The Pope is wrong: Britain’s equalities legislation strengthens “natural law”

Yesterday the religious right made its latest attack on UK equalities legislation. But Pope Benedict is wrong, the Equalities Bill strengthens "natural law."

Yesterday the religious right made its latest attack on UK equalities legislation. Pope Benedict XVI declared the UK’s laws contrary to the Catholic vision of “natural law.” Many people have surmised that he was talking about either the Equalities Bill going through Parliament at the moment or the Sexual Orientation Regulations introduced last year which made it illegal for adoption agencies – including those managed by Catholic churches – to deny adoption to gay couples.

Just last week, Tory Peers were joined by Church of England bishops in the House of Lords in an attempt to defeat the government’s clarification of existing employment protections for the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) community. This is a familiar pattern that has been seen every time the question of LGB equality comes before Parliament: the religious right begin a scaremongering campaign claiming an end to their freedom in the name of equality. Each time they claim that new legislation violates some form of natural law, which they align solely to the interests of the religious.

Natural law is not the property of the right and has an irreplaceable contribution to make to the left’s view of a more humane and equal society. In its preamble the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) makes an explicit appeal to natural law:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The Equalities Bill and the Sexual Orientation Regulations do not force religious organisations, or anyone else, to change their beliefs. The Equalities Bill is simply tightening up the loose definitions used in the 2003 Sexual Orientation Regulations.

Even before its defeat in the House of Lords, the Equalities Bill allowed religious organisations to continue to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in those roles where it was relevant. Religious freedom does not mean the freedom to do anything, as the Archbishop of York suggested in the House of Lords last week. Instead it is the freedom to exercise their belief in a reasonable way. The Equalities Bill seeks to balance that. It permits discrimination:

“relating to sexual orientation only if it is imposed (by the religious organisation)—

(a) because it is necessary to comply with the doctrine of the organisation, or

(b) to avoid conflict with strongly held convictions of a significant number of the religions followers or the strongly held convictions of a significant number of the beliefs followers.”

This definition covers all ministers of religion and closely follows what the original regulations said for lay personnel. Yet the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are paranoid that this is somehow a limiting of the current regulations. What they want is the right to stipulate that candidates for a certain number of “senior lay posts to demonstrate an ability to live a life consistent with the ethos of the religion”. it is hard to see how the government’s wording of this legislation does not fulfil their wishes.

Pope Benedict is wrong – far from being in contravention of natural law, the UK’s equalities legislation sits firmly within the natural law tradition. It should be defended on that basis.

Our guest writer is Daryn McCombe, National Treasurer of LGBTLabour. Daryn studied theology at King’s College London.

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