The Equality Act 2010
For many years successive Governments have introduced anti-discrimination laws both to create and to respond to changes in society, to promote civil rights and equality. From the first Race Relations Acts back in the 1960s, through to legislation on race and gender equality in the 1970s and disability rights in the 1990s, to more recent new laws on religion or belief, sexual orientation and age, Great Britain has a strong framework of equality legislation. Progress has been made in making Britain a fairer nation, but inequality and discrimination persist today.
The Equality Act 2010 replaces previous anti-discrimination laws with a single Act. It simplifies the law, removing inconsistencies and makes it easier for people to understand and comply with it. It provides a framework for simpler, smarter and more streamlined processes. It also strengthens the law in important ways to help us tackle the discrimination and inequalities which still exist in our society.
The Equality Act 2010 states that discrimination occurs when a person treats another less favourably than they treat or would treat others because of a protected characteristic.
The protected characteristics are:
- Gender reassignment
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
The legislation covers:
- Employment and work
- Goods and services
The act prohibits:
- Direct discrimination
- Discrimination by association
- Discrimination by perception
- Indirect discrimination
Implications of the Equality Act for Churches
Typical concerns and test cases
Equality legislation is sometimes a cause of apprehension to Christians. Stories in the media can exacerbate the feeling that civic law is pitted against the belief and practice of Christians.
The law applying to two well-publicised cases in recent years is essentially unchanged under the Equality Act 2010 but provides additional clarity, which should help Christians as service providers and in their working life
- A Christian couple running a guesthouse cancelled a booking made by two Gay men.
This remains illegal under the new Act: denying people services on the grounds of their sexual orientation, or any other protected characteristic constitutes unlawful direct discrimination.
Business and community service providers are not permitted to discriminate on protected characteristics. However, religious, community and charitable groups are allowed to do this in certain situations (see below).
- A Christian air stewardess with British Airways was banned from wearing her crucifix on the grounds that jewellery was forbidden, despite the fact that some of her Sikh colleagues were allowed to wear clothing and jewellery with religious significance.
The Court of Appeal decided that to require the removal of the cross did not amount to discrimination. They accepted the argument from British Airways that being a Christian did not actually require the visible wearing such items, and that employees were free to do so under their clothing.
An employer may argue that religious attire, disability, or sexual orientation, makes an employee less fit for work, but in the first instance it is up to the employer to provide a work environment that includes employees, and it will need to demonstrate why adjustments have not been made.
How should the Methodist Church relate to Equality Legislation?
The initiative behind creating the single Equality Act was not only to harmonise the law but to take a legal step towards creating a fair and just society. The act seeks to recognise that people are different and need different approaches in order to allow them to flourish in the contemporary world. This underpinning value is at the heart of the gospel imperative of justice, inclusion and to love our neighbours and with this understanding the Act is to be welcomed.
It is important, therefore, to challenge the perception that the law is 'biased against Christians'. It is undeniable that secular law has taken a different view of justice and moralities to some Christians, however in the vast majority of cases this legislation is not only compatible but can actively safeguard social justice and inclusion, helping to bring about God's Kingdom, which is a Kingdom of Diversity, united in the love of Christ.