RC bishops: Govt’s Equality Bill compromise is no good

The threat religious organisations face from the Equality Bill has not been reduced by the Government changing the wording, say the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales.

The bishops have criticised the Government’s refusal to listen to their concerns, and say the compromise it has offered does not do enough to protect the “moral integrity” of clergy and other Church employees.

The bishops’ concerns centre on a clause in the Bill which dramatically narrows religious organisations’ existing exemptions from employment equality laws.

They fear the change would force the Church to accept women, practising homosexuals and transsexuals as priests and lay employees.

Their concerns have been echoed by other denominations and religions, including the Church of England.

In recognition of these concerns the Government has tabled an amendment to modify the Bill’s wording.

But the bishops say the concession does not go far enough, and that the only way for religious groups to retain their current legal protection is to remove the relevant clause entirely.

The Bill will be debated in the House of Lords on Monday and the bishops have thrown their backing behind an amendment tabled by Baroness O’Cathain which would keep the present law as it is.

Most Revd Peter Smith, Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff and chairman of the bishops’ Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, voiced his regret at the Government’s refusal to “sit down earlier with religious groups and work out an amendment with the right wording”.

He continued: “As it is, legal advice indicates that a court might construe the wording too narrowly and if there was a doubt about the legal effect then the only prudent course is to support the rival amendment which deletes the definition entirely.

“That is the only sure way of guaranteeing this Bill neither widens nor narrows the scope of the current exemption.”

The clause at the centre of the bishop’s concerns creates a qualification for legal exemptions which Church leaders say even the Catholic priesthood would not meet.

As a result the Church could not require that priests and prominent lay employees behave in a manner consistent with Church teaching on sexual behaviour.

The Church could be sued for turning away applicants on grounds of their sexual lifestyle.

Government Ministers have offered assurances and compromise wording, but legal advisors have told the bishops that courts are likely to interpret the legislation in a way which severely restricts the Church’s employment freedoms.

When asked whether the Bill generally would increase legal action between churches and atheists, Government equalities minister Michael Foster MP replied that both sides “need to be lining up (their lawyers) by now”.

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