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Victory for peer pressure

March 2010

Victory for peer pressure

 

Until recently, Baroness Detta O’Cathain was relatively unknown outside Westminster. But after defending churches from certain clauses in the new Equality Bill, her name is now linked with a victory for religious freedom.

 

Lady O’Cathain moved three amendments to the Government’s Equality Bill, which had passed through the Commons and was on its way through the Lords to be ratified. Her amendments, known as 98, 99 and 100, were clarifications to earlier changes that had altered the wording of the bill and posed significant legal dangers for religious groups. The purpose of the Equality Bill as a whole is to prevent discrimination by age, religion, race or gender in the wider workforce.

      Current law has allowed religious and political groups to discriminate for certain specific beliefs. For example, the Catholic Church is allowed to discriminate against employing women priests. But a big problem arose after new government exclusions threatening previously protected church freedoms were voted in by the Commons.


Legal minefield

The exclusions did not clarify whether churches could reasonably discriminate on religious grounds. Not only that, their wording only allowed discrimination when appointing to a key ‘pastoral or preaching capacity’. This was creating what the Daily Telegraph called a potential ‘legal minefield’. The revised wording meant that churches seeking to hire cleaners, youth workers, secretaries, and others involved in Christian work, could no longer factor into the equation a potential employee’s statement of beliefs. To do so would risk breaking the law. For example, a religious organisation refusing to hire a non-believing, transsexual or homosexual cleaner on the grounds of religious belief and practice could be sued for discrimination.

      However, in a hotly-contested reading in the House of Lords on 25 January, Lady O’Cathain called for the extension of full religious liberty to religious organisations.

      She said: ‘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. ‘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’. She maintained that churches should be able to discriminate on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation and marital status, not only when making appointments

to key religious posts but when hiring anyone to any position.

      ‘By tinkering [with the wording, the Government has] caused enormous concern among religious groups. It is essential that the wording is returned to what it was’, she added.

 

Stiff opposition

 

Lady O’Cathain faced stiff opposition. Baroness Turner of Camden argued: ‘I do not see why an exception of any kind should be permitted when the employer in question provides a public service. ‘There is no reason why a religious or charitable organisation that undertakes work in the public arena that is funded by the taxpayer should be able to insist that the employees who carry out its duties adhere to its religious principles’.

      Religious groups – from the Church of England to the Muslim Council of Great Britain – had signed a letter pleading for all three of Lady O’Cathain’s amendments. This was sent to the Government last November. A day of prayer among Christians was held on 25 January.

      The result was that the Peers decisively upheld Lady O’Cathain’s amendments, voting 216 to 178 in their favour. They then rejected government attempts to undermine this victory, with further votes of 195 to 174 and 177 to 172.

      God has heard the prayers of his people. But the gurus of political correctness and the new atheism are still endeavouring to overthrow every trace of Christianity in our nation. Yet this victory reminds us that the Lord on high is mighty.

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