Stonewall ‘deeply disturbed’ at equality commission U-turn on religious rights

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Gay rights charity Stonewall has condemned a move by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to intervene in two legal cases where Christians workers refused to serve gay people.

Chief executive Ben Summerskill told that the body must state clearly that it does not agree that religious beliefs should allow people to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

The EHRC said today that some judgements – such as the case of a Christian registrar who refused to carry out civil partnerships – had been too “narrow” and that it will seek to speak up for religious plaintiffs in upcoming European court hearings.

The body, which in the past has supported legal cases brought by gay people, said compromises should be sought in such cases and “reasonable accommodations” made to allow religious people to “manifest their religion or belief”.

Although the commission also plans to intervene in cases where Christian workers were banned from wearing crosses, EHRC officials have not yet explained how “compromises” could be found in the cases of workers who refuse to deal with gay people.

In a statement posted on its website, the body suggested that businesses could change staff rotas to allow Jews to have Saturdays off. It is unclear whether officials believe registrars, for example, should be allowed to refuse to perform civil partnerships.

Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill said this afternoon that he was “deeply disturbed” by the EHRC’s move and suggested that officials had made the announcement without consulting board members.

He said: “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.

“Gay taxpayers currently contribute £40 billion a year to the cost of Britain’s public services and no lesbian and gay person should ever be deprived of access to them.

He added: “The EHRC’s announcement, which has apparently been made by officers without consulting its board, confuses a settled legal situation that is currently clear. If employees are allowed to discriminate against gay people in the delivery of publicly-funded services, using the cloak of religion as justification, then we risk seeing a situation where Muslims may start refusing to treat alcoholics in hospital or social workers might decline to assist single mothers.

“Recent research has demonstrated that the majority of religious people in Britain are proud of our progress toward gay equality. They understand that religious beliefs do not mean individuals have a right to treat lesbian, gay and bisexual people unfairly. We regret that the EHRC does not appear to support this sentiment. We hope it will now offer an unambiguous clarification of its position.”