The Equality and Human Rights Commission has apparently decided not to seek ‘reasonable adjustments’ to be made for homophobic workers who refuse to serve gay people.
Former Stonewall chief executive Angela Mason, who is the body’s only LGBT commissioner, said the EHRC had come to a “preliminary view” on the matter after previously announcing that religious people should be granted accommodations to allow them to manifest their beliefs.
In response to emails from concerned PinkNews.co.uk readers, she wrote: “The commission has already decided not to put forward ‘reasonable adjustment’ arguments if we do continue with our intervention.”
Speaking to PinkNews.co.uk, she refused to comment on “private” emails but said: “We’ve come to a preliminary view regarding reasonable adjustment.”
The EHRC has not commented. PinkNews.co.uk understands its regulatory committee will discuss its legal approach in the next week.
The commission announced last month it would seek to intervene in four legal cases involving religious rights. Two involve workers barred from wearing crosses, but two involve employees who refused to work with gay people on the grounds of their religious beliefs.
Legal director John Wadham said ‘reasonable adjustments’ could be made for such employees in the same way that disabled people are accommodated in the workplace. This could mean allowing them to swap shifts to avoid gay people.
Islington registrar Lillian Ladele took her employers to court when she was disciplined for refusing to perform civil partnerships and Bristol sex counsellor Gary McFarlane said he was unfairly dismissed because he would not work with gay couples.
The commission has been strongly criticised by Stonewall, Peter Tatchell, trade unions, secular groups and a number of MPs.
Ms Mason, who is also a councillor in Camden, north London, said: “My personal view is that I strongly believe that the decisions on Ladele and McFarlane – in our domestic courts – were the right decisions.
“The legal issues are complex but it is a question of harm. And we have to be very careful when the issue is of manifesting religious belief that is about discrimination.”
When asked whether she had been consulted before the EHRC made its announcement, she said: “A press release is a press release. I don’t think it fully represented the opinion of the commission.
“It is important to carefully consider all the points and arguments that have been made and take them into account before we decide to intervene. We haven’t actually been given permission to intervene yet and there are sensitive and conflicting issues.”
Speaking about her personal views, she added: “The balance of reasonable adjustment does not deal in the cases of Ladele and McFarlane.
“If we go back to the issue of harm, there is less harm involved in the wearing of crosses than the view that gay men are less equal.”
Stonewall’s director of public affairs, Ruth Hunt, said: “We’re pleased Ms Mason has finally commented on an issue of grave concern for many lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
“It is deeply disturbing that the EHRC appear to have decided to intervene in these cases without discussing them with the commissioner responsible for sexual orientation or indeed any other gay people.
“We hope Ms Mason will be able to use her considerable influence within the Commission to protect the rights of gay people to receive public services without discrimination.”
Peter Tatchell said: “This looks like a welcome climb down, but we need to have it confirmed by the head of the EHRC, Trevor Phillips. We should not assume anything until we get an official announcement.
“It is outrageous that the body in charge of promoting equality was prepared to compromise equal rights in order to appease religious homophobes. Allowing religious fundamentalists exemption from the laws against discrimination would have set a dangerous precedent.”
Ms Mason said the commission would seek views on the issue and hold a formal consultation if the timescale allows. The four cases are due to come before the European Court but similar cases have taken years to make it to that stage.
This autumn, a parliamentary committee is to examine whether changes should be made to discrimination laws after a raft of legal cases over Christian and gay rights.
Public hearings will be held, with MPs and Lords invited to give their views on whether current laws are adequate.