.- Catholic bishops in Britain have voiced âsignificant concernsâ about a proposed Equality Bill, saying it treats the rights of religious believers as secondary and could force Catholic schools and care homes to remove crucifixes and holy pictures if someone finds them âoffensive.â
It has also been suggested the bill could force churches to hire youth ministers who do not support Christian ethics. The bill, supported by Equality Minister Harriet Harman, penalizes âharassment.â The newspaper The Catholic Herald says this is defined as âunwanted conduct ... with the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment.â
However, the way this plays out in the legal system is more sinister.
The bishops of England, Wales and Scotland said that the billâs burden of proof is reversed and would excessively burden Catholics if people complained about any manifestation of religious belief, even on church property.
Msgr. Andrew Summersgill, general secretary of the Bishopsâ Conference of England and Wales, presented the bishopsâ statement to the House of Commonsâ scrutiny committee. He said that if a cleaner who is an atheist or of âvery differentâ religious beliefs found crucifixes to be offensive there would be âno defense in lawâ against a charge of harassment.
The bishops have argued that a test of âreasonablenessâ be included in the bill. They also objected to a proposal restricting religious exceptions only to cases of employment which principally concern âformal worship activitiesâ or the promotion or explanation of doctrine.
âIf this Bill is serious about equality, everything possible must be done to avoid it having a chilling effect on religious expression and practice,â Msgr. Summersgill said.
The bishopsâ statement also said that the bill would privilege some rights over others. They expressed concern that some rights, like those of homosexual people, will always trump the rights of religious freedom.
âThere have been suggestions that in some way religion or belief should have a lower status than other protected characteristics covered by the public sector equality duty,â their statement read.
"Exempting Catholic staff from a gay pride recruitment event could be seen as failing to tackle prejudice against homosexuality - but obliging them to participate could be seen as failing to tackle prejudice against religious belief, to say nothing of harassment," Msgr. Summersgill explained.
The Equality Bill is reportedly designed to collect into one package the different aspects of discrimination laws created in recent decades. According to the Catholic Herald, employersâ equality and diversity guidelines have already been used against Christians who have expressed their faith at work.
The government has also said that certain provisions in the Equality Bill are intended to ensure churches can no longer insist that employees live in agreement with churchesâ sexual ethics.
Speaking to the Catholic Herald, lawyer Neil Addison argued that British law already covers harassment and warned the proposal is âtailor-made for people to come up with silly objections and be petty-minded because it puts the emphasis on the person being offended rather than on an objective test of what ought to be considered reasonable.â
Equality Minister Harman reportedly did not mention equality for religious groups in announcing the proposals to the House of Commons. She also recently refused to allow a debate on the increasing numbers of Christians complaining about discrimination against them in the public sector.
âPublicly funded Church schools, adoption agencies and even hospital chaplains have all come under attack while the Government has given taxpayers' money to groups that promote atheism,â the Catholic Herald charges.
Fr. Tim Finigan, a south-east London priest who writes on his blog the Hermeneutic of Continuity, said the demands of transsexual activists who support the bill could mean that if a Catholic school teacher decides to cross-dress, action against his or her behavior will be considered âharassment.â
âRemember - it's what you do, not what they do that creates the discrimination," he said.
Fr. Finigan said it was âstupid beyond beliefâ for the government to promote an âextreme formâ of the equality agenda at a time when the political system is suffering âunparalleled contempt.â