Anthony Saville expresses further concerns about the Equality Bill 2009 and its confused understanding of exceptions

The basic purpose of the Equality Bill, as of its predecessor of 2006, is to make ‘equality’ a single legal notion. The Bill identifies nine ‘protected characteristics’, that are already covered by discrimination legislation, but which it wishes to unify under a single set of laws. They are: ‘age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation.’ The government wishes to protect all people indiscriminately, and this is better achieved (so it argues) with one piece of legislation, rather than with nine. However, even an ideologically-driven government has to acknowledge that this idealistic intention is not without enormous problems.

These nine potential targets of discrimination are not all the same. Most of this Bill, therefore, is taken up coping with the exceptions. And it is here that religious conviction and adherence to tradition is most vulnerable to concerted

attack Bishops and others have already drawn attention to the (supposedly unintentional) redefinition of ‘religion, especially in the context of charitable work.

The first problem is that religious conviction, when it wishes to ‘discriminate’ in relation to its own practice and institutions (such as giving communion only to the baptized, offering marriage services only to heterosexual couples) can only be protected by means of an exception. This is not an immediate cause for concern, since most of the required exceptions are in place, and other exceptions of the same type [see Schedule 3] also cover such things as providing extra facilities for the disabled.

But do you see what is happening here? The rights of one group, where they may clash with the rights of another group, are prevented from being made illegal by the addition of an exception – which can, of course [Clause 194], be altered or modified by the Secretary of State by an Order in Council.

Some exceptions are unlikely to be modified; the note to Schedule 3.24 makes it clear that the provision of ‘separate male and female changing rooms in a department store’ would not be illegal, even though it is a prima facie case of a ‘single-sex service’ and so contrary to the purpose of the Act.

Somehow, I cannot see the refusal to ordain an openly gay bishop as of a piece with the installation of male and female changing rooms. Both are exceptions currently permitted under the Bill, but it is more than mere semantics to sense that there is a real difference of substance between the two.

Since both examples are covered under very general exceptions, with accompanying official notes that use such words as ‘reasonable’ and ‘reasonably’, there is clearly room for further development of understanding. Note, for example, how the explanation for the religious exception is introduced [Schedule 3.26] as ‘for the purpose of avoiding conflict with the strongly held religious views of a significant number of the religion’s followers’. One can guess how this might be interpreted in a few years’ time.

Once again, I repeat, there is nothing to worry about now: the trouble is being stored for the future. \~