By Simon Rocker
February 2, 2010
Now the Pope has turned his pontifical guns on the government’s Equality Bill, saying it is interfering with religious rights.
Even before his intervention, the bill was having a tough time in the Lords, where last week peers inflicted a defeat on the government.
One of the bill’s aims is to consolidate laws which, for example, make it illegal for a religious organisation to refuse to employ a gay person – although there are exceptions.
Those exceptions were to include a member of a clergy and – the government wanted to state – anyone in a role whose purpose was to promote or represent the religion. (But churches argued these were still too narrow and wouldn’t cover youth workers, for example).
However, the Lords threw out the second provision, thus leaving religious groups freer to reject job applicants they consider religiously unsuitable.
So what will the impact of the bill be?
An Orthodox synagogue will still be permitted to reject a woman as a rabbi.
But let’s take the case of a rabbi who was a man but who became a woman; again the Orthodox synagogue would be free to reject a transsexual applicant, but a Progressive synagogue, which is committed to egalitarianism, would probably not.
But it may not be so clearcut in the case of a hospital chaplain. If the Lords’ changes stay, then probably a chaplain would be equivalent to a member of the clergy and thus exempt from the anti-discrimination regulations: but if the government’s original wording had prevailed, then it might have been more difficult for a religious group to reject a transsexual chaplain.
Meanwhile, with all the arguments over the bill as it is, it now looks a wise decision by the Board of Deputies not to pursue an amendment in order to reverse the recent Supreme Court judgment on JFS.
Any amendment would probably have run into a good deal of opposition along the way, even with a communal consensus.