An MP-led report by the new Christians in Parliament group which recommends ‘reasonable accommodations’ from equality legislation to lift the ‘undue limitation of belief’ it says is experienced by religious people in public life has been cautiously questioned.
Clearing the Ground addresses tensions between religious beliefs and the legal provision of services, analysing a series of recent cases and examples of what it calls “religious illiteracy” in the UK.
Among others, the report looks at high-profile cases regarding gay people, including the case of Lesley Pilkington, who was found guilty of malpractice by the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists last year for engaging in ‘gay cure’ therapy, Lillian Ladele, a registrar who said she could not conduct civil partnerships and Peter and Hazelmary Bull who denied a room to two civil partners because they were unmarried.
The report says: “We recommend that further research is conducted into how statutory guidance for reasonable accommodation can be developed. This should be explored in order to better ensure that Christians, as well as members of other faiths, have the room to articulate and live out their beliefs in all areas of their life, both private and public.
“We would hope that this could help avoid the undue limitation of belief, and help resolve conflict without unnecessary legal action – all of which weakens civil society.”
The report said reasonable accommodation is “a concept that has merit and warrants further consideration”.
In a submission to the Christians in Parliament committee, Dr Don Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance is quoted as saying: “Reasonable accommodation is already recognised in the legal system in many instances, and particularly in the field of disability legislation. I think that principle can be carried across to every other human right, not just religion and belief.”
A potential move by the Equality and Human Right Commission to seek such accommodations for employees who wanted to opt out of providing services to gays on account of their beliefs was dropped last summer.
In its written submission to the inquiry, however, it says: “Leading on from our legal intervention at the European Court of Human Rights, the Commission is starting a series of discussions with key stakeholder groups on the concept of reasonable accommodation for religious belief.”
It adds: “The Commission is confident that religion and belief is appropriately protected under current legislation, including in particular the Equality Act 2010. However, it is our concern that in some legal cases the courts have taken a too narrow interpretation of the legislation.”
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, said the report “seems to assume that most people who are convinced Christians automatically share, or should share, a range of prejudices – notably against LGBT people – which make them unwilling to comply with requirements to act in a non-discriminatory way in the provision of public services”.
He continues: “This is not the case. Many Christians from all traditions believe that equal treatment of others is not simply a legal requirement but a Christian obligation.
“The report employs the dubious notion of ‘competing rights’ to seek to posit a clash between Christians (taken to be a homogenous group) and gay people (who are assumed to be quite separate from Christians). In fact, the whole point of the human rights convention and UK equalities legislation is to seek to ensure fair treatment regardless of religion or belief, or indeed sexual orientation. It protects Christians against discrimination as much, but no more, than anyone else.
“The Christians in Parliament document also jumbles up a range of quite distinct and different legal cases, advocating the notion of ‘reasonable accommodation’ in a way that stretches from matters like workplace dress, where negotiation may be entirely appropriate, through to cases where exemption from equality requirements in the provision of goods and services would clearly disadvantage and discriminate against those not sharing narrowly conservative Christian views.
“This is not ‘clearing the ground’, it is muddying the waters.”
The report itself acknowledges that some language employed in discussions about religion and equality laws is inappropriate, saying: “Christians are experiencing marginalisation and discrimination in the UK, but they are not experiencing persecution.”
The committee comprised Gary Streeter MP as chair, Baroness Berridge of the Vale of Catmose, Baroness Brinton of Kenardington, Lord Edmiston of Lapworth, Fiona Bruce MP, Gavin Shuker MP, Jim Dobbin MP and David Burrowes MP.
Writing in the Telegraph at the weekend, Jib Dobbin and Gary Streeter said: “The ‘faith sector’ as governments like to call it, is too often served up as a fruit purée that homogenises religious belief. Whereas the reality is that it is more of a fruit salad – a vast and complex range of very different flavours of belief.”
Ekklesia’s Simon Barrow adds: “Christianity is a free choice, and freedom of belief is abused when it is imposed on people, particularly in a limited and limiting way.
“Nothing in Christian belief compels Christians to participate in the offering of public goods and services of the type that are at issue here. Those who are not prepared to do so without discriminating against others, or who object to complying with laws aimed at protecting the rights of all, remain free to refuse to do so. This is surely a ‘reasonable accommodation’ in a plural society?”
Ben Summerskill said: “This seems to be an inquiry about a group of people who are having difficulty adjusting to 21st century balance of rights. The reality is that religion is too often used as a cloak for prejudice for which there should be no room in the public domain.”