Top Trumps? Balancing Rights around Sexual Orientation and Religion

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Some of the most common questions that are expressed when we are delivering training about the Equality Act 2010 are worries about how to balance rights around religion and sexual orientation. A typical question is: “when rights collide, which one trumps the other?”. We ask delegates what their thoughts are on the matter and the answer is inevitably: “Sexual orientation trumps religion or belief because religious B&B owners weren’t allowed to refuse service to a gay couple”

However, although the Daily Mail stated that this case “effectively sealed the supremacy of gay rights over Christian belief”, it is not an indication that rights around sexual orientation trump those of religion or belief. If a gay couple is running a Bed and Breakfast, they are equally not allowed to refuse service to a religious couple. The reality is that neither right is supreme, neither group advantaged over the other, both protected characteristics are equal. It is also important to bear in mind that many lesbian and gay people are also religious, and not to view people of faith and lesbian, gay and bisexual people as distinct and separate groups. Equality law does not legislate against people’s beliefs, it is concerned with actions. People are entitled to hold beliefs as long as they don’t use those beliefs to harass people or discriminate against them and the law is designed to try to protect everyone from these harmful behaviours.

This issue hit the headlines again in the last week. A bakery in Northern Ireland was found to have acted unlawfully after they refused to make a cake for a gay man that included a slogan that said “support gay marriage” along with a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. Much of the reaction to this ruling was confused. On ITV’s loose women, Coleen Nolan said “What if somebody walked in and said: ‘Right, I want a cake and I want the whole Islamic State on it – and how I support it, and how I support them killing our people.’ Because it is a business do they have to make it?” Mo Ansar tweeted “Presumably, the EDL can now approach a Muslim bakery and force them to make an anti-Muslim Muhammad cartoon cake?” The answer to both of these questions and the myriad of other similar sentiments, is no.

The ruling in this instance is not that a bakery should be forced to bake cakes that contain any slogan or idea, however much they disagree with it. The ruling was that the bakery discriminated in their provision of services because of a customer’s sexual orientation and political beliefs . The judge stated that the comparator would be if a heterosexual person had wanted a cake in support of heterosexual marriage and that she was sure that if this had been the situation the cake would have been baked. Contrary to Mo Ansar’s suggestion, equality legislation that ruled against the bakery in this instance would support a Muslim bakery from provocation by the EDL as the law protects people from harassment because of religion or belief.

Religious intolerance and homophobia are still very real problems in UK society. If we are to make further progress in promoting both the rights of people of faith and of gay, lesbian and bisexual people, it is important to dispose of the idea that there are irreconcilable differences, and no overlap between the two groups. These fears can prevent organisations from tackling homophobic bullying, make people fearful about allowing any expressions of faith, and create assumptions about who can and cannot work together, leading to discrimination in recruitment and promotion. Although it is commonly believed that strong religious beliefs and equality for gay people are at odds with each other, a study of over 2000 people commissioned by Stonewall in 2012 found that the vast majority of people of faith do not want to discriminate against lesbian and gay people and that people of faith were, in fact, no more likely to be prejudiced than anyone else. This weekend, Ireland, a country where 84.2% of the population identify as Catholic, made history by being the first country in the world to hold a referendum and vote in favour of legalising gay marriage, with 62% of voters supporting the change.

In research of gay, lesbian and bisexual workers, undertaken by London Metropolitan University, 81.6% of respondents said that working for employers who had ensured that their workplace was ‘gay friendly’ had a positive impact on their job satisfaction. They stated greater happiness and confidence; feeling supported; improved work productivity, and a feeling of loyalty and pride in the organisation. Working in a negative environment was seen to lead to frustration; exclusion; problems with concentration and ultimately a desire to leave.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently completed a consultation on religion or belief in the workplace. They found that inclusive workplaces which were supportive of different religions and beliefs reported few problems. However in other organisations:

“People reported being mocked for their beliefs including Christians, who said their colleagues assumed they were bigoted. Jewish and Muslim participants said they found it hard to get time off work, even as part of their normal annual leave, for religious observance. Others alleged that they were excluded from meetings, or passed over for promotion or recruitment due to their beliefs, and felt unable to raise the issue for fear of repercussions.”

A key finding from this research was that there was widespread confusion over the law around these issues. By having a robust understanding of equality law and developing organisational policies and procedures which provide clear guidance to staff, organisations can create environments which remove fear and confusion around sexual orientation and religion or belief. In this way, organisations can support everyone to recognise that affording others the right to be treated with respect does not take anything away from anyone else. We are all enriched by diverse organisations and communities which allow us to develop our own identities and live freely without fear of discrimination and harassment.

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