Government loses Equality Bill faith proposals

A boy turns a page of a bible during a mass, January 17, 2010. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

LONDON (Reuters) - The House of Lords has blocked elements of the government’s Equality Bill which church groups said could have exposed them to legal challenges if they refused to hire homosexuals or transsexuals.

The government, under pressure to conform to a European Commission directive, denied it was changing the churches’ special exemption status, saying it wanted to clarify the existing law.

Churches and faith groups said the proposed amendments lacked sufficient legal clarity, and made them vulnerable to lawsuits.

The Church of England called for a return to the status quo which allows it to reject candidates for senior lay or unordained posts such as senior youth workers or pastoral assistants if they cannot demonstrate an ability to “live a life consistent with the ethos of the religion, as well as sharing the faith.”

The proposed changes, which would not have affected ministers or priests, were defeated in three successive votes in the upper house late on Monday.

The bill looks set to be debated further, but without the proposed religious amendments.

“We are pleased that the Lords appreciated the potential problems for churches,” a spokesman for the CoE told Reuters.

The National Secular Society had warned before the debate that it would complain to the EC if the government “gave in to religious pressure.”

The government Equalities Office said in a statement: “We’re disappointed by the outcome of (the) vote in the Lords, and are considering next steps.”

Editing by Steve Addison