Equality commission defends ‘compromise’ plan for gay and religious rights clashes

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission says the rights of gays and lesbians will not be diminished by an intervention into legal cases where Christians workers refused to serve gay people.

Instead, the body said that its heavily criticised plans would lead to “better respect for religious rights within the workplace … without diminishing the rights of others”.

The commission was attacked this week for suggesting that “reasonable accommodations” should be made to allow religious people to “manifest their religion or belief” – such as in the case of Christian registrars who refuse to conduct civil partnerships.

Yesterday, gay rights charity Stonewall harshly criticised the commission after it said it would push for “compromises” to be found in legal cases where Christians claim their rights have been trumped by gay equality legislation.

PinkNews.co.uk understands that this could involve local councils allowing Christian registrars to swap shifts to avoid having to officiate civil partnerships, rather than beginning disciplinary action which then leads to “costly, complex legal proceedings”.

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

Today, the EHRC explained its stance further and said that if permitted to advise the European Court of Human Rights on the legal cases due to come before it, the commission would not support either side.

A spokeswoman said that the commission would seek to “advise the court on the complex equality and human rights issues involved and aid it with our interpretation of the law”.

She said: “We do not and will not licence discrimination against anyone and on any grounds and we will continue to take action to eliminate it. Under no circumstances does the commission condone or permit the refusal of public services to lesbian or gay people.”

The spokeswoman added: “The accommodation of rights is not a zero sum equation whereby one right cancels out or trumps another. We believe that if the law and practice were considered more widely, then, in many situations, there would be scope for diverse rights to be respected. We want to change the view that there needs to be an either/or situation.

“The spotlight and focus is placed too frequently on conflict in place of dialogue that could help identify other acceptable workable solutions. We believe that, where possible, ways could be found within the law of promoting the resolution of disputes at an early stage, without protracted, costly, complex legal proceedings that irretrievably damage relations between the parties.”

Responding to the commission’s explanation, Mr Summerskill said: “Regrettably, we don’t think this will clarify the situation to the satisfaction of gay people across Britain.”

The EHRC said earlier this week that some judgements – including those on Lillian Ladele, who refused to carry out civil partnerships, and Gary McFarlane, a counsellor who refused to work with gay couples – had been too “narrow”.

Both Ms Ladele and Mr McFarlane failed to win their cases for religious discrimination, although they are pursing them through the European Court of Human Rights.

The commission says it wants to intervene in those cases, as well as those of Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, who were both banned from wearing crosses at work.

The four cases are likely to be heard together.