Equality Bill will harm churches, says lawyer

A leading employment lawyer says Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill could make it unlawful for a church to require its minister to live according to the Bible’s teaching on sexual behaviour.

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John Bowers QC, an expert on employment law, says the Bill fails to understand the essential role of a church minister or pastor.

Mr Bowers’ legal opinion was written for The Christian Institute. The concerns are also shared by the Christian group, CARE, who today released a report on the Bill’s implications for religious liberty.

The report was released to coincide with the start of today’s House of Lords debate on the Equality Bill.

According to CARE the Bill “includes provisions that will make it impossible for many churches and other faith bodies to be confident of their freedom to appoint people living the faith as priests, pastors and church ministers – let alone to any other roles”.

John Bowers QC says the wording in the Bill fails to reflect the fact that the overriding role of a church minister is “devoted to promoting the ethos and standards of his church.”

The Equality Bill will dramatically shrink the liberty of churches to insist their staff’s conduct is in accordance with the Bible’s teaching on sexual behaviour.

A Sunday Telegraph editorial attacked the Bill. It said: “Toleration is one of the most fundamental values of a liberal society. It also appears to be the one that some Labour ministers find hardest to understand.

“It requires accepting that other people are entitled to arrange their lives and institutions around their religious beliefs”.

The Sunday Telegraph concluded that the Bill could, perhaps unwittingly, introduce a degree of religious intolerance “not seen since the 18th century”.

Last week Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali said the Bill could add to the pressure on Christians’ religious liberty. He said believers “cannot be compelled to act against their consciences, just as a religious organisation cannot be expected to act contrary to its ethos”.

Last month, a Government equalities minister admitted churches should be “lining up” lawyers to defend themselves against secular legal challenges under the Equality Bill.

Michael Foster MP, a minister in Harriet Harman’s Equalities Office, was asked whether the Bill would lead to legal action between churches and atheists.

He said both sides “need to be lining up (their lawyers) by now.”

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