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EHRC hits back in row over Christians

Stonewall 'deeply disturbed' by attempt to intervene in cases

18 July 2011

John Wadham, group director of legal at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has hit back at claims that the commission has performed a volte face by attempting to intervene on the side of Christians in discrimination cases at Strasbourg.

Gay rights group Stonewall has said it is “deeply disturbed” by the move, which could involve the commission backing Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane, who argue that their religious belief prevents them from providing services to gay people.

Gary McFarlane, a counsellor at Relate, refused to advise gay couples on sexual matters, in breach of the organisation’s equal opportunities policy.

His claim of discrimination was rejected by the Court of Appeal last April (see, 29 April 2010). The same court rejected a discrimination claim brought by Lillian Ladele, a registrar at Islington Council, the previous year.

She said her religious beliefs prevented her from performing civil partnership ceremonies.

Wadham told Solicitors Journal that the EHRC had not changed its policy or position.

“Our job is to promote and protect human rights,” Wadham said. “It is complete rubbish to say that we’re not supporting gay rights cases.”

Wadham said the EHRC would shortly be representing civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy at the Court of Appeal.

Hall and Preddy were not allowed to share a double bed at the Chymorvah Hotel in Marazion, Cornwall, because the Christian couple who ran it said this would violate their religious beliefs (see, 24 January 2011).

Wadham said all that had happened so far is that the commission had written to the ECtHR asking for permission to intervene.

“As an intervenor, we will not be allowed to take sides,” he said. “We will be making representations on what the law should do.”

Wadham said the EHRC had not worked out the details of its submissions. In a statement issued last week, the commission said that UK judges had interpreted the law on discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief too narrowly, and set the bar too high for claimants.

Wadham added that one way of solving this might be to establish the concept of introducing reasonable adjustments to accommodate a person’s needs, which had served disability discrimination law well for decades.

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, said gay taxpayers contributed £40bn a year to the cost of Britain’s public services and no lesbian and gay person should ever be deprived of access to them.

He said the EHRC’s announcement confused a settled legal situation that was currently clear.

“If employees are allowed to discriminate against gay people in the delivery of publicly funded services, using the cloak of religion as justification, then we risk seeing a situation where Muslims may start refusing to treat alcoholics in hospital or social workers might decline to assist single mothers,” Summerskill said.

“Recent research has demonstrated that the majority of religious people in Britain are proud of our progress toward gay equality. They understand that religious beliefs do not mean individuals have a right to treat lesbian, gay and bisexual people unfairly. We regret that the EHRC does not appear to support this sentiment.”

The commission has applied to the ECtHR to intervene in the cases of McFarlane and Ladele, and Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, who both encountered difficulties at work because of their desire to wear a small crucifix.

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Discrimination Pensions