Gay rights group may sue over job equality exemptions

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New laws allowing religious employers to sack gay staff are facing a possible legal challenge.

The equal rights group Stonewall will convene a meeting of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, the Trades Union Congress, and others next week after advice from human rights lawyers that the law is open to challenge.

The 2003 Employment Equality Regulations were drafted to comply with a European Union directive banning workplace discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or religion. But when the statutory instruments were laid before Parliament this month, they contained exemptions for employers "with an ethos based on religion or belief". One clause states that an exemption applies when an employer acts "to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion's followers".

Because the regulations are secondary legislation, they do not have to be debated on the floor of the House of Commons and may be subject to only three hours' debate in committee before passing into law.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a Liberal Democrat peer and QC, has told the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments he feels the regulations contravene EU law. Robert Wintemute, of the School of Law, King's College London, has advised that the exemptions are unnecessary, could be abused, and were not subject to adequate consultation.

Sasha Deshmukh, parliamentary officer for Stonewall, said the organisation was "very angry",adding: "We are exploring the potential for a judicial review because the wording would appear to contravene the directive itself."

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on equality issues, said: "It is astonishing that after taking so long, the Government has, at the last minute, caved in to prejudice to such an extent that its proposals risk being struck down by the courts."

But senior government sources argue that while allowing certain exemptions for religious ministers, any attempt at wider discrimination would be subject to an employment tribunal.