Thursday, 14 July 2011

Equality Commission calls for reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs

I am going on retreat tomorrow and need to pack, and I really have scant time to do justice to the recent announcement of the Equality Commission that the law may have taken too narrow an approach to the rights of employees whose religious beliefs bring them into conflict with their employers, or with equality law, in the workplace. There has also been a range of reactions to this apparent U turn, many secular organisations and groups supporting LGBT rights have reacted with indignation and dismay, including Stonewall, who have declared themselves "deeply disturbed" and The British Humanist Association and The National Secular Society.  I do share the concerns of some of the aforementioned groups, but I would advise anyone feeling likewise not to react too vehemently until they have read this clarification by the EHRC in which it explains that, rather than being a U turn, or an abandonment of the previous policy, it is rather that,
  "The purpose of our intervention is to explain that the law should consider how it may give better respect for religious rights within the workplace than has hitherto been the case, without diminishing the rights of others. We want to change the view that there needs to be an either/or situation. The spotlight and focus is placed too frequently on conflict in place of dialogue that could help identify other acceptable workable solutions.

The accommodation of rights is not a zero sum equation whereby one right cancels out or trumps another. We believe that if the law and practice were considered more widely, then in many situations there would be scope for diverse rights to be respected.
Our view is that careful, sensitive and balanced treatment and consideration is discouraged by the approach taken by the courts to date. In turn, this hinders the development and dissemination of better practice amongst those with duties. We believe that where possible ways should be found within the law of promoting the resolution of disputes at an early stage, without protracted, costly, complex legal proceedings that irretrievably damage relations between the parties."

We have seen a range of cases; some clearly examples of outright discrimination, but others which have seemed to me to verge upon the vexatious and frivolous, for example the case of the plumber sacked for having a palm cross in his van, a situation that should never have reached the courts but which should have been reasonably defused by the employer long before that point. I am glad to see that the Equality Commission wishes to encourage "jaw not war" in such situations. I have also previously argued that there is indeed a need for reasonableness and for a consideration of context, although, believe me, I do understand the fears some have that there will be lessened protection for LGBT people. It is worth noting that the EHRC states,
"There is not – and cannot be – any change in the Commission’s role as the NHRI and equality regulator with responsibility for preventing discrimination against people on grounds of sexual orientation, a responsibility that we aspire to fulfil to the best of our ability.

We would like to reassure our stakeholders that under no circumstances would the Commission condone or permit the refusal of public services to lesbian or gay people."

Above all, each  case needs to be considered on its individual merits, and the real facts rather than those reported by the tabloid newspapers or by the Christian legal centre  along the lines of  "Shock horror: Nurse sacked for offering to pray/ child told off for mentioning God." Usually, behind the headlines, a more complex picture emerges, but the EHRC clearly feels that sometimes there has been a failure of  sense and communication prior to a case being escalated to the level where legal intervention is required.


  1. I have just completed the EHRC form via the Anglican Mainstream blog.

    When it asked for suggestions of a way forward I put the following:

    “Instead of a change in the law, perhaps what would be helpful would be the setting up of a religious arbitration service, where a committee made up of employment law experts, representatives from various religions and denominations and secular agencies/groups (e.g. CBI, the Local Government Association, NHS, charities’ groups etc.) could hear claims of religious discrimination that can’t be resolved by the employer’s grievance policy before they go to the tribunal stage?

    I suspect that if some of these religious discrimination claims were offered independent arbitration they might just be easily resolved. Particularly if it was agreed that the process was confidential and must remain so prior to and during the hearing. As noted I have read several of the tribunal judgements concerning some of the present high profile religious discrimination cases; I think it is highly likely that if there wasn’t the involvement of the media via the machinations of some Christian pressure groups – and moreover that if individuals were denied the cheap celebrity that comes from controversy – many of these problems could have been sorted out quickly and quietly.”

    I’ve also suggested some detailed research to see if this is really a problem or just a lot of hype and hot air created by some of our Right of Centre Christian buddies. I think it is telling that in the summing up of the Exeter NHS case against a nurse who said she HAD to wear a cross as part of her religious identity and belief, that the following comment was made:

    ‘A number of unsubstantiated claims were made during the tribunal and we are satisfied that these have been shown to be completely without foundation. Sensible and sensitive solutions were offered to Mrs Chaplin. It is regrettable that her uncompromising stance and the involvement of parties external to the Trust [Right Wing Christian organisations] determined to play out the case in the media, may have deflected her from agreeing one of these solutions.”

    The work of the Christian Institute and similar organisations (Christian, Muslim and Jewish) have done much to make mountains out of mole hills – besides a good deal of effort going into building up the conceit of victimhood.

    Many people happily have their religious beliefs and practices accommodated in the work place. With some of the high profile cases it seems that religion isn’t really the main issue – some of the gripes are homophobia veiled as piety and some of the others appear to result from the type of employee who could cause an argument in an empty room. The law is fine as it is at present; I believe it would be very foolish and dangerous to change it. I hope our little liberal minded friends over at Anglican Mainstream and its fiendish playmates realise that a change in the law would not just be for their benefit. ANY adherent of a recognised religion could claim ‘discrimination’ if they so wanted and that could lead to some very difficult situations. It is part of JW’s, LDS and some Muslim sects religious’ practice to pro-actively proselytise. Think about that being ‘allowed’ in the workplace.

    As to what I think is the best Christian response to these issues, see my latest post on my blog


  2. I might just fill in that form on AM too! Thanks Peter. I will be without internet for the next few days BTW - the deprivation!

  3. You might like - another of my journeys into fiction to get a point over...