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Last Updated: Friday, 27 June, 2003, 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK
Gay rights law threatens holy row
By Jon Silverman
Home affairs analyst

Gay rights have been extended to the workplace under a new law... so long as your work is not with the Church. But you don't have to wear a dog-collar to be caught out by this exemption.

Bishop-elect Jeffrey John
The Church is divided over Canon Jeffrey John's promotion
Given the many problems besetting him, Tony Blair probably gives thanks that he does not have responsibility for defusing the bitter row over the sexual orientation of the Bishop-elect of Reading, Canon Jeffrey John.

But in demonstrating the influence of evangelical groups within the Church of England, the issue has a direct bearing on a piece of legislation which could be about to blow up in the government's face. And since it is also connected to the growing reach of the European Union, its potential to cause damage can probably be doubled.

In common with other member states, Britain is committed to implementing what's known as the EC Framework Directive outlawing discrimination in the workplace on grounds of sexual orientation. It will come into force in December 2003.

The Department for Trade and Industry has paved the way by drawing up a set of regulations giving effect to the directive. When the first draft was published last October, it provoked not a murmur of discord.

This was fairly pernicious - you can see how many problems it is going to cause if challenged
Daphne Romney, lawyer
But in the spring of 2003, when it was put before Parliament - in the form of legislation - all hell was let loose. Why? Because at the 11th hour a clause was inserted to allow organised religion to sack gay and lesbian staff in certain circumstances.

The gay-rights campaigning group, Stonewall, was angry and astonished at the amendment. Its parliamentary director, Sasha Deshmukh, blames pressure on the government from evangelicals within the Church of England.

Employment lawyers were also taken aback. Daphne Romney, of the highly-regarded Cloisters chambers, says: "On some views, this was fairly pernicious and you can see how many problems it is going to cause if challenged."

The regulations were examined by a powerful joint committee of the Commons and Lords which cast doubt on their legality and advised the government to consult further. But to no avail.

Reassurances in question

The regulations passed into law this week after being approved overwhelmingly by MPs. Earlier, in the Lords, the DTI minister, Lord Sainsbury, did his best to douse fears that a teacher working in a faith school or a nurse employed in a church-run care home might be at risk of dismissal.

Teachers may not be protected by the new law
There are many who think those words will come back to haunt him. Lord Lester QC, the eminent human rights lawyer, predicts that "the regulations will encourage unlawful discrimination and will inevitably be tested in the courts".

Celia Thomas, who runs the Lords whips office for the Liberal Democrats, points up the irony of a government which repealed Section 28 - banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools - passing a measure which "panders to anti-gay evangelicals in the Church of England". The Labour peer, Lord Alli, compared the thinking behind the controversial exemption to that of the Taleban.

The regulations state that the determining factor will be the "strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of followers of an organised religion". Government lawyers believe that is sufficiently watertight.

But there are many who find the framing so ambiguous and contentious that one can predict that it is almost bound to end up being adjudicated in the courts. And given the government's fractious relationship with the judges, that may give the prime minister another headache he could well do without.

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