Monday night's parliamentary debate on the equality bill was one of the poorest and most ill-informed I have ever heard in the House of Lords. Despite Lord Lester's eloquent explanation of the bill, and its duty to conform to the European framework directive from which it sprang, there seemed to be a determination among the Christian peers and bishops (of which there was a surfeit) to ignore our obligations to the EU as a member state. Indeed, Lord Tebbit put it most baldly when he said: "We have a choice tonight – whether we walk in fear of the law of the Lord or the law of Brussels. I know which way I am going.""Religious freedom" seems to give these Christians an absolute right to ignore the law if they dislike it. The bishops were particularly culpable on this. As they argued for the removal of the need for a proportionate balancing of freedoms when freedoms collide (as they do with religion and gay rights), Lord Lester told them "Amendments 98 and 99 would remove the principle of proportionality. That is a general principle of European law by which the United Kingdom is bound. The amendments would remove that principle as regards differences of treatment made to comply with the doctrines of a religion. As has been said, there are a number of exemptions for religious requirements in paragraph 2 of Schedule 9 relating to sex, marriage, sexual orientation and so on. For example, in certain circumstances it is permissible, for the purposes of religious employment, for a difference of treatment to be made in accordance with a requirement either not to be of a particular sex or relating to sexual orientation – quite right, too."
Under the bill, these exemptions must be applied in a manner that is a proportionate means of complying with the doctrines of religion. Removing proportionality here, as these amendments seek to do, would mean that any religious organisation could implement the requirements without a sense of proportion and in breach of the general principle of European law. In other words, the organisation could lawfully use its powers in a way that was excessive. That would inevitably lead to complex and costly litigation, as happened in the Amicus case, in our and the European courts, the outcome of which would be to require the principle of proportionality to be applied as part of the law of the land, whatever the movers of these amendments and the seven Bishops now present may say. It is the law under European law and it is the law of the land. Proportionality is required whether they like it or not. The right for religious bodies to discriminate against gay employees is already written into the equality bill. The government was simply seeking to define the limits (ie you can demand a priest be of the faith, but not caretakers, cleaners, secretaries etc). It insisted that there was no change in the law as it had been written into the sexual orientation regulations of 2003, just a clarification.
According to a reasoned opinion (a sort of legal warning that they had not implemented the directive correctly) issued by the European commission, the government has already gone too far in trying to accommodate religious demands. The European commissioner warned the government that if it didn't narrow the exemptions given to religious groups, it might end up in the European court of justice. A complaint from the National Secular Society had led to this warning and we intend to press the commission to carry out that threat. But this debate had followed an intensive lobbying by the newly-burgeoning religious right in this country. The Christian Institute and Christian Concern for Our Nation, as well as the Church of England and the Catholic bishops conference, have mounted between them a formidable campaign claiming that the human rights of religious people are under threat. "Religious liberty" in this instance seems to mean the freedom to visit injustice and discrimination upon those who do not abide by the doctrines of your religion. To most people this would seem reasonable. "If you aren't a Christian, why do you want to work for the church?" they ask. "And why shouldn't the church restrict employment to those who agree with its teachings? You wouldn't have a Tory working for the Labour party."
The church is a major employer, often using public money to run things like nursing homes or day centres. Why shouldn't it be obliged to obey the law that every other employer does in relation to treating employees fairly? I believe that the decision last night was made on the basis of misinformation and panic-mongering. The religious lobby had made claims that the Catholic church would have to accept women priests; the Archbishop of York said he would no longer qualify as a clergyman under the terms of the bill; the bishop of Winchester even claimed that saying "God bless you" could result in Christians being prosecuted for harassment. But, if figures in the British social attitudes survey (published tomorrow) are to be believed, only 7% of people in this country consider themselves to be "very religious" and 67% think that religious leaders should stay out of political decision-making. On that basis, the government needs to give serious consideration to getting rid of the bishops' bench. Meanwhile, it seems the tactics used so successfully by the religious right in the US have now been introduced into this country. After all, the Christian Institute's strap line is "Christian influence in a secular world" and, after many false starts and humiliating defeats, it seems to have scored a significant success that may prove to be a turning point in its fortunes. If Christian influence is really a licence to practice bigotry at public expense, then it is time for all those armchair secularists to start manning the barricades.