Three Anglican Bishops have warned that churches could find themselves “more vulnerable” to legal challenges if the Equality Bill becomes law.
The statement issued by the Bishops of Winchester, Exeter and Chester comes ahead of a House of Lords debate on the Bill later today which will focus on employment exemptions for churches.
Under the current law, religious groups can restrict posts to Christians whose private conduct is consistent with the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics.
This freedom would be dramatically narrowed if the current wording of the Bill were to become law.
The Bishops are backing amendments, tabled by Baroness O’Cathain, to keep the law as it is.
The Bishops said: “The Government have said that they share our view – that the current limited exemptions for organised religions are balanced and should not be further restricted. Yet they are proposing to modify them. They have produced no convincing case for change.
“They have now offered to amend their original proposals in the Bill but instead of reverting to the status quo have produced words which will still create difficulties for churches and religious groups. This despite our raising the problem many months ago and offering various ways of resolving the issue.”
A Government spokesman said: “‘The Equality Bill will not change the existing legal position regarding churches and employment. It simply clarifies the current law to ensure a balance is maintained between the rights of people to manifest their religion and the right of employees not to be discriminated against.”
The Equality Bill is being promoted as a way of consolidating existing anti-discrimination legislation into a single Act of Parliament.
But Neil Addison, a barrister and expert in religious discrimination law, has labelled this claim as “completely misleading and untrue”.
Last month Michael Foster MP, a Government equalities minister, admitted that the Bill would lead to legal battles between churches and atheists.
During a briefing of the religious press Mr Foster said that both sides “need to be lining up (their lawyers) by now.”
A new Christian Institute report has revealed the extent to which Christians are being marginalised by a raft of equality and diversity laws which leave them the first to be punished and the last to be protected.
The report, called Marginalising Christians, catalogues numerous cases of Christians being sidelined by public bodies, popular media, employers and barriers to public funding.