The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has recently announced a significant change in its attitude towards the protection of religion and belief in equality cases. It has in the past been criticised by some conservative Christians of being too harsh in its response to religiously motivated convictions where these clash with the requirements of their job, for example in providing services to LGBT people such as civil partnership registration and relationship counselling.
Now the Commission appears to agree that it has indeed been potentially discriminatory in its approach to religion and belief – one of the protected characteristics safeguarded by the Equality Act 2010.
The Commission has stated that judges have interpreted equality law too harshly against Christians. As a result the Commission is now intervening in four cases before the European Court of Human Rights where Christian workers have been disciplined or lost their jobs due to clashes between their religious convictions and the requirements of their job or workplace. Lawyers representing the Commission have called for more “compromise” and “accommodation” in such cases.
The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) is concerned about the tone and direction of this change of position. The Rev Sharon Ferguson, Chief Executive of LGCM said:
“As a faith-based organisation we certainly understand and respect religious conviction and can see the conflicts which can sometimes occur when the rights of one group appear to trump the rights of another. But the EHRC must be careful. It is one thing to allow a more generous approach to people wearing crosses at work for example, or for a Jewish person to be able not to work on the Sabbath, which can be sorted by efficient organisation of a work rota. Neither of these restrict the rights and freedoms of others. But the Commission is going further and potentially lending support to those who refuse to provide public services to others who are lesbian or gay. This is contrary to the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and contrary to the work with which the EHRC have been tasked. We note their assurances that this is not their intention but are concerned to see quite how this new approach can avoid such a result.”
It appears to us that the biggest source of confusion in the latest actions of the EHRC are due to them combining instances of harmless personal religious expression with situations of blatant discrimination which are then justified on the grounds of religion. These must be assessed separately as the implications are clearly dramatically different.
The Rev Ferguson added:
“It is obviously tremendously important to us that all people are free to live according to their beliefs in all areas of their lives, which includes the workplace, but this can never include the oppression or discrimination of others. The freedom to wear a religious symbol at work and refusal to perform a public service that is part of your job description are two very different issues.”