By JR on Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Christians who disagree with gay equality rules should have the freedom to follow their conscience, a watchdog ruled yesterday.
In a major U-turn, the Equality and Human Rights Commission declared that judges should not have backed employers who pursued Christians for wearing crosses or for refusing to give sex therapy to gay couples.
‘The way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief,’ the commission said.
Just seven months ago it had championed the cause of civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy in their successful bid to sue Christian hoteliers who had refused them a double room.
But yesterday the commission, which is led by former Labour politician Trevor Phillips, said the law was confusing. The intervention by the equality quango follows protests at the weekend from Church of England leaders, who said judges had encouraged a legal ‘chill factor’ against Christianity.
It also comes at a time when the EHRC is facing action from Home Secretary Theresa May to curb its £60million a year spending. Mrs May has accused it of wasting money and failing to do its job.
Yesterday the commission said judges had interpreted equality laws too narrowly. Its lawyers have intervened to call for more leeway for Christians to express their beliefs and live by their consciences in four human rights test cases shortly to come before the judges of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The cases are those of Nadia Eweida, the BA check-in clerk who was told she could not wear a cross with her airline uniform, and of Shirley Chaplin, a nurse removed from the wards of her Exeter hospital because she refused to stop wearing her crucifix.
The commission also wants to raise the case of Lilian Ladele, a registrar removed from her job after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies, and Gary McFarlane, a Relate counsellor who declined to give sex therapy to gay couples.
Miss Ladele was refused permission to take her case to the Supreme Court because judges said no important legal principles were at stake.
Mr McFarlane’s case was brushed aside by Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Laws, who said: ‘Law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational … it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary.’
Yesterday the commission said: ‘Judges have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion or belief discrimination claims.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 that they have been discriminated against because of their religion or belief; it is possible to accommodate expression of religion alongside the rights of people who are not religious and the needs of businesses.’
The commission said it wanted to see a new legal principle of ‘reasonable accommodations’ to allow a religious believer and their employer to reach a compromise. It said that under this principle, a Jew who did not wish to work on Saturdays could be given his or her wish simply by a change to work rotas. This would give religious believers similar legal status to disabled people.
Commission legal director John Wadham 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.
‘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.’
The commission said there should be an end to legal confusion which has stopped some people from wearing crosses while others are allowed to do so, and which has led some employers into ‘unnecessarily restricting people’s rights’.
It added that because of the confusion in the law, ‘it is difficult for employers or service providers to know what they should be doing to protect people from religion or belief-based discrimination’.
When backing Mr Hall and Mr Preddy against the hotel, Mr Wadham had said: ‘The right of an individual to practise their religion and live out their beliefs is one of the most fundamental rights a person can have, but so is the right not to be turned away by a hotel just because you are gay.’