The Big Question: What is equality legislation, and why is the Pope so concerned about it?


Why are we asking this now?

The Pope has made an extraordinary intervention into British politics by urging Catholics to oppose the Equality Bill going through Parliament. The Bill has finished its passage through the House of Commons, and was being fiercely debated in the House of Lords last week, with religious groups lined up on both sides of the argument, and may become the cause of a stand-off between MPs and peers.

The Pope told a gathering of English and Welsh Catholic bishops, in Rome, that the legislation would "impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs," and added: "In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed." The impact of his words is all the greater because he will be soon be making the first papal visit to the UK since 1982.

What is the Equality Bill?

Of all the legislation going through Parliament, the Equality Bill, as sold in government bookshops, is the fattest. It fills 600 pages. At £13, it also the most expensive, except for certain highly technical bills that have only a narrow application. Part of the reason it is so long is that alongside the legal text there is a running commentary. Equality legislation is well known to be a minefield of misunderstandings, and Harriet Harman, the minister behind the Bill, is hoping to limit the number that this one causes. But it is also long because it covers a lot of ground.

What is the Bill supposed to achieve?

Despite its daunting length, one intention behind the legislation is to simplify the law. It supersedes a lot of old laws, rolling them all into one, so that employers only have to refer to one text to make sure they are complying with anti-discrimination legislation. Despite the controversy, Ms Harman believes the Bill will be law before the General Election. Most of it will come into effect this autumn, though some parts will not apply until spring 2011.

Whom does it protect?

The Bill introduces a new phrase into the English language, which will sound strange to many people's ears. Where somebody used to be part of an oppressed minority, they now have what is called a "protected characteristic". If you think that phrase does not apply to you, you are wrong. Everybody has some "protected characteristics", but some people have more than others. They are the ones most likely to suffer discrimination.

What are these 'protected characteristics'?

There are nine categories listed in the Bill: age, disability, "gender reassignment", marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief (including lack of belief), sex, and sexual orientation. The last two are universal, because, with very rare exceptions, we are all either male or female, and we each have a sexual orientation. The law is meant to protect men as well as women, and heterosexuals as well as gay people, where necessary. The smallest category on the list is "gender reassignment, which applies to people who are planning or undergoing or have been through a sex change.

Do we really need one law to protect all these different types?

In the old days, there was a law against racial discrimination, another against sex discrimination, and so on. There were also different agencies to battle for teach for each of the groups targeted. So when people who opposed "political correctness" made jokes about the mythical "one-legged black lesbian" being overprotected by law, they missed the point. A person who was being picked on because they stood out in several different ways had to choose whether to seek protection against racism, or homophobia, or prejudice against the disabled, but not choose two at once, because there was no single law banning discrimination with multiple "protected characteristics". The Equality Bill will allow someone to claim discrimination relating to two – but not three, or more. Even Harriet Harman thinks two is enough to cover almost all likely cases.

So what is the Pope's objection?

The Equality Bill was designed to have an impact on religious organisations which employ people in secular jobs – secretaries, administrators, youth workers etc – by making them subject to the same anti-discrimination laws that apply to other employers. The churches are not opposing the Equality Bill as a whole, but some – though not all – are forcefully arguing that they should be exempt from this section of the Bill. Their religion teaches that gay sex is sinful, and they argue that it would be an attack on their religious beliefs if they were compelled to work with people known to practise it. Now they have the Pope on their side.

So this comes down to an argument about gay priests?

Anti-discrimination laws have never fully applied to religious groups. Otherwise there could have been any number of clashes with the law, not just over gay people, but over the issue of whether women should be allowed to preach. The Government says that even under the revised law, the appointment of clergy and religious teachers will be exempt, as always, but their opponents are not convinced.

What are those opponents saying?

The Tory peer Detta O'Cathain, who led the opposition in the House of Lords, argued: "A belief in freedom of association demands that, even if we do not share the beliefs of an organisation, we must stand up for its liberty to choose its own leaders and representatives. I accept that the Government intend to protect the freedom of churches to choose their own staff, but their wording does not mirror that intention."

Her argument is that a religion that prohibits gay sex should not have to employ someone openly gay any more than a Rape Crisis Centre should be made to employ a male counsellor.

And supporters of the Bill?

On the other side were people who thought that the Equality Bill does not go far enough, including the Labour peer Waheed Alli, who is gay and a Muslim. He said that any priest in any religion who is sacked for being gay should have the right to sue for unfair dismissal. He also believes that the law should recognise civil partnerships where the ceremony is conducted on religious premises or involves a religious element, which is not allowed under current law.

And what does Harriet Harman say?

"We have never insisted on non-discrimination legislation applying to religious jobs such as being a vicar, a bishop, an imam or a rabbi," she said yesterday. "Religious organisations can decide themselves how to do that. However, when it comes to non-religious jobs, those organisations must comply with the law."

Is there any case for the Pope intervening in British politics?

Yes...

* The Equality Bill will apply to churches, and therefore church leaders have a right to express opinions

* Churches have the right to choose to employ people who share their doctrines

* The Pope is not asking for special treatment for Catholics. He just wants the law to stay as it is

No...

* Churches are also secular employers and should obey employment law

* The Equality Bill is not going to apply to bishops, rabbis, imams or other religious leaders

* Believers cannot claim that their freedom of worship is threatened if someone who is gay cleans their church or does the accounts

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot