A couple of days after the Anti-Discrimination Directive had been passed by the European Parliament - with the accompanying media interest in churches being forced to marry gays and give communion to atheists - another Equality Bill was presented to the House of Commons. Next to the Utopian or even apocalyptic language used in Strasbourg, this at first looks like a much more measured and nuanced legal document.
Will it mark the end of the Church's ability to administer its own sacraments? No. Can it be ignored as of no direct importance for the Church? Absolutely not! We may feel certain that Labour will not be in government in twelve months' time. Nevertheless, when this Bill becomes law (and there is no suggestion that it will not) it will have established a number of most unwelcome 'truths', and increased the discrimination against religious faith and practice just that bit more. The Equality Bill (2009) comes in two A4 volumes amounting to some 530 pages [£44, The Stationery Office]. Unusually, the explanatory notes are not in a
separate and smaller document, but are so extensive they have to run alongside the draft legislation itself.
Let us be quite clear that this Bill is essentially 'a Good Thing'. In seeking to extend opportunity to the disadvantaged, to increase access to services for those who maybe discriminated against, and to impose a statutory duty on organizations to diminish and remove victimization, its whole purpose is admirable.
This is the first problem. Precisely because its goal is a self-evident good, it is difficult to criticize its detail, or to question its possible effects. There is a language of equality and 'anti-discrimination that makes it an area of debate most people would rather avoid, and if past legislation in this area of equality is anything to go by, it will be avoided by both parliamentarians and the media.
The second problem is the sheer complexity of the equality legislative process. It is only three years since the last Equality Act became law. In legal and political terms, that is a very short time in which to digest and incorporate all the changes established.
The idea that anyone could have crossed all the fs and dotted the is this time is hard to imagine: simply read the sixteen pages assigned to the regulation of taxis [Pt 12, ch. 1], and you begin to feel this legislative process will never end.
The third problem, which arises from the first two, is that most discussion, in and outside Parliament (with the sole exception of the committee stage) is all expressed in general terms - as happened with the dramatic headlines that greeted the EU Directive. General truths are bandied about and the detail of the legislation is, by default, pushed to one side.
There are problems hidden within this Bill that will undoubtedly make life very difficult for Christians in general and for the Church of England in particular, if not immediately then in years to come. Set against the militant secularist agenda we have been experiencing in this last decade, both in and out of Parliament, this should be a concern. I shall return to the detail in following months - but I need some more time to read it all first. 'It does your head in,' as they say.
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