Unions lose 'faith-based' equality fight

Trade unions today lost their High Court battle for a ruling that new equality regulations are flawed because they fail to protect lesbian and gay workers from discrimination by "faith-based" employers.

A judge upheld the legality of the Government's 2003 Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations and refused to condemn them as "incompatible" with European law.

In an action co-ordinated by the TUC, the unions also unsuccessfully challenged provisions which they said unlawfully allowed employers to exclude same-sex couples from pension and benefits rights enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Richards said: "To treat the regulations as reducing the level of protection (from sex discrimination) seems to me to require a distorted view of their effect."

The unions involved included Amicus, Unison, the Public and Commercial Services Union, the RMT and teaching unions NUT, NASUWT and NATFHE.

Because of the general importance of the case, the judge gave the unions permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal.

Rabinder Singh QC, appearing for six of the unions, said at a recent hearing: "They welcome the enactment of this legislation in general terms, but object to certain particular provisions which have become the subject of these proceedings."

The regulations were introduced in the UK to give effect to a European Council Directive which, in November 2000, established "a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation".

The Directive provided a legal framework prohibiting discrimination in employment matters relating to sexual orientation.

But the unions complained that the UK regulations failed to give full effect to the Directive and were "incompatible" with both the UK's European Community law obligations and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Singh told Mr Justice Richards that the trade unions bringing the application for judicial review had a total membership in excess of two million and it was estimated that "a very significant number of members" were gay, lesbian or bisexual.

The unions covered a wide range of occupations in local and central government, the National Health Service, education, railway, underground, shipping and road transport, as well as skilled and professional workers in manufacturing, pharmaceutical, finance and insurance.

They were also to be found in the clergy and a wide range of faith organisations, said Mr Singh.

Christian groups, including the Evangelical Alliance, Christian Schools Trust and Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), all intervened to resist the union challenge, which was brought against the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

The evangelicals - who believe homosexuality is contrary to scripture - argued that Christian organisations had the right to formulate and apply their own policies regarding the employment of gays as clerics and as teachers in faith schools.