A group that examines religion in public life has welcomed the appointment of the head of the Evangelical Alliance UK to the new Commission on Equality and Human Rights (ECHR).

The think-tank Ekklesia says that the controversial evangelical taking his place on the commission is “an historic opportunity for evangelicals to shift toward full acceptance of the equalities agenda.”

Joel Edwards was a controversial choice for many LGBT activists.

The Evangelical Alliance are one of the most strident voices against gay rights in the UK.

Just last month they gave evidence to a House of Commons committee opposing a new crime of incitement to violence on the grounds of sexual orientation.

They launched large-scale campaigns against the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which ensure equality of gay, lesbian and bisexual people when accessing goods and services.

“The appointment of Joel Edwards necessarily depends upon his acceptance that, whatever the moral and theological debate within sections of the church, the full practical and legal equality of everyone should be upheld in national life, irrespective of sexual orientation,” said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

“If that is the case, is marks the possibility of a significant shift in the thinking and practice of a significant constituency which has been reluctant or unwilling to sign up to the full equalities agenda.”

The Reverend Richard Kirker, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) said:

“I was stunned when Joel told me personally he was to be a commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

“Holding such a key role in the organisation charged with supporting gay equality will put him at loggerheads with many in his own fundamentalist constituency.

“I am delighted he now seems to have ‘seen the light’ and can embrace and support all the recent pro-gay legislation without exception, and with a clear conscience.

“I can only hope his late conversion to equality is genuine, deep-rooted and sincere.

“If it is then he will have left his homophobic past behind him.

“But I remain profoundly sceptical he can remain true to the values of the Evangelical Alliance, to which he remains committed, and at the same time embrace the EHRC’s purported agenda.

“Anyone as closely associated with the promotion of homophobia in the guise of religion needs to be watched very carefully, especially if involved with the EHRC, if this new body is not to become a haven of discrimination itself.

“I hope for the sake of the EHRC Joel Edwards’ perplexing appointment does not end up being a curse on its work.”

The LGBT Group of the Green Party opposed his appointment.

“There should be no get-out clauses for homophobes who want to sit on the commission which is purportedly about helping to secure delivery of equality for our communities,” said Phelim Mac Cafferty.

“If the new commission is to harness the trust of the LGBT communities, the chair of the commission, Trevor Phillips, must re-examine Dr Joel Edwards appointment.

“I encourage everyone who doesn’t want a homophobe on the EHRC to email Trevor Phillips to complain about this appointment.”

Jim Herrick, chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, said that his appointment will distort the concept of human rights and put gay rights in danger.

“Joel Edwards leads one of the most homophobic organisations in Britain,” he said.

“The Evangelical Alliance is an umbrella group that shelters some of the most extreme anti-gay groups and churches in the country.

“How does the government imagine that this man can participate in decisions about the rights of gay people in a fair and balanced way when he believes that we are all sinners who should live without sexual expression?

“It must be one of the most dizzyingly daft and dangerous public appointments ever.”

Mr Herrick said the gay community should be “afraid, very afraid” by

this development.

Stonewall’s chief executive Ben Summerskill is also a commissioner.

The EHRC is designed to promote a fair, equal and diverse society and tackling illegal discrimination.

It was established by the Equality Act 2006 and began work at the start of October.

It brought together the three existing UK equality commissions – the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission.

The EHRC incorporates three new human rights strands – age, sexual orientation and religion and belief.

Alan Wardle, director of public and parliamentary affairs for Stonewall, told PinkNews.co.uk:

“All commissioners will have obligations to ensure equality for all people, including lesbian and gay people, and Stonewall intends to hold him to that.”