Is the pope right to speak out about the Equality Bill?

first_imgYou have to hand it to the Equality Bill – its detractors come from every walk of life. At one end of the spectrum there’s the white working class British guy who thinks the bill is all about giving his job to women or black people. It’s typical of this benighted government, he rages, and nothing, but nothing will persuade him to vote ‘Nu-Labour’ again! And at the other end of the spectrum there’s a German guy, living in some splendour in Italy, who also dislikes our home-grown British bill and who also isn’t about to engage in reasoned debate – because, God knows, he’s never wrong. He’s Pope Benedict XVI and, like his predecessors since the sixth century, he is infallible on points of doctrine concerning faith and morals – according to the Catholic church. So what’s his beef about the 600-page Equality Bill? It limits the freedom of religious communities to ‘act in accordance with their beliefs’, he says, and ‘violates natural law’. He urges Britain’s Catholic bishops to fight the legislation with ‘missionary zeal’. By ‘natural law’ he appears to mean the right to discriminate against people on the grounds of some or all of the nine ‘protected characteristics’ contained in the bill. These are: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion and belief (including lack of belief); sex; and sexual orientation. Actually, the pope shouldn’t worry too much: discrimination legislation has never fully applied to religious groups anyway. Nobody has hauled the Catholic church to a tribunal to defend why women or married men can’t join the priesthood, for example. The new bill will similarly steer clear of preachers. It doesn’t propose making it illegal for a mosque to turn away, on the grounds of religion, a practising Buddhist who fancied a job as an imam, for instance; that would be plain silly. But churches, mosques, synagogues and temples also employ secular people, for gardening, secretarial, maintenance and other jobs. And those employees will have the full protection of the law once the bill is enacted. Any religious group that turns down a gay person for a secular job simply because he or she is gay will be treated the same as any other erring employer. The same applies to the other protected characteristics: race, sex, disability and the rest. That’s going to be the law of this country – as set down by our elected representatives in parliament. What right does the pope have to urge the Catholic bishops of Britain to fight it with ‘missionary zeal’? Should he get involved in politics at all? Yes, because he’s the spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics and, as such, they look to him for leadership and advice. People of faith would argue that their faith and their lives, which of course are shaped by politics, are indivisible. And our Human Rights Act, which also has detractors from all walks of life, allows him the same right to freedom of expression as everyone else in our diverse society. But that’s another legal can of worms altogether.last_img