An amendment to the Equality Bill to protect the religious liberty of churches was voted down in the House of Commons last night amid accusations of EU interference.
The proposed amendment, tabled by Labour MP David Drew, would have safeguarded the right of religious organisations to restrict their posts to people whose conduct is consistent with the Bible’s teachings.
It was defeated by 314 to 170 votes.
During the debate Conservative MP Mark Harper accused the European Commission of lobbying the House over the Equality Bill.
Mr Harper quoted the European Commission as saying: “We welcome the proposed Equality Bill and hope that it will come into force quickly”.
He responded: “The European Commission has no business telling the Parliament of the United Kingdom whether we should pass legislation.”
Last week the European Commission sent the UK Government a legal document, called a “reasoned opinion”, which argued that the UK needs to narrow the religious liberty safeguard in its employment laws.
The opinion is now in the public domain despite persistent attempts by the Government’s Equalities Office to keep it confidential.
Mr Harper went on to quote the Commission’s reasoned opinion which said: “The UK Government has informed the Commission that the new Equality Bill currently under discussion before the UK Parliament will amend this aspect of the law and bring UK law into line with the Directive.”
However, lawyers say the Commission’s document is just one opinion and is not binding on the UK and that only a ruling from the European Court of Justice can force a change in the law.
Currently, religious groups can restrict posts to Christians whose private conduct is consistent with the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics. These posts must be for the purposes of organised religion, which could include jobs like a youth worker.
But under the Equality Bill the Government is specifying that this protection can only apply to posts that mainly involve leading worship or explaining doctrine.
The Bill’s explanatory notes make it clear that this protection “is unlikely to permit a requirement that a church youth worker who primarily organises sporting activities is celibate if they are gay, but may apply if the youth worker mainly teaches Bible classes”.