An MP will tomorrow table a bill which seeks to protect “conscientious beliefs about the definition of marriage” in the same way gender, race, age or disability are currently protected. Edward Leigh MP’s bill — which seeks to amend equality legislation to protect free speech — comes amidst mounting evidence that teachers and public workers who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman will face the sack or discrimination suits following the Government’s introduction of same-sex marriage.
The 2010 Equality Act governs equality law in Britain; it is a major piece of legislation consolidating numerous regulations including the Sexual Orientation Regulations, whose passing forced the closure of Catholic adoptions across the country. Mr Leigh, who recently addressed Catholic Voices about the Parliamentary debate on same-sex marriage, hopes to use the same prohibitions on discrimination to protect the conscientious beliefs of millions of Britons who support traditional marriage.
As Mr Leigh told the Daily Telegraph, which trailed tomorrow’s debate in a recent article, he was prompted to act after the case of Adrian Smith, a 55-year-old housing manager from Manchester who posted his opposition to same-sex marriage on Facebook and was punished by his employer. Trafford Housing Trust demoted Mr Smith from his managerial position, cut his salary by 40 per cent and gave him a final warning after reading Mr Smith’s post describing gay marriage as “an equality too far”, despite the comments being private and blocked from public view. The Trust had justified their actions on the grounds that Mr Smith had broken their code of conduct by “expressing religious or political views which might upset co-workers.”
Mr Smith won his claim for unfair demotion and breach of contract caused by the loss in pay, but was refused reinstatement at the Trust. As Mr Justice Briggs said in judgment at the High Court, “Mr Smith was taken to task for doing nothing wrong, suspended and subjected to a disciplinary procedure which wrongly found him guilty of gross misconduct.”
Leigh fears that teachers and other public servants will be punished and treated as outcasts for refusing to promote gay marriage if it becomes law later this year. Referring to legal opinion (summary O’Neill) the Coalition for Marriage obtained from Aidan O’Neill QC, a leading specialist in discrimination, equality and employment law, Leigh said:
If the Government is successful in redefining marriage, then there are hundreds of thousands of teachers, parents, foster carers, or even hospital and army chaplains who could find themselves being disciplined for their beliefs, just as Adrian Smith was. To think otherwise is out of touch with reality. If the Government is serious about protecting those who back the current definition of marriage from being marginalised for their beliefs then it must act immediately to change the Equality Act. If it does not then it will open the door to Christians, Muslims, Jews – and anyone else with a conscientious objection – being disciplined, demoted or even sacked for backing the current definition of marriage.
The Government proposes that a so-called ‘quadruple lock’ will prevent, in four ways, churches from being forced to conduct same-sex marriages, one of which is a planned amendment to the Equality Act to prohibit discrimination claims against religious organisations or ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple. Leigh says that these protections do not go far enough:
The Government might think that any legislation it introduces is bomb proof, but the reality is the UK has a very poor record when tested in the European Courts. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, during the period from 1966 – when the UK opted in to the jurisdiction of the ECHR – up to and including 2010, there were 443 judgments relating to the UK. In 217 of those cases the ECHR found that the UK had breached the Convention.
Given the Government’s poor track record of winning in Europe, it would be the height of arrogance to think any legislation will not end up before the European Court, where it stands a good chance of being ruled against.
In France, meanwhile, a Government-backed rally in favour of same-sex marriage drew only a small percentage of the numbers who turned out on 17 January to protest. The Socialist-dominated French Parliament is expected to pass the new law when it is debated tomorrow, despite popular support for it achieving barely 50 per cent of popular opposition.
In the UK, the Catholic Church made available close to a million postcards for parishioners to send to their MPs in advance of the debate in the UK Parliament on 5 February.