Equality laws shouldn’t force people to provide goods or services in a way that conflicts with their conscience, a former head of the judiciary said yesterday.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who was head of the judiciary in England and Wales when he was Lord Chancellor, argued that current laws should be more flexible to deal with differing points of view.
Yesterday in the House of Lords he proposed an amendment to the Equality Bill so that people wouldn’t be forced to act against their sincerely held beliefs.
But the Government opposed the move, arguing that conscience was already sufficiently protected. Lord Mackay disagreed but withdrew his amendment before it could be voted on.
In the debate Lord Mackay said a homosexual printer shouldn’t be expected to print religious material that he disagrees with. Nor, he said, should a Christian printer be expected to print homosexual campaign literature.
He also referred to the real-life case of Christian registrar, Lillian Ladele, who was disciplined by bosses because she asked not to be forced to act against her faith by performing homosexual civil partnership registrations.
Lord Mackay dismissed the Government’s argument that there was already flexibility in the law to protect conscience.
“If there were,” he argued, “I would not be moving this amendment. However, the fact is that the legislation has been built up in an extremely rigid way, as the case of the registrar shows.”
Even those arguing against Lord Mackay’s amendment agreed greater flexibility to accommodate conscience was needed.
Baroness Thornton, who was opposing the amendment on behalf of the Government, suggested employers could take practical measures to respect the private views of staff.
She cited an example of a registrar and said “if an individual registrar does not want to conduct civil partnership ceremonies because of their religious beliefs, a local authority could arrange for a different registrar to conduct the ceremony if there is one available”.
But the Bishop of Winchester was quick to intervene, stating that in the case of Miss Ladele “the local authority was not prepared to work in the way she has just described.
“Had it been so prepared, there would be no example”, he added.
The Bishop of Chichester called the attempt to privatise belief “a profoundly dangerous tendency” because it is our beliefs which “inform our public attitudes and behaviour as citizens”.
In his concluding remarks before withdrawing the amendment, Lord Mackay said: “We are seeking to privatise the practice that should arise from the belief.
“If you do not act according to your beliefs, they are not worth very much. Belief is normally demonstrated as genuine by the way in which the person lives.”
Lord Mackay’s amendment read “Nothing in this Act shall have the effect of requiring a person (A) to provide a good or service to a person (B) when doing so has the effect of making A complicit with an action to which A has a genuine conscientious objection.”