Bishops fear new Bill could force schools to take down crucifixes

Catholic schools and care homes could be forced to remove crucifixes and holy pictures from their walls in case they offend atheist cleaners, bishops have warned MPs.

They said that under the terms of Equality Minister Harriet Harman's new Equality Bill they could be guilty of harassment if they depicted images "offensive" to non-Catholics.

Under the terms of the Bill, which is being scrutinised by a parliamentary committee, harassment is defined as "unwanted conduct ... with the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment".

The bishops of England, Wales and Scotland have complained that because the burden of proof for such a highly subjective definition is reversed in legal proceedings, under the terms of the Bill, it would put them in an impossible position if people complained about any manifestation of religious belief - even on Church property.

Mgr Andrew Summersgill, the general secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said: "The practical consequences of this are that a Catholic care home, for example, may have crucifixes and holy pictures on the walls which reflect and support the beliefs of the residents.

"A cleaner may be an atheist or of very different religious beliefs. Nonetheless, if a cleaner found the crucifixes offensive there would be no defence in law against a charge of harassment," Mgr Summersgill said in a written joint submission to the committee.

The bishops argue that it is essential that a test of "reasonableness" is included if the Church is not to be unduly penalised by the law. "If this Bill is serious about equality, everything possible must be done to avoid it having a chilling effect on religious expression and practice," added Mgr Summersgill.

A spokesman for the bishops confirmed that a similar threat existed for Catholic schools, which could be forced to remove crucifixes or holy pictures if atheist dinner ladies found them offensive.

The bishops have also complained that the Bill, which applies to employment practices, appears to establish a hierarchy of rights in which some rights are subservient to others. They fear that the rights of homosexual people, for instance, will always trump the rights of religious freedom.

"Exempting Catholic staff from a gay pride recruitment event could be seen as failing to tackle prejudice against homosexuality - but obliging them to participate could be seen as failing to tackle prejudice against religious belief, to say nothing of harassment," said Mgr Summersgill. "It is regrettable that the Bill provides no indication how such overlapping rights are to be dealt with."

The written submission was made by the Catholic Church ahead of an oral hearing in Parliament on Tuesday.

Richard Kornicki, a former senior Home Office civil servant who now works as a parliamentary coordinator for the English and Welsh bishops, was due to express the concerns of the bishops.

Even though the Bill is supposed to ensure equality for religious groups Miss Harman conspicuously forgot to mention this when she announced the proposals to the House of Commons last month.

A fortnight ago she also refused point blank to allow a debate on the rising numbers of Christians complaining that they are discriminated against in the public sector.

Her refusal to acknowledge a problem comes in spite of a sudden proliferation in the number of legal battles between employers and Christians suspended or sacked for expressing their religious convictions or simply wearing religious jewellery such as crucifixes.

Publicly funded Church schools, adoption agencies and even hospital chaplains have all come under attack while the Government has given taxpayers' money to groups that promote atheism.

Last week MPs on the parliamentary committee scrutinising the Equality Bill received evidence from groups sympathetic to the legislation including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a Government quango, the gay rights group Stonewall and the British Humanist Association.

It also heard from Professor Stephen Whittle of Press for Change, a transsexual rights group. "We would argue strongly that we experience discrimination because other people think that we look different," Prof Whittle told the committee. "It is what those other people do, not what we do, that creates that discrimination. Therefore, the Bill needs to re-focus upon what it is those other people see and react to."

Lynne Featherstone, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee, said she was persuaded by his argument.

But Fr Tim Finigan, a priest in south-east London, said the demands of Professor Whittle meant that if a teacher or Church accountant, for instance, "decides to come in some days dressed as a man but is presently at the stage of having a part-time inclination to come in wearing a skirt and stilettos, they'll be protected by law against any 'harassment' on your part. Remember - it's what you do, not what they do that creates the discrimination," he said on his blog, the Hermeneutic of Continuity.

Fr Finigan added: "For the Government to promote this agenda in the extreme form it is taking in the Equality Bill at a time when the political system is suffering unparalleled contempt, and the far-Right groups have their best opportunity for years, is stupid beyond belief."

The Equality Bill is an overarching piece of legislation designed to sweep up the different strands of discrimination law created over the last few decades into one coherent package.

Equality and diversity guidelines used by employers have already been used against Christians who expressed their faith at work. Examples include Christian nurse Caroline Petrie, who was suspended after offering to pray for a patient.

The Government has made clear that certain provisions in the Bill are intended to make sure churches can no longer insist that employees such as youth workers live lives consistent with the churches' teaching on sexual ethics.

Neil Addison, a barrister and an expert on discrimination law, said there was no need for the Equality Bill to contain any clauses on harassment because British law already covered it.

He said it had arisen from a misinterpretation of the European legal requirement to prevent harassment in the workplace. But he said the provisions of the Bill lacked the objective test of reasonableness included in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

"It is tailor-made for people to come up with silly objections and be petty-minded because it puts the emphasis on the person being offended rather than on an objective test of what ought to be considered reasonable," he said.

Bishops fear new Bill could force schools to take down crucifixes - Catholic Herald Online