In July, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) stated that “reasonable accommodation” of religious beliefs was “needed”.
It made the announcement after applying to intervene in four cases involving religious discrimination in the workplace that have come before the European Court of Human Rights.
They involve Nadia Eweida, a British Airways check-in worker who was denied the right to wear her cross necklace; nurse Shirley Chaplin, who was removed from ward duties, also for refusing to remove her cross necklace; relationships counsellor Gary McFarlane, who was sacked for saying he would not be able to give sex therapy to same-sex couples; and registrar Lillian Ladele, who was disciplined after requesting not to conduct civil partnership registrations.
EHRC said in July that it would argue for reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs in the workplace if its application to intervene was successful.
The organisation has now been given leave to intervene in the cases but announced this week that it will no longer be arguing for reasonable accommodation.
It also indicated that it would be willing to intervene in cases involving public displays of faith in the workplace, such as wearing items of religious jewellery, but not in cases involving employees who ask to have their views on same-sex relations accommodated, stating in the document that the rulings against Ladele and McFarlane were “correct”.
The Commission has launched a consultation this week asking members of the public to submit their views on whether rulings on the four cases in British courts and tribunals were correct.
The consultation, which closes in just over two weeks, is also seeking opinions on the reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs.
Bizarrely, EHRC also stated in the consultation document that it was seeking views on this despite having “already decided that our submission will not make reference to reasonable accommodation”.
Organisations like the Evangelical Alliance and CARE were delighted when EHRC announced in July that it would support Christians, claiming that up until then, it had failed to do enough to help Christians when cases of discrimination had arisen.
In the face of the latest U-turn, however, both organisations have expressed their deep disappointment and concern.
The Evangelical Alliance accused EHRC of using the original July statement as a means to “justify its existence” in the face of criticism that it had done very little for religious people.
It said that this week’s announcement offered some insight into the “oppressive stranglehold” of what the Prime Minister this week identified as the “poisonous human rights culture” in Britain today.
The Alliance blamed a “barrage” of public criticism from secularists and gay activists for the change of heart.
Head of public affairs at the Alliance, Don Horrocks, said it was clear that the Commission had been “successfully intimidated” and changed its initial approach because of outcry from groups wishing to restrict religious freedom and the fair recognition of religious rights of conscience by the courts.
He accused EHRC of “deflecting responsibility” by launching a consultation in the middle of the summer holidays with a “ridiculously short” deadline.
Mr Horrocks went on to attack the Commission’s decision to support Eweida and Chaplin but not McFarlane and Ladele.
“For many Christians wearing a cross is important, but these situations ought to be relatively easily accommodated by reasonable people on both sides in work related situations,” he said.
“However, being forced to be morally complicit in activities which directly violate people’s religious conscience involves seriously fundamental human rights principles.
“For the Commission to take the easy support route but to back down from engaging with the really serious issue is a matter of great concern.
“For many Christians and religious groups in general the EHRC carries zero credibility.
“Having now offered the possibility of a fairer and more proportionate approach to religious human rights and then to have rowed back under pressure means that there is likely to be a deep sense of injustice within religious communities.”
A similar criticism was made by CARE chief executive, Nola Leach, who said that Ladele and McFarlane had been victims of “blatant religious discrimination” for being made to choose between their faith or their job.
“We are deeply concerned that the EHRC seems to have given in to lobbying from other equality interests,” she said.
“We are not arguing that religious rights should trump other rights as some others apparently believe their rights should trump those of religion.
“We simply say that space should be made for all and that no protected characteristic should be able to assert its rights in a way that attacks and undermines the space for other protected characteristics.
“There must be no hierarchy of rights.”