By Matthew Barrett
Follow Matthew on Twitter.
Yesterday in the Lords, Conservative peer Baroness O'Cathain of The Barbican, attempted to scrap regulations that would allow religious groups to conduct civil partnerships in religious buildings.
"The purpose of my Prayer is to address the widely held concerns that the regulations threaten religious freedom. The Merits Committee has drawn them to the special attention of the House, because of the concerns expressed to it. The House must decide whether we reject them and invite the Government to think again. The regulations are intended to create an entirely voluntary system for places of worship that wish to register civil partnerships. That is the intention and I do not doubt the Government's sincerity, but senior lawyers advise that the interplay between the regulations and equality law could result in legal pressure on churches that do not want to register civil partnerships. That is what I want to address. In no way am I trying to block these regulations as a means of opposing civil partnerships. I have seen some deeply unpleasant briefing materials and, indeed, have received many obnoxious letters which impugn my motives. I have absolutely no hidden agenda. My sole reason for this Prayer is to attempt to stop churches having their religious freedoms taken away by local authorities or by litigious activists. The House must not pass regulations that fail to fulfil the intention of the Government."
Yesterday in the Lords, Conservatives led defeat of a Government amendment to the Equalities Bill that would have forced religious bodies to, for example, employ gay people. Below we publish extracts from the contributions of Baroness O'Cathain and Baroness Warsi in defence of the freedom of religious association.
Freedom of appointment: "Organisations that are based on deeply held beliefs must be free to choose their staff on the basis of whether they share those beliefs. It would, for example, be appalling if the Labour Party could be sued for not selecting Conservative candidates and no one would want to see Greenpeace sued for refusing to appoint oil executives to its board of directors."
We must defend freedom of association: "A belief in freedom of association demands that, even if we do not share the beliefs of an organisation, we must stand up for its liberty to choose its own leaders and representatives. That, in essence, is what this debate is all about. I accept that the Government intend to protect the freedom of churches to choose their own staff, but their wording does not mirror that intention. The exemption in paragraph 2 to Schedule 9 to the Bill allows churches to discriminate on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation and marital status when making appointments to key religious posts. An exemption along these lines has existed for more than 30 years. Some think that this is special pleading for the churches, but the principle of exemptions is widely accepted, not just for religion."It's not just churches that need protecting: "How would a rape crisis centre operate if it was forced to employ male counsellors? Beyond the employment sphere, Schedules 3 and 6 contain broad exemptions for insurance, political posts and for Parliament itself. Clause 193 even contains an exemption for sport, so the churches are not alone in needing limited exemptions from discrimination law in order to allow them to function normally."
Baroness Warsi:What is at stake: "As the law stands, where the employment is for the purposes of organised religion, an employer may apply a requirement for a person to be of a particular sex, or not to be a transsexual person, or make a requirement on the basis of the employee's marriage or civil partnership status or sexual orientation, as long as the requirement is in line with a genuine occupational requirement, "for the purposes of an organised religion". We believe that the Bill as currently drafted significantly narrows the scope of roles which would be included as "for the purposes of an organised religion". It does this by narrowing the definition of employment in this context to those roles which "wholly or mainly" involve, "leading or assisting in the observance of liturgical or ritualistic practices of the religion," or, "promoting or explaining the doctrine of religion". There is a clear difference between a more general "purposes of all religion" and the more narrow specification of what that entails. The current law is contained in regulation 7(3) of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, which states that a requirement may only be imposed by religious organisations "so as to comply" with religious doctrine or "so as to avoid conflicting" with religious convictions. The drafting of the Bill would add a requirement to be proportionate, which introduces another layer of legal necessity and so means that it is further removed from the status quo."
©2013 Conservative Home, All rights reserved