Equality Commission decides Christians have the right to follow conscience

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has determined that Christians should be given more freedom to follow their beliefs in the workplace.

The UK’s equality watchdog said judges had interpreted the law “too narrowly” in cases where Christians claimed religious discrimination. It said yesterday (11 July) that: “The way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief. The courts have set the bar too high for someone to prove they have been discriminated against because of their religion or belief.”

The EHRC is now seeking to intervene on behalf of Christians in four religious discrimination cases soon to appear to before the European Court of Human Rights.

Cases

The four Christians who will have their claims heard before the European Court are:

  • Gary McFarlane, a counsellor who was sacked for saying that he would not give sex therapy to homosexual couples as it was against his Christian faith;
  • Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee who was prevented from wearing a cross with her uniform;
  • Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was moved to a desk job and banned from working on hospital wards for wearing a cross around her neck; and
  • Lillian Ladele, a registrar who was disciplined after refusing to conduct homosexual civil partnership ceremonies and wanting a conscience opt-out.

The Christian Legal Centre is representing both Gary McFarlane and Shirley Chaplin.

John Wadham, legal director at the EHRC, said: “Our intervention in these cases would encourage judges to interpret the law more broadly and more clearly to the benefit of people who are religious and those who are not.”

Shift

This marks a surprising and significant shift in policy for the EHRC, which has often intervened against the right to freedom of belief in the UK.

The EHRC recently funded a case against Christian B&B owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who restricted double rooms to married couples. When the EHRC won in January 2011, its lawyers demanded a harsher penalty against the Christians, although this was dropped after the details became public and provoked an outcry.

A week prior to this error, the EHRC was forced to issue a public apology after their legal team suggested to the Court, in the adoption case of Owen and Eunice Johns, that Christian moral views might ‘infect’ children, and that the Johns should not be allowed to foster. They also suggested that the Johns should be sent on a re-education program.

As recently as June 2011, Trevor Phillips, head of the EHRC, told theSunday Telegraph that he thought that Muslims were better integrated than Christians. He also claimed that Christians were choosing to fight over the issue of sexual orientation in order to gain political power.

‘Reasonable adjustments’

The EHRC now wants to introduce a new legal principle of ‘reasonable adjustments’ which would accommodate a person’s religious beliefs alongside the rights of others. It was suggested that such a principle works effectively with regard to disabled people and hence could also be used with regard to religious discrimination cases.

John Wadham, of the EHRC, said:

“The idea of making reasonable adjustments to accommodate a person’s needs has served disability discrimination law well for decades. It seems reasonable that a similar concept could be adopted to allow someone to manifest their religious beliefs.”

Christian Legal Centre

Andrea Minichiello Williams, CEO of the Christian Legal Centre, said:

“We welcome this change of emphasis by the EHRC. It is vital that freedom of belief is protected in this country.

“Many recent, high profile, cases of discrimination suffered by Christians have shown that the law needs to be changed in this area so that Christians are not excluded from public life just because they have Christian moral beliefs which are not politically correct.

“We will be looking carefully at the precise details of the EHRC’s intervention when they become available.”

EHRC Litigation History

The EHRC has intervened in several cases relating to the clash between Christian beliefs and homosexual rights. On every single case the EHRC has intervened strongly against religious belief.

The EHRC intervened in Catholic Care (Leeds) v Charity Commission and persuaded the High Court to rule that Catholic Care (Leeds) could not continue to place children for adoption with married couples only. The charity had been placing children with adoptive parents for more than 100 years. Catholic Care was among a dozen Catholic agencies in England and Wales which fell foul of equality laws passed in 2007. The others have either closed or cut their links with the Church.

The EHRC also intervened in 2011 against devout Christian guesthouse owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who restricted double rooms in their guesthouse (which was also their home) to married couples only. They were sued by civil partners Martyn Hall and Stephen Preddy who were turned down for a double room. The case was funded and supported by the EHRC. The judge ruled against the Bulls and ordered them to pay compensation. The Bulls now face financial ruin.

The EHRC also intervened in Johns v Derby City Council in 2011 and argued that the Council should be able to prevent devout Christians Eunice and Owen Johns from becoming foster parents because their Christian moral views on sexual ethics might ‘infect’ a child. The Johns lost their case and remain unable to foster children, despite having successfully fostered 15 children in the past. The EHRC later issued a public apology to the Johns after the comment was brought into the open.

The EHRC opposed the “Waddington amendment” which was debated on 9 July 2009 in the House of Lords. The Waddington Amendment protected free speech in the Public Order Act 1986. Had the amendment been removed, freedom of speech in the area of religious conscience would have been curtailed.

Sources

EHRC: Commission proposes reasonable accommodation for religion or belief is needed

BBC News

Other Stories

Christian Concern: Equality Commission questions Christian integration

Christian Concern: Budget cuts for the EHRC

Christian Concern: Equality Commission wants teachers to ask children if they are homosexual

Daily Mail: Fury at equality watchdog after it calls for teachers to ask 11-year-olds if they are gay

Daily Mail: Dramatic U-turn as gay couple who won £3,600 from Christian B&B owners ditch taxpayer-funded fight for more cash

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