Tuesday, December 15 the British House of Lords is scheduled to debate the Equality Bill.  The stated purpose of the bill is “to harmonise discrimination law, and to strengthen the law to support progress on equality.”  In other words, the bill would consolidate and streamline the current hodge-podge of discrimination law as well as bring UK law in line with agreed-to EU rules.  The UK has been dragging its feet, apparently, and is now under pressure by the EC to get this done soon, and get this done right so that it doesn’t become a matter for the European court of justice.

The European Commission has on 20 November 2009 sent a reasoned opinion to the United Kingdom for incorrectly implementing EU rules prohibiting discrimination based on religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation in employment and occupation.  In the reasoned opinion sent to the United Kingdom, the Commission pointed out that:
  • there is no clear ban on ‘instruction to discriminate’ in national law and no clear appeals procedure in the case of disabled people;
  • exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for religious employers are broader than that permitted by the directive.

  • Disclaimer: I’m wading into unfamiliar waters with this story (UK and EU law and government-church questions).  As always, I rely on our readers to correct any mistakes I may make.  Thank you.According to the Guardian,

    The claim, set out in two reasoned opinions sent to the government last month, includes a warning that the law that applies to faith-based organisations, schools and adoption agencies allows too much scope for discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. …

    Last month, the long-awaited equality bill was included in the Queen’s speech for a second year and was presumed to be compliant with EU requirements. News of the warning from the commission means the UK is the only European country to have failed to implement two key EU directives on discrimination.

    “This directive was agreed unanimously by all EU countries in 2002 but, to be effective, it needs to be fully and correctly transposed into national law,” said Vladimir Spidla, EU commissioner for equal opportunities. “We call on the UK government to make the necessary changes to its gender equality legislation as soon as possible so as to fully comply with the EU rules.”

    The government has two months to respond. A spokesman for the government’s Equalities Office said: “We take our European legal obligations seriously. We will be studying the reasoned opinions carefully and will reply to the commission in the new year. The equality bill will be continuing its progress through parliament during the fifth session.”

    The criticism is likely to embarrass the government. The bill, which replaces nine existing laws and more than 100 other measures, was intended to be consolidate all legislation on equality.

    Among the “characteristics” to be protected against discrimination by the legislation are “sexual orientation” and “gender reassignment”.  This is no less controversial among conservative religionists in the UK than it is in the USA.  Here, for example, is a gripe from The Christian Institute:

    The Bill…contains measures which threaten religious liberty on several fronts. …The Bill contains measures to narrow religious liberty protections in the area of employment by religious organisations.  According to the Government the measures may mean, for example, that a church must be willing to employ a practising homosexual as a youth worker.  The Bill also contains an ‘equality duty’ which means all public bodies, including schools and the police, will be under a legal obligation to push homosexual and transsexual rights.

    Different realm, same ole malarkey.  In contrast to the claims of the radical conservatives, the Cutting Edge Consortium, “a unique coalition of faith-based and non-religious social justice organisations, civic groups, trades unions and professional associations” is concerned that the government not further broaden religious exemptions.  As I understand it, both the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church support the broadening of exemptions to the discrimination laws.

    Btw, I just want to say how awesomely user-friendly Parliament‘s website is.  I was able to immediately find the text of the bill and summaries, sign up for e-mail notifications of bill progress, see a diagram of the bill’s status and locate a page from which to watch the House of Lords debate on Tuesday.  Anyone who has tried to navigate the various ill-coordinated US Congressional sites will swoon.