The EHRC’s stance on religious rights undermines its credibility

The totally false narrative of Christians being persecuted has gained a surprising new advocate in the form of Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I’ve written on this over at the Guardian.

“Our business is defending the believer,” the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) chair Trevor Phillips said last month. “The law we’re here to implement recognises that a religious or belief identity is, for the majority of people in Britain, an essential element of being a fulfilled human being and plays an important part in our society.” Apart from being legally inaccurate (the role of the EHRC is actually to protect the rights of both religious and nonreligious people) and exposing its chair’s continuing ignorance of its actual responsibilities, these remarks have fuelled concerns that the EHRC is giving a totally disproportionate and growing emphasis to religious claims.

Those concerns appeared to be justified this week when the EHRC announced it had applied to intervene in four cases of alleged discrimination against Christians in the workplace, which are being taken to the European court of human rights, because it thinks that the way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief. By Tuesday, the EHRC found it necessary to issue a clarification that “under no circumstances would [it] condone or permit the refusal of public services to lesbian or gay people”. But it stood by its claim 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. What could this mean?

Two of the cases in which the EHRC will intervene are that of Lillian Ladele, the registrar who refused to fulfil her duties because of her opposition to same-sex partnerships, and Gary McFarlane, who refused to treat gay couples in his job as a counsellor at Relate. They both argued that they should be excused their duties in relation to gay people because of their religious beliefs. Is it possible that the EHRC might say that was fair enough, as long as alternative registrars or counsellors could be offered to the gay couples in question?

If so, this would be to argue for a retrograde step in English law. The line drawn in the case of Ladele set a vital precedent in recognising the fundamental (some would say constitutional) nature of the rights of gay and lesbian people to be protected from discrimination. It must certainly be maintained, and it is shocking that the EHRC will not say – right now, and upfront – that, whatever representations are made to it by groups seeking to influence the content of its intervention, it will rule out any support for the arguments advanced by McFarlane or Ladele.

It is not just the fact of the intervention itself, but the priority that it reveals the EHRC is giving to these cases, which is almost more shocking. We live in a country where a third of our state schools have the capacity to discriminate against staff and pupils because they are of the wrong or no religion. Public services are being contracted to religious groups with huge opt-outs from equality and human rights law. Community cohesion in this country is being threatened by the misguided emphasis given to religion in public policy. But if there has been a single case where the EHRC has acted to support nonreligious people, or people of non-Christian religions, from discrimination inspired by religion in any of these contexts, I don’t know of it.

Instead, the EHRC risks boosting the false and divisive claims of anti-Christian sentiment that have been increasingly levelled by lobby groups in recent years. Although there are four individual cases being brought to Strasbourg, in aggregate they appear to be part of a unified agenda. They seem to constitute a sustained attempt to weave a victim narrative in defiance of the facts and the construction of this narrative looks like a deliberate agenda to stir up support for a re-Christianisation of our public spaces as a reaction to feelings of persecution. Naturally, the commission is under pressure from churches and other religious lobby groups to become a part of this story and allow itself to be woven into this fiction. But if it wants to keep its remaining credibility, it should never do so.

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