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Catholic Attorney General seeks to water down protections under Equality Bill

The Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, has told Catholic magazine The Tablet that she will attempt to help the churches introduce exemptions in the Equality Bill that would permit religious organisations to discriminate in employment against those who don’t share their faith.

Attorney General , Baroness Scotland

Baroness Scotland, who is a prominent Catholic, sits on the powerful Legislative Committee that examines proposed laws before they come into effect. Her spokeswoman said: “She [Lady Scotland] is confident that an acceptable way forward can be found and the people dealing with the bill will find one.”

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales — along with the Church of England and the usual evangelical groups — has claimed that the Equality Bill could have a “chilling effect” on freedom of religion because it would introduce an obligation to offer jobs to non-Catholics in areas such as youth work and pastoral ministry.

Stephen Pound, another prominent Catholic MP, said that he expected concessions from the Government. “I know Patricia [Scotland] has a plan to remedy this,” he said. “She is working on a way that the Church won’t be seen to discriminate.”

Richard Kornicki, the bishops’ conference parliamentary coordinator, said that inserting an amendment on the Church’s right to exclude non-Catholics from certain positions should be straightforward. “This particular issue is eminently resolvable and we would be delighted to talk further about how best to do that,” he said. “We’ve made our position clear, have had discussions with officials, and look forward to the Government’s response.”

Opposition to the bill has also come from the Church of England and there has been extensive cooperation between the two Churches over the proposed legislation. The bill was introduced by Harriet Harman, the Equalities Minister, and brings together all existing equality law under a single act. The source of the Church’s restriction in employment comes from the bill’s narrow definition of religion, which is “… leading or assisting in the observation of liturgical or ritualistic practices of the religion, or promoting or explaining the doctrine of the religion”.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “This is a classic example of influential politicians putting the desires of the Church before the will of their party. The Labour Party has brought this bill forward and now it is Labour politicians who seek to subjugate it to Catholic doctrine. It is the same sort of conflict that faced Ruth Kelly, a member of the controversial fundamentalist group Opus Dei. When she was equality minister she refused to give her support to Government legislation on gay rights and abortion rights. She would absent herself from the chamber when votes on these issues came up.”