The Board of Deputies is studying the implications of the new Equality Bill amid concerns that it could become harder for religious organisations to restrict jobs to members of their own faith.
Jon Benjamin, the Board’s chief executive, said he was consulting heads of other Jewish organisations about the proposed legislation, which received a second Commons reading last month.
“We are studying what appears to be a new restriction on employing people on the basis of their faith,” he said. “As currently drafted, one can specify the faith of a minister of religion, but it seems, under the new legislation, that organisations would not be able to specify the religion of youth workers or others in non-ministerial roles.”
Under the Bill, religious communities would still be allowed to restrict employment to members of their own faith in the case of those who assist with “liturgical or ritualistic practices” or who promote or explain “the doctrine of the religion”.
The explanatory notes to the Bill state that Catholics, for example, can still limit the priesthood to male candidates without falling foul of discrimination laws.
However, they would not be allowed to advertise for a youth worker or an accountant and try to insist that all applicants were heterosexual.
Such constraints have caused concern among Catholic bishops. In a response to the Bill, they have noted: “There is a fundamental difference between a person who provides a technical service such as accountancy and a person who provides a pastoral function such as a youth worker, or who has a representative function.
“A religious organisation must be able to exclude from such roles applicants whose lives are manifestly in conflict with the ethos of the organisation they represent.”
Another source of concern might be the response of local authorities to the new law, Mr Benjamin said. While they would remain free to give grants to particular faith groups, he said, councils “may feel that — even if not actually instructed as such —they have to adopt a cautious approach which might prevent them from supporting such activities. This might impact on funding for Jewish care homes, special needs or domestic abuse programmes.”
The Bill, which consolidates existing laws against religious, racial, gender and other forms of discrimination, does contain potential benefits for members of religious groups. Universities, for example, would be expected not to timetable exams that clash with major religious holidays.