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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty
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Who will take responsibility for the rise in far-right terrorism?

Muslims are asked to condemn Islamist terrorism – should the mainstream right do the same when the attackers are white?

Following the attack on a Finsbury Park mosque, both Theresa May and Amber Rudd have issued statements and delivered speeches adopting hard lines against Islamophobia and right-wing extremism. May has gone so far as stating that Islamophobia itself is a form of extremism.

These pronouncements have drawn positive responses from prominent members of the Muslim community such as Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain. But it is important to question whether or not this change in rhetoric signifies a genuine change in government policy.

On the face of it, there are reasons for tentative optimism. The seriousness with which politicians took the Finsbury Park attack is a significant change. On this, the government is ahead of the media. While other terrorism attacks have been condemned as unjustifiable violence, some newspapers framed the Finsbury Park attack as a "revenge".

In fact, radicalisation is not a one-off event, but takes place in a web of institutional, social and ideological conditions. Furthermore this ignores a much longer story about the drip, drip, drip of Islamophobic or anti-Muslim discourse which permeates British society. 

The government has played a part in legitimising this anti-Muslim sentiment. Let’s not forget that Prevent has, since its inception, disproportionately targeted Muslims. The impression of an "us and them" mentality is only underlined by its secrecy. Moreover, the Prevent agenda has conflated a variety of other social policy concerns relating to gender equality, sexual violence, and unemployment as "extremism" issues. For example, Amber Rudd herself suggested that Islamophobia would decline if grooming stopped, which can not only be seen as victim-blaming, but further contributes to stereotyping Muslims as the enemy within.

So are promises to get serious about Islamophobia more empty words from the Prime Minister?

Think about timing. Far-right extremism has been deadly. Mohammad Saleem was brutally murdered in 2013 in Birmingham by a far right extremist. Mushin Ahmed was killed in 2015 (and was notably called a "groomer" by his attacker as his head was stamped on).

Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist this time last year. This is not even mentioning individuals such as Ryan McGee, who made a nail bomb and was intent on murdering immigrants.

Just twelve days ago, the Prime Minister claimed that Britain was too tolerant of extremism, and she was right. Just not in the way she meant it.

Britain has indeed been too tolerant of extremism of the far right kind. This is a rising problem, not just in the UK, but also in Europe.

According to the defence and security think-tank RUSI, far right extremists make up 33 per cent of the threat, with Islamic extremism slightly more at 38 per cent. Furthermore, one in four referrals to Channel, the UK deradicalisation programme, are from the far right.

We cannot forget the government itself peddles the tropes of far right hate. Think of David Cameron referring to migrants as "swarms", May’s hostile environment policy, complete with "go home vans" driving around in multicultural areas, and the uncritical embrace of Donald Trump’s presidency by the Prime Minister. 

The Muslim community has been told many times to fight terrorism from within, but will there be a similar response to far right extremism? The ongoing rhetorical attacks on multiculturalism, and the longstanding association of Islamist radicalisation with a lack of integration, rather than religiously inspired political violence, make it difficult to see how real change will happen.

This would require deep soul-searching, followed by serious changes in public debates about policies relating to both immigration and extremism. Until that happens, May’s words on Islamophobia will be nothing more than political PR.

But this PR also has a more sinister element. Although no specific new counter-terrorism legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech, there was a promise that the government would review existing counter-terrorism laws, with a spokesman stressing that new legislation would be brought forward if needed.

May continues to lobby for increased executive powers to fight terrorism, which she has done since her time as home secretary. The policy on right-wing extremism is likely to follow that of Islamic extremism: it will focus only on ideology and it will ignore the wider context of structural racism and white privilege.

Ask yourselves, will white men ever be stopped and searched to the same extent as brown men? Will white women be seen as easy targets for violent attacks as Muslim women disproportionately are? Will far right extremists fear for their citizenship status?

And does the solution to extremism, in any form, truly lie in further oppressive legislation and more government power? We also need to be aware that powers extended to address extremism are likely to continue to have a disproportionate effect on minorities.

As long as there is no change in government policy, the status quo will continue to reinforce the same divisive narrative which is the bread and butter of every extremist group. After the Queen’s Speech, we continue to see no evidence of any serious attempt to reform policy and seriously address far right extremism. May’s empty words after the Finsbury Park attack represent nothing more than an opportunistic political move from a weakened Prime Minister who is desperate for approval – and for power.

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.

Dr Naaz Rashid is a Research Fellow at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and is author of Veiled Threats: Representing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy Discourse (Policy Press 2016) about the UK government's engagement with Muslim women as part of its Prevent agenda. She can be followed on Twitter @naazrashid.

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