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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Equality Act

The Equality Act completed its passage through Parliament on 16 February 2006 in the biggest shake up for decades both in equality legislation and the way it is administered.

The Act makes way for the setting up one single body, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). It will absorb the work of existing Commissions such as the Equal Opportunities and Disability Rights and take on new strands such as Religion and Belief and Sexual Orientation. It will later take over the functions of the Commission for Racial Equality.

The Act also sets out the law against discrimination on the new strand of Religion and Belief (which includes non-belief). Rather awkwardly, it does not deal with any other strand. It seems likely that minority religious groups were able to pressurise the Government into tackling Religion ahead of anything else. The Government was however forced by rebellious peers to include in the Act powers to make regulations against discrimination on grounds of Sexual Orientation, which - like those on Religion and Belief - are planned for implementation towards the end of the year.

There are two important fronts on which the NSS has been influencing these developments: on the legislation and in the setting up of the CEHR.

Work on legislation
Our work during the legislative process was conducted both with senior officials responsible for legislation at the Home Office and with members of both Houses of Parliament. Our aims were to fight for the rights of the non-religious and seek to eliminate religious privilege. In each case this translated in practice into trying to eliminate or mitigate the most unreasonable or unjustified religious exemptions. The Act lays down different rules for public bodies, schools and charities, and each had a rich crop of religious exemptions. Some of the more outrageous exemptions which were excised or toned down include where:

  • “Organisations relating to religion or belief” were given virtual carte blanche exemption from the provisions simply where it was “expedient”.
  • Religious schools, but not community schools, were exempted from a prohibition on harassing pupils on grounds of religion or belief.
  • Religious schools were exempted from the requirement for maintained schools not to “subject [pupils] to any other detriment”. Religious schools will, however, still be allowed wide ranging exemption to discriminate on admission and exclusion.

These may seem modest gains but even they were only won after pitched battles with ministers. Of all the exemptions, the vast majority are religiously based. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Government has been complicit in framing legislation to permit existing discrimination on religious grounds to continue largely unchecked.

In these skirmishes, especially in the Commons Committee where the important detail is fought for line by line and sometimes word by word, it was all too often Honorary Associate Dr Evan Harris alone taking a secular perspective. We owe him an immense debt for the huge amount of work he has put into this and for the concessions he has won. In the House of Lords we are also very grateful for the work done on our behalf by fellow Honorary Associates, in particular Baroness Turner of Camden.

Keith Porteous Wood has been working closely with them both over this Bill, assisting them, highlighting areas of concern and suggesting amendments.

Single Equality Body
Council member Dr Anna Behan has been taking the lead on our work on the Single Equality Body. This is both important and painstaking. Anna has represented the Society in numerous meetings of the Religion and Belief strand working towards the single equality body. Although we have held our own and punched above our weight, it has been an uphill battle. Our major difficulties with the Religion and Belief strand are that the non-religious are heavily outnumbered on the working group and that our objectives are generally diametrically opposite to those of the religious. No other strand suffers from this almost schizophrenic problem. One solution we have pressed for is that the strand needs to field both non-religious and religious spokespersons.

An example of where this happened occurred at a Stakeholder Day in late January hosted by the Government department responsible for the Equality legislation, the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI).

Anna Behan made the presentation on behalf of the non-religious.

Dr Behan’s presentation at the DTI
She took the opportunity to highlight the failure within government to engage with the non-religious, demonstrated in particular by the lack of consultation and public funding on equal terms with the religious. She also reminded the DTI about the disadvantages suffered by the non-religious such as the unequal access to public services and the impact of excessive exemptions for religious organisations on the non-religious, and the importance of these matters to the future of the new CEHR.

Other presentations
As well as our presentation, there were several religious ones. Among presentations by relevant Government departments was one given by the Head of the Faith Communities Engagement Team from the Cohesion and Faiths Unit at the Home Office. The tenor of her presentation seemed to us to be profoundly anti-secular. Its core message was that the Government were seeking out faith communities to find out their needs and opinions in order to respond to these.

A Home Office speaker told delegates that faith communities offer “the application of values that underpin good citizenship” such as altruism, ethical values and solidarity. She also indicated that the Government is developing “a more robust and structured approach” to its engagement with faith communities with “dedicated relationship managers” for each faith community. The Home Office is, she assured her audience “working with faith community representatives to identify key issues within faith communities and progress solutions”.

The Home Office speaker did acknowledge that these approaches often failed to reach women and young people, we believe because so often it is older men who lead the religious groups and are often unrepresentative of the communities for whom they claim to speak. We pointed out that many in minority ethnic communities are not religious and the Government’s approach, for example on faith based welfare, seems to be forcing them to attend mosques, temples etc., which they may find intimidating. Noting that there is of course no Non-faith Communities Unit in the Home Office, we expressed our unmistakable impression that the Government has no concern whatever for the non-religious.

Anna and Keith later had the opportunity to make the key points out of Anna’s presentation and their concerns about the general religious-centred approach in a private discussion with the DTI Minister, Meg Munn.


Anna and Keith’s private discussions with senior officials in the Home Office over several years have justified religious targeting on quite different grounds, such as that:

  • Those in minority faith groups include some of the most disadvantaged in the country, and
  • religious groups provide a targeting mechanism, and also have infrastructures such as halls etc. that the Government wishes to make use of.

Yet the Government claims that religious groups have some special qualities which the Government is anxious to learn from and to accommodate. Also, the dedicated funding referred to as “Capacity Building” to strengthen groups ability to “engage more fully with public authorities” (and available only to faith groups) suggests that the government wishes to build communication channels which is somewhat at variance with the justification of the groups as currently effective targeting mechanisms. So it is not clear whether this is what the Government really believes or whether its line is simply political expediency. But even if it is expediency, the bald anti-secular message being given by the Government is being picked up enthusiastically by religious groups and encourages them to flex their muscles.


Published Wed, 22 Feb 2006