Two bits of recent news brought to my attention some interesting issues over UK employment law and, in particular, how we rationalise discrimination.
First, Nick Griffin's recent appearance on BBC TV was said to have raised the popularity of the BNP as an electoral force, but whether or not this is so is hard to test, as they are not currently accepting applications for party membership. Sadly this is not because they are spontaneously disbanding, but because they are being investigated by the Equalities Commission for possible breaches of UK employment law, specifically the 1976 Race Relations Act. According to the Commission's website: "The Commission has demanded that the party address potential breaches related to its constitution and membership criteria, employment practices and provision of services to the public and constituents."
At the same time a different organisation is also seeking to expand its membership in a similarly restrictive fashion, but apparently under the loving protection of the law. As Griffin was appearing on Question Time, the Roman Catholic church was offering the promise of ecumenical shelter to high Anglicans who could no longer accept the Church of England's reformed employment practice that allows women to served as ordained ministers (story here).
This strikes me as, at the very least, inconsistent, so I wrote to the Equalities Commission to ask about any upcoming prosecution of the Roman Catholic church. They replied by saying that the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, under which any prosecution would be made, specifically exempts a church as an employer - so any such prosecution would fail. And they're right - section 19 (1) states:
"Nothing in this Part applies to employment for purposes of an organised religion where the employment is limited to one sex so as to comply with the doctrines of the religion or avoid offending the religious susceptibilities of a significant number of its followers."
This strikes me as totally bizarre, and is certainly one in the eye for those who claim Christianity doesn't enjoy protection of the law or a privileged position. Imagine substituting the words "political party" for the word "religion" in the highlighted Section 19 (1), above. Indeed, the prosecution of the BNP is precisely because its doctrines and sensibilities are at odds with employment law, but under another belief system exemption from the application of the law is secured. Why is Griffin's belief in discrimination any less valid than the Catholic church's?
I don't intend this to sound like a defence for the BNP - in fact, completely the opposite. The BNP is held to account, because the law defends the rights of employees not to be discriminated against by someone's belief system. It offers universal protection against the personal prejudices of others. But by exempting the Catholic Church, we are effectively saying that a religious point-of-view has greater need of protection than a political point of view. Or, more simply, a religious opinion is more valid than one based upon political beliefs, no matter how firmly held. A religious conviction, no matter how flimsy, bigoted or ridiculous, demands a higher level of protection than other views, and in the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act we have the proof.
None of this is the Equalities Commission's fault. Theirs is simply to enforce the law, not to make it, but I think they might at least make a public statement about it, instead of hiding behind their plush desks. I suspect their failure to do so has, at its heart, a misguided idea that faith is somehow more worthy of respect. Or as Mencken put it: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart".
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