Church employment freedoms


2003 employment regulations

  • In 2003 the Labour Government introduced special employment rights for homosexuals in the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations, having agreed to an EU Directive which required such legislation. After a long campaign by church schools, churches and Christian organisations, an exemption was included in the Regulations for ‘organised religion’ so that religious bodies are not forced to employ practising homosexuals.
  • The 2004 Amicus case in the High Court found that the Regulations had properly implemented the EU Directive.1
  • Nevertheless, the legislation made it more difficult for church schools, churches and Christian organisations to refuse to employ staff whose conduct does not match their Christian profession. In 2007 the Diocese of Hereford lost at an employment tribunal as a result of turning down a candidate for a youth worker role because of his homosexual lifestyle. The case was lost because of procedural issues and confusion over C of E teaching in a policy document.

Equality Act 2010

  • The Labour Government’s Equality Bill debated by Parliament in 2009-10 sought to consolidate all discrimination laws into a single Act. Yet the Bill as introduced would have narrowed the employment freedom of churches and religious organisations even further than the 2003 Regulations.
  • The 2003 Regulations allowed an employer to apply a requirement related to sexual orientation if the employment is “for purposes of an organised religion”.2 But the Equality Bill proposed a new narrow definition of “for purposes of an organised religion”, stating that to qualify for the new definition the employment must wholly or mainly involve leading worship, or promoting or explaining doctrine.3
  • However, many ministers of religion do not spend their time wholly or mainly leading worship or teaching doctrine. There are many administrative and pastoral elements to the role of minister of a church which were overlooked in the drafting of the legislation. The new definition could therefore have seen churches sued for refusing a post to a minister who commits adultery or who enters a homosexual relationship.
  • The Government also proposed applying its new narrower definition to sex discrimination law, thereby outlawing a male-only clergy policy.4
  • The Church of England called the proposals in the Bill a “substantial narrowing” of church exemptions without any prior consultation or warning for Christian groups.5
  • In December 2009 a Government equalities minister, Michael Foster MP, admitted churches should begin “lining up” lawyers to defend themselves against secular legal challenges under the proposed Bill.
  • On 25 January 2010 the House of Lords voted 216 to 178 in favour of Lady O’Cathain’s amendment to stop any narrowing of the 2003 exemption. Then, in an extraordinary move, the Government broke with House of Lords convention by immediately calling two further votes that night. But Lady O’Cathain won those votes by 195 votes to 174 and then by 177 votes to 172.
  • In the face of this opposition from Peers, the Labour Government gave way and dropped its proposals to shrink the 2003 exemption.

Biblical arguments

The Bible provides God-given moral absolutes for personal and social conduct. Churches must be able to organise their internal affairs in accordance with these teachings.

Those in a position of church leadership have a particular responsibility to live in accordance with a consistently biblical world view (1 Timothy 3; James 3:1). Churches and Christian organisations want staff members to share their ethos: to subscribe to common biblical beliefs, to represent them to the world and to personally promote Christian values to others.

Regular staff prayer meetings are one way in which a shared Christian ethos is expressed. Any church staff member could find themselves explaining Christian teaching to enquirers or being asked by members of the public to pray with them.

As part of living out their faith as a witness for Jesus Christ, Christians regard certain activities as sinful. The Bible clearly teaches, for example, that the only context for sexual activity is within lifelong monogamous marriage between a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24; 1 Corinthians 6:9). This means that fornication, adultery and homosexual practice are wrong, as are many other sins. While there is no difficulty for a church or church school employing a person who experiences such temptations, there is a clear distinction between sexual desire and committing sexual behaviour which is sinful.

To force a church to employ someone who fundamentally disagrees with their beliefs about sin, repentance and forgiveness, would compromise the very message the Church embodies and is seeking to preach to the world (Matthew 5:13-16; 28:19-20).

Key points

  • Just as political parties have the freedom to employ only card-carrying members of the party, churches and religious organisations want to require that their staff personally share the same faith and live it out in their lives.
  • John Bowers QC, a leading employment lawyer, said the Government’s proposed Bill failed to understand the essential role of a church minister or pastor, which is “devoted to promoting the ethos and standards of his church”.6
  • The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, said during the Lords debate that people “may feel that many churches and other religious organisations are wrong on matters of sexual ethics. But if religious freedom means anything, it must mean that those are matters for the churches and other religious organisations to determine in accordance with their own convictions”.7
  • The proposals in the Bill would have led to divisive court cases with secular courts deciding on the theological beliefs of churches. For 2000 years churches have believed that sexual activity is only for marriage and for the state to impose contrary views on them would have been totally unacceptable.
  1. 1R (Amicus) v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry [2004] EWHC 860 (Admin) at paras 87, 127 and 128
  2. 2The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, Regulation 7(3)
  3. 3Equality Bill 2009, Schedule 9, Paragraph 2(8)
  4. 4Equality Bill – Lords 2nd Reading, Tuesday 15th December, Briefing note from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, December 2009
  5. 5Christian Today, 23 May 2009, see as at 21 December 2015
  6. 6The Christian Institute and the Equality Bill, John Bowers QC, 30 November 2009, para. 16
  7. 7House of Lords, Hansard, 25 January 2010, cols 1217-1218