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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

NSS intervention aims to protect equality laws from religious onslaught

The National Secular Society has, with the leave of the European Court of Human Rights, submitted an intervention to argue that Britain’s equality laws should be upheld and not compromised by religious exemptions.

European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg.

The NSS is thought to be the only intervener arguing that the controversial employment cases of Eweida, Chaplin, Ladele and McFarlane were correctly dismissed by the UK courts.

Eweida and Chaplin concern the wearing of crosses at work. Ladele was an Islington registrar and McFarlane a Relate councillor, both of whom objected on religious grounds to dealing with same sex couples. All four are applying to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that the dismissal of their cases was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and that the UK law must therefore be changed.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “Any further accommodation of religious conscience in UK equality law would create a damaging hierarchy of rights, with religion at the top. We believe that any change to the law to increase religious accommodation — as most if not all other interveners are calling for — stands the risk of undermining UK equality jurisprudence, which is probably the best in Europe.”

Mr Porteous Wood added: “This is likely to be a landmark case determining the future direction of equality law in the UK, and potentially also inEurope. We were particularly pleased that Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, in many ways the father of UK equality law, agreed to lead our intervention. Lord Lester has been assisted by Dr Ronan McCrea of University College London and Max Schaefer of Brick Court.

“In the cases of Ladele and McFarlane, the hard-earned rights of gay people are placed at risk if it is decided that ‘reasonable accommodation’ is acceptable when religious people provide (or refuse to provide) services to them. We have argued that such accommodations are humiliating and unacceptable.

“In the case of the wearing of religious symbols at work, we think that in both cases — Eweida and Chaplin — the English courts reached the correct decisions taking into account the particular circumstances. We feel strongly that there should be no blanket permission for religious people to be able to disregard strict uniform policies or health and safety regulations in the workplace.”

The NSS has responded in similar terms to the Equality and Human Rights Commission consultation urging the EHRC not to intervene in any of these cases, noting: “Society’s interest in tackling discrimination amply justifies any restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion in these cases. Limitations on the right to display symbols of religion and belief are also justified in the interests of health and safety, protecting workplace harmony, the interests of employers, of customers and of the colleagues of workers who want to display the relevant symbols. Furthermore, a right to display only symbols of belief that are religious in nature, but not other symbols, breaches the fundamental duty to treat individuals, and their rights of conscience, equally”.

The NSS response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission consultation can be read in full here

Published Fri, 16 Sep 2011