The Equality and Human Rights Commission has done a U-turn on religious beliefs, saying that judges have interpreted equality law too harshly against Christians.
The commission, which has been accused of bias against faith, hopes to intervene in a number of cases in which Christian workers were sacked or disciplined for refusing to provide services to gay people.
Lawyers have called for more “compromise” and “accommodation” around several cases due to come before the European Court of Human Rights shortly
These include Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who refused to perform civil partnerships, and Gary MacFarlane, a Bristol sex counsellor who said he could not treat gay couples. Others include Christian workers banned from wearing crosses.
No one from the EHRC was available for further comment this morning but in a statement on its website, the body said: “Judges have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion or belief discrimination claims.”
“If given leave to intervene [in these cases], the commission will argue that the way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief.
“It will say that the courts have set the bar too high for someone to prove that they have been discriminated against because of their religion or belief; and that it is possible to accommodate expression of religion alongside the rights of people who are not religious and the needs of businesses.”
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.
“The idea of making reasonable adjustments to accommodate a person’s needs has served disability discrimination law well for decades. It seems reasonable that a similar concept could be adopted to allow someone to manifest their religious beliefs.
“The intervention follows a report for the commission which found that many people do not understand their rights around religion or belief. The commission is concerned that this could be preventing people from using their rights.”
The British Humanist Association said the EHRC’s intervention was “wholly disproportionate”.
Chief executive Andrew Copson commented: “It is one thing to make the case for reasonable accommodation in matters such as religious holidays, and quite another if the accommodation sought is to allow the believer to discriminate against others in the provision of a service.
“In the case of Lillian Ladele, her religious objection to providing civil partnerships went against her obligation as a registrar to provide a service to which gay and lesbian couples have a fundamental right.”