Opponents of gay marriage won't face discrimination, says Equality Commission

The advice, given to MPs today, also refutes suggestions that unwilling clergy might be forced by human rights law to marry same-sex couples.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has dismissed claims that legalising same-sex marriage will lead to discrimination against people who continue to believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.  The advice, given to MPs today, also refutes suggestions that unwilling clergy might be forced by human rights law to marry same-sex couples. Any such attempt, it concludes, would be "extremely likely to fail."

Parliament is beginning its detailed consideration of the bill today.

Ever since the government announced its intention to change the law, opponents have argued that  people who take a more traditional view of marriage will face discrimination in the workplace, even potentially losing their jobs for expressing their beliefs.  

A letter organised last month on behalf of Catholic priests and bishops (more than a thousand signed it) compared the prospect to the situation their church faced after the Reformation, when Catholics were legally barred from holding many official positions. The move, the priests predicted, "will have many legal consequences, severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship. It is meaningless to argue that Catholics and others may still teach their beliefs about marriage in schools and other arenas if they are also expected to uphold the opposite view at the same time."

Similar fears have been expressed by other campaigners.  The Conservative MP Edward Leigh introduced a Ten Minute Rule bill at the end of January calling for explicit protection to be given to opponents of same-sex weddings in churches - by making the exclusively heterosexual view of marriage a "protected characteristic" under the 2010 Equality Act.  Without such protection, he warned, "Army and NHS chaplains who preach in favour of traditional marriage in their own churches on Sunday could find themselves in trouble," while "tens of thousands" of teachers could face disciplinary action.

Today's advice from the EHRC, written by a leading QC, suggests that these fears are misplaced. When it comes to religious ceremonies, it notes that "freedom to manifest religion or belief" is enshrined in the Human Rights Act, as well as in Article 9 of the European Convention.  The principle is not absolute, since a government can interfere with it in the wider public good, but in this case the government has said very clearly that it wishes to uphold the right of religious objection.  Churches and other religious bodies will be able to opt-in to performing same-sex marriages, but that will be entirely their choice.

The EHRC also sees "no reason why employees of all kinds will not remain free to express their views about same-sex marriage."  They, too, would enjoy the full protection of Article 9.  Furthermore, the Equality Act itself protects employees from direct and indirect discrimination, and also unfair dismissal, because of their religion or belief.  Employees should not be sanctioned for disagreeing with the new law, since it "would be unlawful for an employer to discipline or sack an employee for this. This is the case for all employees, whether in the public or private sector, including teachers and chaplains."  Nor would be anyone be required to promote same-sex marriage as part of their job.

The guidance concludes that there "is sufficient protection for individuals who hold the religious or philosophical belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman."  The only exception the EHRC can see is that registrars might be required to officiate at same-sex weddings as part of their public duty: but as the recent case of Lillian Ladele showed, this is already true of civil partnership ceremonies.

Campaigners against the Bill will probably dismiss this advice as speculative.  Seemingly contradictory advice from the human rights lawyer Aidan O'Neill was publicised last month in the Telegraph. Nevertheless, such a clear statement from the EHRC is likely to carry weight, since it has a statutory duty to scrutinise legislation and to issue formal advice to employers. The advice on same-sex marriage comes on the day that the Commission also circulates new guidance on the wider question of the expression of religion and belief in the workplace, which it hopes will avoid conflict and costly court cases.  

It's also worth noting that Aidan Smith, who was demoted by Trafford Housing Trust after expressing an opinion about same-sex marriage on Facebook, won his case at the High Court last year

If there was a danger of over-zealous employers interpreting the new law as requiring staff to suppress their opposition to same-sex marriage, today's strong advice from the EHRC makes such a scenario much less likely.

An anti-gay marriage protest in France, on January 13. Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.