Registrar Judgement Potentially Catastrophic For Equality

The National Secular Society has condemned the decision to allow registrars to opt out of conducting civil partnerships on the grounds of their religious objections.

A registrar from Islington, Ms Ladele, has succeeded today in her claims against Islington Council for unlawful discrimination because on religious grounds she did not wish to perform civil partnership registrations.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society (NSS), commented: “This is a catastrophic judgment not just for gay people but for the wider community. It appears to place the religious ‘conscience’ of registrars above their legal duty to carry out Parliament’s legislation.

“Ms Ladele now seems to have won the right to be exempt from some of her duties on the grounds that she is a Christian. Putting religious rights and gay rights under the same legal umbrella when they are incompatible was bound eventually to lead to this confrontation. This decision appears to show that religious rights trump gay rights and that should leave gay people quaking in their boots.

“Will registrars with similar religious convictions now be allowed to opt out of conducting civil marriages for divorcees, or for couples they believe to have had sex before the marriage, or even for couples from other faiths?” asked Mr Sanderson.

“If it sets a precedent, this entirely wrong decision will have major implications for the Government’s Equality and Human Rights agenda. This raises all kinds of implications far beyond the gay community. What other duties will religious people now claim exemption from? We have already seen pharmacists refuse contraception on religious grounds and supermarket check-out attendants refusing to handle alcohol or pork products. Others demand that they should not be required to work on holy days.

“There is a real risk that other public servants - nurses and doctors, police officers, fire fighters, paramedics and others - might try to assert the ‘right’ won by Ms Ladele. There is no logical reason why this concession couldn’t be claimed by other providers of goods and services too. It will make nonsense of equality legislation,” he said.

“There is also the issue of fairness,” he added. “The law forbids religious celebrants from performing civil partnership ceremonies even if they would like to. If they can’t opt in, why should registrars employed by secular institutions be allowed to opt out?”

The decision – which the NSS believes is deeply flawed – is based on an attempt to balance conflicting rights. But there is no conflict. The law which, rightly, protects religious people from discrimination, should not be perverted to allow people to practice discrimination on the basis of their religion.

“It is an unacceptable and unprincipled distortion of the spirit of the equality laws,” said Mr Sanderson.

“Would a racist council employee be allowed to excuse themselves in cases involving ethnic minorities on the basis of their ‘deeply held beliefs’ or ‘religious consciences’? Based on this judgement there is no reason why this should not be the case. It seems providing ‘religious freedom’ to council employees trumps fair and equitable service delivery to the public.

“No member of the public should have to fear the humiliation of being rejected by a public servant on the basis of their identity,” concluded Mr Sanderson.

“The case was financed by The Christian Institute's Legal Defence Fund. Other cases that have ostensibly been mounted by vulnerable individuals later turn out to be backed by highly orthodox religious groups. We suspect most Christians would not feel it appropriate to act as Ms Ladele has done.

“The NSS urges the Council to appeal and hopes the decision is rapidly overturned.”

10 July 2008