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Archbishop speaks out in the House of Lords on the Equality Bill

Tuesday 15th December 2009

The Archbishop of York made the following speech in the House of Lords on 15 December 2009.

My Lords, let me be clear: it is a fundamental principle of the Christian religion that all human beings are of equal and infinite worth in the sight of God. This Bill seeks to address the many occasions when that fundamental principle is violated. That is an objective which I share and which the Church of England, by law established, supports wholeheartedly.

Sadly, this Bill before us is like decorating a Christmas tree. Everyone has his or her own idea about how to do it. Some favour strict colour co-ordination and others glorious variety. I myself am a Primate of glorious variety.

One cannot legislate to promote equality without constraining freedom to some extent, and because human freedom is both immensely precious and immensely vulnerable, we must proceed with great care. I am concerned that this Bill is built on an impoverished understanding of society. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds recently said in this House, we would have a much richer sense of who we are, and a better chance of tackling inequality, if we understood ourselves less as a society of strangers or atomised individuals and more as a community of communities. Individuals' rights to equal treatment only get us so far.

I am a great supporter of this country's record in fighting discrimination. Britain was well ahead of the rest of Europe in opposing discrimination on the grounds of colour, culture, religion, sexuality and ethnicity, and that is to its credit. It recognises that black people like me and other minority ethnic people have to be visible before they can fully participate, and that difference in ethnicity must be celebrated and not suppressed. You do not get equality by concealing difference, but, sadly, when this Bill turns to the question of religion and belief, it appears to take a different line. You will never overcome unequal treatment on grounds of religion or belief by silencing the expression of religion in the public square. That would be the imposition of one set of beliefs-the many "-isms"-on all others. I fear that this danger lies below the surface of the Bill and undermines its key objectives, which I wholeheartedly support.

I shall be more specific. In paragraph 2(8) of Schedule 9, the definition of employment "for the purposes of an organised religion" fails to reflect the way in which members of the church and many other religious groups understand their faith to be the bedrock of their lives. It will mean that churches and other religious communities can require an employee to observe particular standards of behaviour or not engage in certain types of conduct that are contrary to Christian teaching or their particular religious beliefs only when their work,

"wholly or mainly involves ... leading or assisting in the observance of liturgical or ritualistic practices of the religion, or ... promoting or explaining the doctrine of the religion".

There are several problems with this. The movers of the Bill may be of the view that archbishops and other clergy work only on Sundays, but if one looks at my diary, you will find that most of my days and evenings are not filled with preaching or taking services. The same would go for most clergy and ministers and, I am sure, for leaders within other religious communities as well. The exemption is flawed even on its own terms.

At the height of the floods in Cumbria, I visited Cockermouth, Workington and Keswick. A major part of the relief effort in those places was being carried out by Churches Together, with Christ Church, Cockermouth, as the hub of the activity. The church had been converted into a relief centre and the rector, Reverend Wendy Sanders, and members of the churches did outstanding work which made a huge difference to the whole relief programme. They were, of course, providing help and care to all people, regardless of faith or no faith. How would the Bill classify this activity? Would it come under "liturgical or ritualistic practices" or "explaining the doctrine of the religion"?

However, my main objection to the Bill is this: we are told that the Bill is intended simply to harmonise existing antidiscrimination laws, yet we find that the provision made in 2003, for religious bodies to employ people who share their faith, is being significantly narrowed by the wording which I have just quoted. It does not reflect the reality of how churches work and it goes way beyond harmonising existing law. There is a danger here of legislation by stealth. We need to hold the line where it was set in 2003.

The Bill is in danger of combating religious discrimination by treating all religions as the same. Neutrality between beliefs is one thing, but imagining that one size fits all is the quickest way to an unfair and monochrome society. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, illustrated this when he dealt with Clause 148, saying that you cannot just do it that way. You may end up finding that one size fits no one.

Not enough attention has been given to the different ways in which prejudice, unfairness and discrimination operate. We need some subtlety in order to distinguish the different ways in which prejudice and unfairness happen. In a community of communities, members of different groups will honestly disagree about what is good, what is right and what is true. By looking at equality through the prism of competing individual rights, the Bill runs the risk of silencing the fair expression of different positions, not just silencing words but preventing people living integrated lives where words and deeds go together. In many cases, the Bill appears to require Christians to separate what they believe from how they express those beliefs, as if integrity of life and faith were of no consequence. That cannot be right in my book.

As I said earlier, the Bill has become like a Christmas tree that has had too many baubles added to it and is now in danger of falling over. Schedule 9 is a bauble too many. We need to find a better way to balance these different sorts of equality so as not to put at risk the precious freedoms which underpin our way of life in this country.

I am reminded of the story of a plane that got into trouble flying across the Atlantic. The captain asked the permission of the passengers to open the hold and dump all their luggage into the ocean. "Yes, yes, yes", they all cried out and it was done. Thirty minutes later the captain said, "We are still losing altitude. We must get rid of your hand luggage". They cried out, "Of course", and it was done. An hour later, the captain said, "We still need to lose more weight. Fifty people will be safely dropped in the water with their lifejackets. The airline operates an inclusive equal opportunities policy and we shall now put it into operation. We shall use the alphabet to guide us. A-are there any Africans on board?". Silence. "B-are there any blacks on board?". Silence. "C-are there any Caribbeans on board?". Silence. A little black boy turned to his father and said, "Dad, who are we?". The father replied, "We are Zulus!".

This Bill aspires to great things. I would love to say "Yes, go for it" but, as it stands, I cannot. At the minimum we need to look again at how the exemptions for religious bodies are framed. It is a grave error to set up competing rights and then, by stealth, trump some of them. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, I beg that Schedule 9 paragraph 2(8) should be amended in the direction of the 2003 Act. If not, it should be deleted from the Bill. The rest of the Bill has much to offer and its main objective ought not to be sacrificed at the altar of "one size fits all" in matters of occupational requirements.

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