Readers may be interested in the news that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has just published research on religion or belief in the workplace and public services. The research, which was carried out for the Commission by London Metropolitan University, found that there were tensions between some religious and secular views on equality and human rights law in these settings (so no surprise there, then) and suggests that most people want ground rules to mediate public debate and want to avoid unnecessary litigation.
The report, Religion or belief, equality and human rights in England and Wales, suggest that though the evidence relating to the religion or belief “landscape” is contradictory, there has definitely been a decline in affiliation to historic churches, a rise in those stating that they have no religion and an increase in faiths associated with post-war and postcolonial immigration, especially Islam. The report also notes the growth of independent and black majority churches and the greater significance attached to their religion by minority religious communities compared to those who declare themselves to be Christians .
The research found scant evidence about whether or not there is discrimination against “belief” as such; however, there is greater a prevalence of discrimination (by any measure) against Muslims than against other groups defined by their religion (sections 3.3, 3.4 and 3.5). There did not appear to be evidence to substantiate such claims “at a structural level” of discrimination against Christians.
Specifically, the report suggests that further empirical research is needed to examine the impact of what the researchers describe as “minority legal orders” on those that use them or who are affected by them. It also suggests that there is a need to strengthen the protections presently offered by the Arbitration Act 1996 to users of religious tribunals to ensure that they are not deprived of their right to equality at law.
In these days of conflict being experienced between the demands for Equality, and the Human Rights of Faith communities to declare a special interest – which may be seen to be at odds with common human rights; there is a need for some rational discussion on the level of comparative equivalence perceived to require resolution.
This matter assumes great importance when considering, for instance, the possibility of legalising Same-Sex Marriage – where certain faith communities, which may not approve of this, are afraid that if S.S. Marriage is legalised, they may be forced into compliance with the law. The British Government, in moving towards this measure, has promised that the legislation allowing Same-Sex Marriage will not require religious authorities to officiate at S.S. Weddings, nor will they be required by law to provide their premises for such a purpose.
This is only one instance where governments will need to ensure that the rights of faith communities to practise their own particular discrimination is not over-ridden by the human rights of a Same-Sex couple to be married. Only thus can faith communities continue to exercise their right to operate under their own religious guide-lines.
Having said that, it is possible that the rights of a faith community to practise a ritual action that infringes the common human rights available to everyone in a particular jurisdiction – such as, for instance, the perceived religious rite to practise female circumcision – might well become an area of conflict with common human rights. This needs to be subjected to an examination of competing rights – between religious and commonly-held human needs.
In any multi-cultural country, such competing claims between religious and common human rights have to be subjected to the highest level of scrutiny – if the local community is to measure up to the requirements of the Equality & Human Rights Commission.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand