Friday, July 11, 2008

Beyond Belief

I am very troubled by the recent Employment Tribunal on a Registrar refusing to carry out Civil Partnerships (in a case financed by the Christian Institute).

It seems to cut across the view expressed by Parliament in the Goods and Services regulations on sexual orientation regulations (where Parliament did debate 'conscience' exemptions being pushed by LCF and Christian Institute but did not go down that route). As such it is potentially an egregious example of a lower court superseding parliamentary sovereignty.

It seems to imply that an employer is unable to identify a policy of equal treatment and ensure that its staff (acting as its agents) are expected to adhere to it.

It states that rights accorded to sexual orientation cannot trump those accorded to religious belief yet it does the opposite with free abandon. If you have a religious belief you're exempt from having to adhere to an employers policy of treating all its service users equally.

It requires publicly funded employers to implement an equality policy whilst mandating them to employ people that don't and immunises such staff from any come back (even criticism as this would amount to harassment).

It makes great play of the fact of the complainant being an "orthodox Christian" in her views. This is appalling. The Employment Tribunal is here making a judgment about religious matters, while the Church of England (the established Church within England) supported Civil Partnerships and incorporates them in its own legislation about clergy who are Civil Partners (has the ET ruled that the Church of England is not an "orthodox" church?).

It seems to state that Civil Partnerships are de facto marriage - I welcome this one progressive (though doubtless unintentional) aspect of the ruling.

It makes no mention of the distinction made in human rights instruments between freedom of religion and the freedom to manifest a religious belief, the latter being susceptible to being curtailed to protect the rights and freedom of others (hence the manifestation of a religious belief by means of discriminating against others ought not to be given legal immunity). Religious freedom (something that ought to be precious and revered by all) is turned into a licence for hatred, bigotry, discrimination and a society riven by discord and division.

Under the rule of law there can never be a licence to discriminate and where given will be exploited by a variety of religions to undermine employers' intentions in carrying out their business - a pharmacy selling contraception has to employ staff refusing to provide that service, a local authority required by the law to provide civil partnerships without discrimination has to employ staff unwilling to further such aims - no matter what chaos is caused to the service or to employment relations.

It's a bad day for the law. I can only hope a higher court reviews the ruling and provides a more coherent statement of the law without granting a generalised licence for bigotry to self proclaimed religionists.

Pink News - 'Employment Tribunal has "legitimised homophobia"

National Secular Society Press Release - Registrar judgment potentially catastrophic for equality

Comment is Free (Terry Sanderson) Paying to be discriminated against

British Humanist Association appalled by judgment in Registrar's Employment Tribunal

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Seriously from the TUC LGBT Conference

I haven't blogged for a bit, mainly too tired after TUC LGBT Conf and the aftermath of NDC (also a bit of a news lull?).

Anyway TUC LGBT Conference held as usual just ahead of Pride in London.

A number of topics were debated, particular motions this year included the current inadequacy of legal protections with regard to gender identity, blood donation (again), education, community cohesion , international LGBT equality and asylum seekers.

The motion selected for Congress was a composite motion deploring the appointment of Joel Edwards to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

With regard to the latter there were many, many angry and impassioned speeches which I must admit left me rather unmoved and I'm not sure what message is being sent about our collective sense of insecurity about the appointment of an evangelical who has made statements of support for anti-discrimination law (though he is most likely to be somewhat ahead of his erstwhile employer on this - the Evangelical Alliance, whilst far from the worst in terms of position on LGBT issues, does not have a shining record to be proud of - there is however more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, so you never know......).

If there were any evidence that Joel Edwards was intending to attack LGBT rights that would indeed unfit him to the position of a Commissioner for equality and human rights - I await any evidence of such evidence with baited breath.

The other area arousing very great passion is the perennial one about the so-called "blood ban" and the rather funny (if not actually meant seriously) statement "it's my blood and I'll give to whoever I want to".

This is of course precisely the point. The recipients of blood products might not want to sacrifice themselves on the altar of people who suffer grievous psychological damage because they can't give blood.

On this issue I favour UNISON's more principled and thought through position which is to review donor selection criteria in light of actual evidence about risk. The demand to subject heterosexuals to the same restrictions around blood donation is entirely understandable for people who haven't given more than 5 minutes thought as to how "the blood ban can be lifted...." but is actually rather silly when you think about it as it would introduce restrictions on donating where not based on the evidence about risk and would significantly reduce the number of blood donors (even taking account of the small number of new donors gained from gay and bi men).

So I still favour the evidence based, sensible and thought through approach advocated (rightly in my view) by UNISON rather than sloganising rhetoric which may produce a few persuasive soundbites but would reduce the number of donations and increase the risk of HIV infection through donated blood.

As a result of the UNISON amendment being accepted the TUC has now accepted UNISON's approach.

The Conference was to recieve an address by Barbara Follett but she was unable to attend. We did however have an interesting presentation by Vicky Challacombe of the FCO LGBT Toolkit and also kicked off the Conference with a really fantastic presentation on work within schools on LGBT issues.