Humanist and homosexual groups have reacted strongly against the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s move to defend religious liberty of Christians.
The commission is intervening in four legal cases heading for Europe, believing that British courts have not done enough to defend the rights of Christians.
But the British Humanist Association says the commission’s intervention is “wholly disproportionate”.
And Ben Summerskill, head of homosexual activist group Stonewall, says he is “deeply disturbed” by the move.
However, the intervention has been welcomed by Christian groups who have long been concerned that equality laws are marginalising Christians.
The commission argues that judges have interpreted equality laws too narrowly and set the bar too high for Christians to prove discrimination.
It has called for employers to adopt a ‘reasonable accommodation’ for religious employees – just like they do for disabled staff.
The commission is intervening in a series of legal cases heading for the European Court of Human Rights, including that of Lillian Ladele – a Christian registrar who was disciplined for her stance on homosexual civil partnerships.
But Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association said that “it is one thing to make the case for reasonable accommodation in matters such as religious holidays, and quite another if the accommodation sought is to allow the believer to discriminate against others in the provision of a service.
“In the case of Lillian Ladele, her religious objection to providing civil partnerships went against her obligation as a registrar to provide a service to which gay and lesbian couples have a fundamental right.”
And Ben Summerskill of Stonewall said: “The commission should be crystal clear that if it seeks to defend the claimed right of any public servant to turn away any user of a public service, it will face strong opposition.”
He claimed: “Gay taxpayers currently contribute £40 billion a year to the cost of Britain’s public services and no lesbian and gay person should ever be deprived of access to them.”
John Wadham, legal director at the equality commission said: “Our intervention in these cases would encourage judges to interpret the law more broadly and more clearly to the benefit of people who are religious and those who are not.
“The idea of making reasonable adjustments to accommodate a person’s needs has served disability discrimination law well for decades. It seems reasonable that a similar concept could be adopted to allow someone to manifest their religious beliefs.”
The Christian Institute’s Mike Judge said: “We welcome this announcement from the commission. It will help Christians have more confidence that their genuine concerns are being listened to.
“Obviously, we await the precise details of the legal intervention by the commission, but we are encouraged by the tone of their announcement. It is a step in the right direction.
“We certainly believe more could be done to allow for a reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs in the workplace, and we hope that the courts will adopt a more tolerant approach to protecting religious liberty.”