Archbishop is “very glad” that equality commission taking closer interest in religious freedom.
Catholics should take part in a major consultation being conducted by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, says Southwark’s Archbishop Peter Smith, echoing appeals from the Church of England and Christians in Parliament.
The survey, on people’s experiences of religion and belief in the workplace and as the recipients of services, is part of a three-year program to gather information, strengthen understanding of religion or belief in public life, and make sure the UK’s human rights and equality legislation is implemented appropriately.
Archbishop Smith said that he was “very glad” that the EHRC had “decided to take a closer interest in religious freedom with the aim of ensuring that there are laws in place that protect everyone’s right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect.”
“There are both opportunities and challenges created by the framework of equality laws,” he added, “and I welcome the EHRC’s decision to consult widely amongst religious groups to gather experiences, both positive and negative. I encourage Catholics, especially those who may have a relevant experience or perspective to offer, to take the time to fill in this survey in order to assist the Commission.”
The EHRC is interested in finding out how religion and belief have affected the recent experiences of job applicants, employees, or customers, whether people of faith are aware of and have appropriate guidance with regard to their legal rights, and what their views are on the effectiveness of equality and rights legislation intended to protect them. It also wants to hear about the experiences of employers and service-providing organizations when issues of religion or belief have been raised.
The UK has seen several high profile legal cases involving the manifestation of religion or belief, most famously those of Nadia Eweida and Lillian Ladele, but little is known about how often these issues occur in practice.
The most recent case to come to public knowledge involved Margaret Jones, a registrar at Bedford registry office who said she was willing to handle the paperwork for same-sex weddings, but could not conduct the ceremonies as she “would not be able to say the words and be sincere.” Accused of gross misconduct, she was dismissed for breaching equality laws and bringing the local council disrepute, although she had not yet been called upon to officiate at a same-sex wedding.
A panel of council members last month unanimously reversed this decision, pointing to how the EHRC guidance notes “encourage employers and employees to find reasonable solutions to religion or belief issues at work,” and ruling that the council had not fully investigated ways of accommodating Jones’ religious beliefs.
The EHRC survey seems sensible in light of such cases, not to mention the findings of the 2012 parliamentary report Clearing the Ground. The report found that while Christians are not being victimized in Britain, religious illiteracy is causing religious belief to be misunderstood and restricted, with Christianity being squeezed out of public life. Court decisions, the report also found, had contrary to legislative intent established a hierarchy of rights with the freedom to manifest religious belief and act in accord with one’s conscience being deemed less important than other rights.
The report had called for changes in the law, more public education about religion, better guidance for local authorities, and a restructuring of the EHRC.
The current survey, which will receive submissions until mid-October, looks like an important step in the right direction.
Greg Dalycovers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.