Extra challenges

Let’s hark back to May 2011, to a Comment is Free piece by Evan Harris on the religious exemptions to the Equalities Act.

The Guardian has reported on those questioning the wisdom of contracting religious groups to deliver key public services. The government’s “big society” initiative – it still seems too unfocused to call it policy – has, as one of its aims, the transfer of the delivery of some public services to voluntary sector providers on a greater scale than is currently the case.

It was envisaged by both this and the previous government that faith groups would be some of the new providers. It seems unjustified to argue against religious organisations providing public services, as it is discriminatory to single out those with a religious ethos for a prohibition on service provision.

Well, no, not if the goal is to keep religion and the state separate. Public services are by definition a state matter; those “with a religious ethos” can provide services via private organizations. It’s fine for religious groups to offer services; it’s not so fine for them to offer public services, i.e. ones funded by taxes.

However, some religious organisations present extra challenges when being considered for the delivery of public services and it would be naive, foolish or perverse to ignore these.

First, they have a special exemption in equality law to discriminate against their employees narrowly on grounds of gender and sexual orientation (for priesthood and leadership roles) and more widely on the basis of religious belief. These exemptions are provided for in the European directive that underpins our anti-discrimination laws in this area. The problem is that the exemptions given in UK law by the last Labour government in the 2003 regulations and then in the 2010 Equality Act are far wider than provided for in the directive.

One of these exemptions is found in schedule 9, paragraph 3 of the 2010 Equality Act, allowing religious organisations to discriminate on the basis of religion in employment, in certain jobs and contexts. The last government faced infraction proceedings from the European Union for failing, unlike all the Catholic Mediterranean states, to properly limit these exemptions.

Like for instance to people doing the actual religious work – clerics, in short. Cooks and cleaners and secretaries shouldn’t have to be orthodox believers to keep their jobs.

What is even more worrying is that staff of an existing secular provider – who make the beds in a hostel, or assist people with benefit claims – will face a faith test when the service and their employment contracts are transferred to a new provider that has a religious ethos. During the passage of the Equality Act, Liberal Democrats (that’s me and Lynne Featherstone, now the equality minister) proposed an amendment that specified that religious tests were not to be permitted when delivering public services. This was vigorously opposed by religious leaders and the government. It was silently opposed by the Tories.

Evan Harris doesn’t say anything about council-run school buses being able to refuse to pick up students who don’t belong to the correct religion. Apparently he didn’t see that one coming.

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