MEPs’ wishlist is threat to churches and faith schools

UK churches could be sued for refusing to give communion, baptism or church membership to a non-Christian if plans voted for by the European Parliament are adopted by the EU.

The Church of England said it wants to raise concerns with the Government about religious liberty after MEPs put forward a ‘wishlist’ of worrying changes to a new EU Directive.

The MEPs want to remove important exemptions from the Directive, which covers discrimination in the provision of goods and services.

These exemptions currently allow religious bodies to restrict some services, such as communion, to those who share their religious beliefs.

If the MEPs’ changes are accepted, it could become illegal for a church to refuse to provide a non-Christian or a practicing homosexual with communion, church membership or baptism.

The MEPs also say faith schools should only be allowed to select pupils who share their ethos if this does not “lead to a denial of the right to education”.

Under this wording, an atheist may be able to sue a church school which does not accept them on the grounds that their right to education had been infringed.

EU Directives are overarching laws introducing a minimum standard which all member states must meet.

The MEPs voted for all these changes on 2 April. The EU Directive must now be approved by the Council of the European Union, and though the Parliament view is not binding, it will be influential.

It is thought that many representatives of Member States on the Council will recognise that the MEPs’ changes are extreme and will not accept them.

Liberal Democrat MEP Liz Lynne, part of the group responsible for the Directive, insisted that the new rules would not affect Christian groups and schools.

“I think they’re worrying unnecessarily. If anything it will help to stop prejudice against people who have a strong belief,” she said.

However, laws similar to the Directive already existing in the UK have created problems for Christians. Legal experts and Christian groups have warned that the Directive could make the situation here even worse.

James Dingemans QC said: “It does seem to me that, without mechanisms permitting the balancing of rights, the Directive becomes internally inconsistent by creating (at least indirect) discrimination against religious believers.”

Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan also expressed concerns: “As it stands, this legislation would not only threaten the status of faith schools, hospitals, adoption agencies and the like; it could also force political parties to hire ideological opponents or criminalise single sex institutions.”

A spokesman for the Church of England said: “Through the provisions it has included in domestic law on discrimination, Parliament has recognised that churches, other religious bodies and faith schools need to be able to operate without fear of legal challenge as they go about their daily work.”

“We would therefore have serious concerns if the exemptions they currently enjoy had to be restricted or removed because of the Directive, and shall accordingly be raising this development with Government.”

Simon Calvert, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, said: “UK discrimination law is already pretty extreme, as the forced closure of Roman Catholic adoption agencies shows.

“The Directive would make things even worse by transferring ultimate control of equality law to Brussels, beyond the control of our own Parliament.”

He added: “The wishlist of amendments that MEPs voted for demonstrates huge hostility to religion. They want to strip out protections in discrimination law that are essential for faith-based organisations to function.”

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