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.