EU: Religious employers have too much freedom

Bureaucrats in Brussels think British churches have too much freedom to insist that their staff’s sexual conduct is in keeping with the Bible and are demanding a change to UK law.

Officials at the European Commission have published a legal document, called a “reasoned opinion”, arguing that the UK Government needs to narrow the religious liberty safeguard in its employment laws.

They suggest that UK law is not in keeping with an EU employment directive issued in 2000.

But in 2004 the High Court ruled that the directive has been properly implemented in the UK and the religious liberty safeguard is legally valid.

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.

Nevertheless the British Government is attempting to narrow the religious liberty safeguard in its Equality Bill. Ministers hope to rush the Bill through Parliament before next year’s election.

The current UK law protects the right of churches and other faith-based employers to 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. The purpose of the safeguard is to protect the religious ethos of churches or organisations.

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”.

The European Commissioner for equality, Vladimír Špidla, said: “We call on the UK Government to make the necessary changes to its anti-discrimination legislation as soon as possible so as to fully comply with the EU rules. In this context, we welcome the proposed Equality Bill and hope that it will come into force quickly.”

Neil Addison, a lawyer and commentator on religious liberty issues, said the European Commission seems “to be ignoring the fact that the question of whether the exemptions in the Regulations complied with the Directive was carefully considered by the High Court in the case of Amicus MSF Section, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry [2004] EWHC 860

“In that case the Judge clearly stated that the European directive had been properly implemented by the British employment regulations and the exemptions for religious organisations were legal.

“Nobody has appealed that decision to the European Court of Justice or to the UK Supreme Court and therefore that decision by the High Court represents the current legal position.

“In a society governed by the rule of law, courts decide what the law is and a legal opinion, however ‘reasoned’ it may be, cannot overrule or take precedence over a decision by a Court.

“Therefore the British Government is fully entitled to ignore the ‘reasoned opinion’ from the European Commission unless and until the European Court of Justice itself gives a Judgment on the issue.

“I would go further and state that the British Government is legally and morally obliged to ignore the European Commission view where that view, as in this case, is in conflict with a decision of the High Court.

“British courts are entitled to have their decisions respected and supported by the British Government and British court decisions on European law can only be overruled by the European Court of Justice and not by the bureaucrats of the European Commission no matter how ‘reasoned’ their opinions may be.”

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