Equality laws in the headlines

February 20, 2010 at 19:29 Leave a comment

When law turns up in the news, it’s often because a controversial matter of politics is due to be judged by its independent rule.

Employment law, specifically that of Labour’s equality legislation, furnishes some recent examples of this process. They have in common their connection to the tolerance of individual difference in the workplace.

As OUT-LAW reports, Nadia Eweida was on Tuesday denied appeal to religious sentiment in her attempt to contravene the dress policy of her employer, British Airways.

The Court of Appeal has ruled that: ‘There was no evidence in this case that might support any suggestion that the provision created a barrier for Christians’. It was ‘an entirely personal objection’, the Court found.

The ruling comes after voices of religious advocacy in the public square – such as the Christian Fellowship – had leveraged the case beyond its legal significance. Lord Justice Sedley was quite categorical about how he thought the law should be interpreted. But the last Archbishop, Lord Carey, ‘condemned’ the decision.

That reaction was not confined to religious observers. Liberty, who provided Mrs Eweida with legal assistance, expressed ‘disappointment’ in the Court of Appeal. Lawyers Edward Wanambwa and Anna Birtwistle argued that the Court’s decision might encourage perceptions of a legal bias against Christianity, and that its use of scripture to classify Mrs Eweida’s choice of jewellery as ‘personal’ issued from a practical desire to keep the kinds  of religion protected by law ‘objective’ in nature.

Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman’s new Equality Bill, though it has yet to become law, has provoked further discussion in this vein, and further complaints from Christian leaders. Ironically this time the Catholic Church is protesting the discriminatory potential of a bill whose purpose is to forestall discrimination.

Telegraph columnist Christopher Howse is blunt: the Church has ‘no plans for welcoming homosexuals, be they in the most loving of partnerships, into its hierarchy.’ Harman’s bill would not render that position illegal. But against what the Pope describes as ‘natural law’, Labour would, in defining the roles for which religious employers can lawfully refuse homosexual applicants, assert a secular one.

It is not difficult to imagine a headline case disputing this provision that would draw a brighter spotlight even than Mrs Eweida’s. And since David Cameron, upsetting onlookers to his right, has made accommodating noises when asked about homosexuality, the future in Britain of this policy remains in doubt.

For now, though, the government’s amendments – which it portrayed as in keeping with the status quo – have failed to pass the House of Lords. Terry Sanderson, who is President of the National Secular Society, for his part believes that ‘the tactics used so successfully by the religious right in the US have now been introduced into this country’, raising in defiance the spectre of the European court.

Evidence that the government’s pursuit of the implications of a 21st-century consensus on values into law has had effects beyond the workplace came on Tuesday with the news of a Northamptonshire Sikh who has said he intends to join the British National Party. ‘I will be absolutely delighted to shake his hand and give him his membership card’, party leader Nick Griffin said. The BNP, under threat of litigation from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, had altered its constitution on Valentine’s Day to permit membership to Britons of any race. This was in accordance with the verdict of a county court in London, but notably the Commission’s threat did not have to go in front of a judge for the party membership to vote for change. Whether the BNP would accept non-white citizens as employees remains to be seen; should anybody sharing the inclinations of Mr Singh and Mr Griffin apply, owing to Labour’s bills a discriminatory rejection would be against the law.

The FT’s Wolfgang Münchau, meditating the distinct question of how the EU’s legal structure absorbs fiscal crisis in a member state, informs us that ‘Of course, justices are never objective interpreters of the law, and are always influenced by current political fads.’ We might ask in response (with the news related here in mind), If the law itself is influenced by politics, would issuing judgements in isolation from that world not be to do it an interpretive disservice?

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Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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