Christians who want to be exempt from equality legislation are like Muslims trying to impose sharia on Britain, Trevor Phillips, the human rights watchdog, has declared.
Religious rules should end “at the door of the temple” and give way to the “public law” laid down by Parliament, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said. He argued that Roman Catholic adoption agencies and other faith groups providing public services must choose between their religion and obeying the law when their beliefs conflict with the will of the state.
Mr Phillips singled out the adoption agencies that fought a long legal battle to avoid being forced to accept homosexual couples under equality laws. Last year, following a High Court case, the Charity Commission ruled against an exemption for Catholic Care, an adoption agency operating in Leeds.
Speaking at a debate in London on diverse societies, Mr Phillips backed the new laws, which led to the closure of all Catholic adoption agencies in England. “You can’t say because we decide we’re different then we need a different set of laws,” he said, in comments reported by The Tablet, the Catholic newspaper.
“To me there’s nothing different in principle with a Catholic adoption agency, or indeed Methodist adoption agency, saying the rules in our community are different and therefore the law shouldn’t apply to us. Why not then say sharia can be applied to different parts of the country? It doesn’t work.”
He added that religious groups should be free to follow their own rules within their own settings but not outside. “Once you start to provide public services that have to be run under public rules, for example child protection, then it has to go with public law,” he said.
“Institutions have to make a decision whether they want to do that or they don’t want to do that…”
Mr Phillips has been outspoken in his defence of human rights law even when they conflict with religious beliefs.
He has accused some Christian groups of being more militant than Muslims. During the debate, he praised both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches for their work in inner cities, particularly through faith schools, but accused some religious groups of growing intolerance.
“There is something rather odd that is happening amongst what I call the righteous brigade, that is people of good will and so on,” Mr Phillips said. “And that is that if you don’t agree 100 per cent with them and excoriate people who have a different point of view actually somehow you are joining a bad bunch of people.”
Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said Mr Phillips was “absolutely right…If society has decided that it wants to ensure by law that every citizen of this country has equal rights, then there cannot be endless exemptions for religious bodies or anyone else,” he said.
“There is no such thing as partial equality, and every time an exemption is made, someone else’s rights are compromised.”
Sound familiar? Except that Trevor Phillips has more backbone than Barack Obama when it comes to confronting civil rights, the validity of civil law over religious belief in a constitutional democracy. Confronting sharia-style precepts, Muslim or Catholic or whichever fundamentalist source requires the courage to maintain constitutional protections via civil law. Maybe he’ll be invited sometime to drop in and give lessons at the White House.
But, don’t hold your breath waiting.