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Further accommodation for religious conscience 'unacceptable'

Protect equality laws from 'religious onslaught'

19 September 2011

The Equality and Human Rights Commission should not intervene in the European Court of Human Rights in support of claimants in religious discrimination cases, a leading equality not-for-profit organisation has said.

In submissions to the Strasbourg court last week, the National Secular Society slammed the EHRC’s decision to back arguments by four applicants in cases before the ECtHR that UK law had set the bar too high for claimants in religious discrimination cases.

Accepting further accommodation on religious grounds would be “humiliating and unacceptable”, said NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood as he explained the intervention aimed to “protect equality laws from religious onslaught”.

The cases concerned include those started by Nadia Eweida, the British Airways employee who wanted to wear a cross over her uniform, Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who refused to carry out civil partnerships, and Gary McFarlane, the Relate counsellor who objected to advising gay couples.

The Court of Appeal rejected Mr McFarlane’s claim in April last year and the year before the one brought by Ms Ladele.

Porteous Wood said further accommodation of religious conscience in equality law would create “a damaging hierarchy of rights, with religion at the top”.

He went on: “We believe that any change to the law to increase religious accommodation – as most if not all other interveners are calling for – stands the risk of undermining UK equality jurisprudence, which is probably the best in Europe.”

Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC will lead the NSS’s intervention, with Dr Ronan McCrea of University College London and Max Schaefer of Brick Court Chambers.

The NSS’s submissions follow the reaction earlier this summer by gay rights group Stonewall to the news that the EHRC would intervene in the cases.

Stonewall’s chief executive, Ben Summerskill, said at the time he was “deeply disturbed” by the EHRC’s application to intervene, which he said risked creating confusion in a legal situation that was currently clear.

EHRC legal director John Wadham defended the decision to intervene, saying it was his organisation’s job to promote and protect human rights, and that as interveners they would not be allowed to take sides but merely make representations as to what the law should do.

Wadham added the EHRC would shortly be representing civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy at the Court of Appeal, the two men who were refused a double bed at the Chymorvah Hotel in Marazion, Cornwall, because the Christian couple who ran it said this would violate their religious beliefs.

Only last month the Alliance Defence Fund, a US Christian organisation which opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples, said it had obtained permission to intervene in the Strasbourg court.

The NSS said it was the only interverner arguing that the English courts had correctly applied equality laws in the Eweida, Chaplin, Ladele and McFarlane cases.

“There should be no blanket permission for religious people to be able to disregard strict uniform policies or health and safety regulations in the workplace,” Porteous Wood concluded.

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Discrimination Local government