Love or loathe Harriet Harman, you have to feel a little sympathy as she finally concedes defeat over her amendments to the Equality Bill. In truth, she never stood a chance. When your average bill goes through the House of Lords, it’s rarely front page news, but this one was different. It had some pretty serious enemies. And if the collective muscle of the The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, an assortment of Anglican bishops and Anne Widdecombe wasn’t enough to punch its lights out, Almighty God turned up to smack it through the ropes.
OK we exaggerate. God didn’t actually do anything. But his representative on earth certainly did. Yes, Pope Benedict XVI took time out from his busy schedule, of saint-making and deflecting institutional child abuse scandals, to throw the full weight of the Vatican against the bill. He claimed that it ‘violated natural law’ and urged his bishops to fight it with ‘missionary zeal’.
Blimey, what was Harriet proposing? All priests to be life-long members of the Barbara Streisand fan club? Dale Winton for Archbishop of Canterbury? No. Although not exactly glamorous, her amendments were entirely practical. And, we would argue, utterly reasonable and fair.
They merely sought to clarify rather than change existing law and stated that exemptions to equality provisions applied only to those whose jobs ‘wholly or mainly’ involved leading services or rituals, or explaining the doctrines of religion.
It was a rational attempt to close a loophole that allowed churches to discriminate for non-religious jobs like youth-workers or accountants. A loophole that contravened European Law.
Forgive our bluntness, but who elected the Pope? Surely it’s been about 500 years since he had a say in our affairs. And although we’re relieved that the Vatican’s methods of persuasion are no longer models of ruthless efficiency, few would maintain that its arguments are informed by enlightened thinking. The same could be said for the Church of England, an organisation desperately struggling to hold itself together; so riven by bitter argument around women and gay priests that it takes a hardline to prove it’s still got doctrinal bottle.
But the issue here goes way beyond any particular religion or creed. It goes to the heart of our existence as a modern, secular state. Why should religion be exempt from laws that seek to erradicate discrimination? At what point do heartfelt beliefs become prejudices? And when should our respect for these beliefs be tempered by our desire for equality and human rights for all?
Without doubt these are sensitive issues but ones we feel were sympathetically handled within the amendments. There was certainly no intent to criminalise religious groups or to force them to recruit, for example, female priests, bishops, rabbis or imams. For their leaders to claim otherwise is digingenuous to say the least.
It’s a great pity that the major churches have missed the opportunity to make a statement for fairness. Instead they’ve used the religious freedom argument as a smokescreen for self-interest and blinkered philosophy.
We believe they’re on the wrong side of history.