July 14, 2011
Equality body’s U-turn on LGBT rights
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has announced a shift in its approach to discrimination claims on the grounds of religion and belief. The move looks set to come at the expense of LGBT people.
In a recent press release, the EHRC laid out its intention to “argue that the way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief”.
The press release makes no explicit mention of LGBT rights. However, it does announce the Commission’s intention to intervene in four cases at the European Court of Human Rights. These cases include appeals by Lillian Ladele, a registrar who refused to perform civil partnerships, and Gary McFarlane, a counsellor who refused to work with gay couples.
The EHRC appears to propose that “reasonable accommodations”, such as rota changes, are made to avoid discrimination on the grounds of freedom of religion or belief. These accommodations could mean that a public servant such as Ladele may choose to change her timetable in order to avoid working with LGBT people.
The move, which comes just days after representatives of the Evangelical Alliance met with senior executives at the EHRC, has been met with criticism from a number of human rights groups.
“The commission should be crystal clear that if it seeks to defend the claimed right of any public servant to turn away any user of a public service, it will face strong opposition,” said Ben Summerskill of LGB rights charity Stonewall.
“The EHRC’s announcement, which has apparently been made by officers without consulting its board, confuses a settled legal situation that is currently clear.”
A spokesperson for the EHRC attempted to clarify the situation on Wednesday. She suggested that the body will attempt to “advise the court on the complex equality and human rights issues involved,” rather than support one side or another.
“The accommodation of rights is not a zero sum equation whereby one right cancels out or trumps another,” she said. “We believe that if the law and practice were considered more widely, then, in many situations, there would be scope for diverse rights to be respected. We want to change the view that there needs to be an either/or situation.”
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