The Equality Bill could backfire by having a ‘chilling effect’ on the religious groups it claims to protect, MPs are being warned.
The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church will each give evidence on the Bill to a House of Commons committee tomorrow.
The Roman Catholic Church plans to tell MPs that although the intention of the Bill is to promote equality, it must be clear about what should happen when the rights of different groups appear to ‘overlap’.
The Government has made clear that certain provisions in the Bill are intended to make sure churches can no longer insist that employees such as youth workers live lives consistent with the churches’ teaching on sexual ethics.
When this emerged, the Church of England said the proposed change in the law represented “a substantial narrowing” of the existing protections for churches, and promised to raise the matter with the Government.
The Roman Catholic Church has also issued a statement listing the concerns it plans to raise with MPs tomorrow.
The plan to narrow the employment exemptions for religious groups, the statement says, “fails to understand the nature of religious life”. It adds that “religion is about the whole of life and the whole person; it is not limited to formal worship and instruction”.
It also urges MPs to consider the clashes that could result if the Bill creates “overlapping rights”.
It points out that while “exempting Catholic staff from a ‘Gay Pride’ recruitment event could be seen as failing to tackle prejudice against homosexuality”, “obliging them to participate could be seen as failing to tackle prejudice against religious belief”.
The statement concludes: “If this Bill is serious about Equality, everything possible must be done to avoid it having a ‘chilling’ effect on religious expression and practice.”
The Equality Bill is an overarching piece of legislation designed to sweep up the different strands of discrimination law created over the last few decades into one coherent package.
However, the Bill also introduces changes to discrimination law which would significantly narrow protections for religious liberty.
In April, in an official statement on the Bill, Equalities Minister Harriet Harman failed to mention that religion is one of the grounds on which the Bill is supposed to offer protection.
‘Equality and diversity’ guidelines used by employers, particularly in the public sector, have already been used against Christians who have expressed their faith at work. Examples include Christian nurse Caroline Petrie, who was suspended after offering to pray for a patient.
However, when Miss Harman was asked to allow a Commons debate on the issue of prejudice against Christians, she dismissed these concerns.
“This is really just a matter of basic good practice and common sense. There is nothing in any law or guidance that requires people to act daft,” she said.