Mike Foster, the Equalities Minister, moved to reassure the Board of Deputies this week after the Pope attacked Britain’s anti-discrimination laws for threatening religious freedom.
Jon Benjamin, the Board’s chief executive, said that the minister had called him to reiterate the government’s belief that the Equality Bill, currently under debate in the Lords, would do no more than consolidate existing legislation.
Pope Benedict XVI urged visiting Catholic bishops from the UK to oppose equality laws that had already imposed “unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities”.
But Mr Benjamin, following his conversation with Mr Foster, commented: “If the Bill, when enacted, has the effect of merely consolidating past legislation, then we would be satisfied. But a contentious Bill passing through Parliament is a fluid thing. We have to be vigilant to guard against deliberate attempts to change the law or amendments that may have unintended consequences.”
Churches in particular have been worried over how far religious organisations will be exempt from anti-discrimination laws making it illegal to reject gay or transsexual job applicants.
While the Catholic Church will remain free, for example, to refuse women priests or Orthodox synagogues to reject gay rabbis, there was concern over whether such exemptions would apply to a youth worker or other pastoral positions.
The government wanted to limit exemptions to those whose role is to “promote or explain” the teachings of a religion.
But this restriction was thrown out in the Lords last week, leaving religious groups freer to employ whom they want.
Mr Benjamin said that with the Lords’ move, “we hope that this puts beyond doubt the issue of religious groups having to compromise their beliefs in employment decisions”. The Board’s main concern, he explained, had been to ensure that Jewish organisations remained able to stipulate that recruits for certain jobs recruits are Jewish.
But one Jewish lawyer who has studied the proposed legislation believes that the bill may contain implications for faith schools.
Under the Equality Bill, public bodies will be required to advance equality of opportunity, eliminate discrimination and foster good relations between different groups.
According to the lawyer, if faith schools were to be considered as public bodies, they could, for example, eventually be forced to take a share of pupils from outside their faith or teach positively about homosexuality.
Mr Benjamin said the Board would “naturally be concerned if faith communities’ rights were restricted” and that guidelines be drawn up by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on how the bill’s provisions should apply needed to be drafted carefully.