The European Commission is putting pressure on the British government to drop the exemptions from equality legislation by religious organisations who currently have the right to refuse to employ LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) staff.

The opt out allows churches and other organisations to refuse to employ gay people in order “to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers”. Although there have been successful cases at employment tribunals questioning the implementation and interpretation of the opt-out

The Observer reports that the Commission wrote to the British government to warn that it has not fully implemented EU directives that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexuality.

The National Secular Society had complained to the commision saying that the current exemptions “illegal discrimination against homosexuals”.

The Commission reportedly agreed with the complaint saying “exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for religious employers are broader than that permitted by the directive”.

EU equal opportunities commissioner, Vladimir Špidla, told the Observer: “We call on the UK government to make the necessary changes to its anti-discrimination legislation as soon as possible so as to fully comply with the EU rules.”

The ruling means the government will be be forced to place new clauses into the Equality Bill which is currently making its way through parliament. But it will still allow churches to refuse to employ a gay man as priest for example.

“This ruling is a significant victory for gay equality and a serious setback for religious employers who have been granted exemptions from anti-discrimination law,” gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told the Observer.

“It is a big embarrassment for the British government, which has consistently sought to appease religious homophobes by granting them opt-outs from key equality laws. The European Commission has ruled these opt-outs are excessive.”

Christian charity Care told the Observer: “If evangelical churches cannot be sure that they can employ practising evangelicals with respect to sexual ethics, how will they be able to continue?”