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22 September 2011

Equality Commission U-turns again

Following our article in the July edition of PQ in which we welcomed the change of mind by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on religious liberty issues, our expressed fears were realised when the Commission performed a public U-turn on its original statement of intent at the beginning of July.   

The majority of the Christian and religious world has expressed little confidence in the Commission which has yet again demonstrated that it is dominated by those who subscribe to a practical hierarchy of rights in which religion and belief rights are trumped by others. Its own statement in July that it intended to correct the disproportionate unfairness being meted out to Christians in UK courts has now clearly been rescinded following pressure from elements with agendas opposed to religious freedom.

Firstly, we are concerned about the switch in the Commission's stated position about support for the four cases before the European Court of Human Rights. In its 'landmark' statement of 11 July which was widely greeted as "a significant shift in its attitude towards equality cases involving religion", the Commission made it clear that "judges have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion and belief discrimination claims" and that the Commission intended to intervene in four cases at the European Court of Human Rights each of which is concerned with religious discrimination in the workplace. Two cases involve the wearing of religious symbols. One of the cases involves the Christian registrar Lillian Ladele who was threatened with dismissal for refusing to celebrate civil partnership ceremonies because they are fundamentally at odds with her beliefs. The Commission stated that the way human rights and equalities law has been interpreted by the courts is "insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief" and that "public expression of religion needs to be better accommodated". John Wadham, legal director at the Commission, 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." In a private meeting with the Commission the Evangelical Alliance was assured that many in the Commission believed the tribunal final decision in the Ladele case had been wrong. They felt the obvious bias in UK courts in recent interpretation of equalities legislation which was repeatedly finding against Christians had to be rebalanced in such a way that equal fairness and space was manifestly allowed to Christians (and other religious people) especially in cases where different rights conflicted. It was particularly confirmed that in the case of Lillian Ladele a situation in which a Christian had to choose between their faith and their job was a fundamental denial of human rights and essentially discriminatory.

Furthermore, the Commission made clear in its submission to the European Court when it applied for permission to intervene in the Ladele case that "it is the Commission's position that the UK government should have in place laws that give greater respect to religious beliefs than has hitherto been the case" and that "the threshold to engage and demonstrate interference with anti-discrimination legislation religious rights have been set too high. Significant disadvantages occur from consigning some of the manifestations of religious beliefs to the margins of public life. These disadvantages must be properly considered by the domestic courts to reach fully balanced, objectively justifiable conclusions that are compliant with articles 9 and 14 of the convention".  The Commission further stated that: "Recognising that substantive equality is sometimes achieved through changes or accommodations that are required to deal with different situations and circumstances, in its proposed intervention submissions the Commission will suggest clearer legal principles that enable courts to confidently reach better conclusions on what constitutes justifiable and unjustifiable interference with article 9 rights (read with article 14) using the internationally recognised model of reasonable accommodations."

The extent of the Commission's lamentable U-turn on the above can easily be shown from their subsequent statement and announcement of a 'consultation' on 15 August. This followed a barrage of criticism of the Commission's original policy statement from, in particular, secular humanist and gay lobby groups who reacted very negatively in public to the suggestion that religious people could benefit from increased protection at work through the principle of 'reasonable accommodation'. Even one of the Commission's own commissioners (who used to head up the gay lobby group Stonewall and who therefore is not a disinterested or impartial influential figure) publicly denounced the Commission. So we are faced with the spectacle of a Commission at war with itself.

The announcement of the consultation by the Commission now reflects a changed and backtracked position from the beginning of July. Now the Commission is only "considering using the four cases … as a platform to advise on our proposed submission on the human rights elements of the four cases claiming religious discrimination". The Commission is now only considering "whether the concept of reasonable accommodation has any useful practical application in cases concerning the manifestation of religion and belief". It now admits: "We had suggested that our intervention might put forward the idea of extending the concept of reasonable accommodation beyond disability. However, we also know that this idea needs more careful consideration than the timetable for the European Court of Human Rights allows." Furthermore, whereas the Commission was previously intervening in support of greater accommodation of religious belief by the courts, now they are proposing that they "will only make submissions on the principles involved and the application of the law" and now "our intervention will be as an expert and independent body and not in support of any of the parties in this litigation".  

The Alliance has unreservedly condemned the Commission's 'U-turn', 'climb-down' or 'disarray' (as it has variously been described in the media) and regrets its lack of courage and integrity in sticking to its stated intentions to fight for the principle of fairness in interpretation of equalities legislation. The above woeful sequence of events confirms the low views widely held of the Commission's competence and supposed impartiality. The announcement of a 'consultation' we see as both unnecessary and as an unwelcome appeasement to its agenda-laden critics, and will deflect responsibility from the Commission which ought to be taking the lead in what it already knows is the right thing to do. We have strongly urged the Commission to reconsider its stance and bravely revert to its previous position.