EHRC confirms backtrack on opt-outs for anti-gay workers

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission has confirmed that it will not seek ‘reasonable adjustments’ to be made for religious workers who refuse to serve gay people.

The commission has asked for permission to advise in four Christian rights cases due to come before the European Court of Human Rights, two of which involve employees who said their faith prohibited them from serving gays and lesbians.

When the commission first announced its intention to intervene in the cases, it said that laws could be changed to give religious people the right to manifest their faith, in a similar way to the legal adjustments and accommodations given to disabled employees. For example, allowing religious workers to swap shifts to avoid days when civil partnerships are booked.

Gay rights campaigners strongly criticised the body’s proposals, with Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill calling them “deeply disturbing”. Peter Tatchell called them “shocking” and “utterly appalling”.

Although the EHRC initially said that British courts had interpreted equality laws “too narrowly”, it now says judges made the correct decisions in the cases of Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane.

Ms Ladele, a registrar in Islington, London, refused to conduct civil partnerships. Mr McFarlane, a sex counsellor from Bristol, said he could not counsel gay couples. Both took their employers to court for discrimination and are now appealing the judgements.

The other two cases involve employees barred from wearing crosses at work.

When the EHRC first announced the proposals for opt-outs, Christian rights campaigners claimed there would be massive support for them.

They have now accused the commission of backtracking under a “barrage of public criticism from secularists and gay activists”.

Don Horrocks, head of public affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, said: “It seems pretty clear that the commission has been successfully intimidated against proceeding as they initially announced.

“They appear to have changed their initial approach as a result of the outcry from those groups who wish to restrict freedom of religion and religious rights of conscience being recognised more fairly by the courts.”

Mr Horrocks added: “For many Christians wearing a cross is important, but these situations ought to be relatively easily accommodated by reasonable people on both sides in work related situations. However, being forced to be morally complicit in activities which directly violate people’s religious conscience involves seriously fundamental human rights principles.”

The EHRC is now running a two-week consultation on its proposals.