Government Too Ready To Give In to Religious Pressure on Discrimination

The Government is in danger of compromising the human rights of a significant number of people in Britain because of its anxiety not to upset religious interests, says the National Secular Society (NSS). In a response to an independent consultation on equalities (The Equalities Review which closes today), the NSS says the government is far too ready to grant exemptions to religious groups in anti-discrimination legislation.

Keith Porteous Wood, the National Secular Society’s Executive Director said: “Religious organisations’ latest demands are for exemptions from the Equality Act to allow them to discriminate against homosexuals. Despite protests, the government is likely — on its past form — to grant them. This is making a mockery of the noble aims of the legislation. The Government’s equality agenda is increasingly tokenistic; it fails too often to identify the root causes of discrimination which most blights people’s lives.

“We support everyone’s right to practise their religion, or have no religion, or change their religion (something not all religions permit),” said Mr Wood. “But the Government is only too happy to grant exemptions to religious organisations in equality legislation even where this impacts adversely on others. It is ironic that most exemptions are given on religious grounds, yet the religious are the very ones most likely to discriminate, especially over sexual orientation. These exemptions cause real hardship and victimise law abiding citizens. Both homosexuals and non believers are finding it increasingly difficult to find employment in religious schools, even those whose running costs are borne from public funds. In England, a third of the country’s maintained schools are religious. In Scotland, Roman Catholic schools openly discriminate against non-Catholic and gay teachers.

“Within communities which are characterised by strong religious commitment and/or patriarchal attitudes, some people are especially vulnerable to having their human rights abused. Community or family religion (and the predominantly male power structures that come with it) can all too often be a source of oppression.

“Even in this country, many do not enjoy all of their human rights – such as of freedom of conscience, family life, freedom of association and even education. Examples include ‘honour killings’ and the failure to secure any convictions for female genital mutilation, both the subject of concerns by the Metropolitan Police. For these victims, the prospect of faith based welfare, rather than welfare provided neutrally by the state, will not be welcome.

We deeply regret that the Equality Review has not faced these vital issues head on. It is to be hoped that this is not because cultural and/or religious sensitivities have inadvertently taken precedence over helping those whose human rights are seriously at risk from direct or indirect religious pressure.

We hope the government will think again and be less prepared to grant religious exemptions than it has done in the past.”