.- Religious freedom provisions safeguarding the rights of British churches and other religious employers to require that employees live according to their sexual ethics have been passed in the House of Lords despite repeated opposition from the Labour government. Before the amendment, critics of the proposed Equality Bill said it treated the rights of religious believers as secondary and could have forced churches to hire youth ministers who do not support Christian ethics.
The Government claimed its plans would “clarify” the law, but churches said they narrowed important safeguards.
Lady O’Cathain had proposed the amendment to keep unchanged the current law, which allows churches and other faith-based employers to require that staff live consistently with their teachings on sexual behavior. Her amendment passed 216 to 178 in an initial vote.
According to the Christian Institute, the Government made an “extraordinary move” and broke with House of Lords convention to try to damage Lady O'Cathain's victory. In two further votes her amendment won by 195 votes to 174 and by 177 votes to 172.
It is not known whether the government will try to overturn its defeat.
“We are delighted that the House of Lords has voted to protect freedom of association for churches,” commented Mike Judge of the Christian Institute. “It is a shame that the Government didn’t listen to churches earlier. It’s almost as if they don’t care.”
The Anglican Archbishop of York John Sentamu supported the amendment during the debate in the House of Lords.
“You may feel that many churches and other religious organizations are wrong on matters of sexual ethics.
“But, if religious freedom means anything it must mean that those are matters for the churches and other religious organizations to determine for themselves in accordance with their own convictions.”
He asked for examples of actual abuses and of court rulings showing that the law is defective.
The Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff Peter Smith voiced regret that the Government had refused to meet earlier with religious groups and “work out an amendment with the right wording.”
He said the amendment was a “prudent course” to address concern that a court might construe the law’s wording “too narrowly,” the Christian Institute reported.