Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has thrown a firecracker into the consultation on gay marriage, which is about to begin in March. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph he declared that he did not agree that it was the role of the state to define what marriage is. “It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are”.
Gay rights campaigners have poured scorn on this pronouncement, calling the Archbishop a “religious authoritarian” who wants to “impose his personal opposition to same-sex marriage on the rest of society.” But this outbreak of bad temper – not unpredictable, given the skirmishing over the consultation on the same issue which took place in Scotland last year – raises the wider issue of the role and influence of church leaders in the process of legal change.
In a secular society, the participation of clerics in the House of Lords is grudgingly accepted as part of an ancient tradition. And on this issue at least, the general view seems to be that the Church has grounds for complaint. The current system recognises gay partnerships under the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (CPA). But the main change is to alter the Equality Act so as to allow such partnerships to take place on religious premises, and it is that which is being so bitterly opposed, apparently because it brings the matter within the church’s bailiwick. But even if it does, we have to ask what it is that privileges Sentamu’s voice over any others in the debate over whether gay and heterosexual partnerships should be on an equal footing in all respects, including the place where they are registered. Continue reading →
In the midst of all the coverage of the phone hacking scandal and the mounting woes of News Corporation an interesting piece of human rights news from the past week got lost: the announcement by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (“EHRC”) that it is applying to intervene in four cases before the European Court of Human Rights being brought by Christians who claim their Article 9 rights are not being sufficiently protected in UK law.
The applicants are Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin, Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane, each of whom has lost claims of workplace discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief in the UK courts over the past couple of years (see our general comment pieces here and here). The EHRC has now said that in its view “Judges have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion or belief discrimination claims” and that “the way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief.”
Snyder v. Phelps (09-751), United States Supreme Court – Read judgment
A recent decision of the United States Supreme Court, in which it upheld the rights of a radical anti-gay Christian group to protest at military funerals, provides a useful opportunity to compare free speech protections here to those provided over the pond.
By way of comparison, five men recently failed in a challenge to their public order criminal convictions for protesting with similar signs at a homecoming parade for British soldiers. What does this say about our respective free speech protections?
Updated | Association belge des Consommateurs Test-Achats ASBL, Yann van Vugt, Charles Basselier v Conseil des ministres, Case C‑236/09 – Read judgment / press release
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled that from December 2012, insurers will be prevented from charging different premiums on the basis of an insured person’s gender. A partner at a leading commercial law firm called September’s preemptive preliminary opinion “completely bonkers”. Can the same be said about the latest decision?
Coverage of the decision has already been largely negative. As well as involving Europe’s increasingly unpopular and possibly unelected judges, the ruling affects an interest group – insurance companies – with deep pockets and who are capable of sophisticated lobbying. And nobody wants to see their insurance premiums go up, if that is indeed to be the outcome of this ruling, something which is by no means clear. So expect to see plenty of critical articles. The Telegraph website is already sporting an unchallenged article/press release from Esure, including a video interview which begins with an advert for ESure’s “Sheila’s Wheels”.
On 17 February the Home Secretary announced that the government was moving ahead with changes to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 which would allow the registration of civil partnerships to take place in religious premises.
While welcomed by many, some have voiced concerns that permission will inevitably become coercion. They fear that religious organisations may face legal action if they refuse to facilitate civil partnership ceremonies, a claim the Government denies. But will they?
Shergill v Purewal & Anor  EWHC 3610 (QB) (15 December 2010) – Read judgment
In the commotion surrounding the Christian hotel gay discrimination case, it is easy to forget that there is a long-standing principle that English courts will not decide matters of religious doctrine. This principle has been in play in a run of recent cases involving an Indian holy man and libel claims against journalists.
The most recent case was brought by Dajid Singh Shergill, a UK-based Sikh activist suing the Panjab Times in relation to 3 articles published in the summer 2008, relating to His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj (Jeet Singh), an Indian based preacher. The articles claimed, amongst other things, that Jeet Singh had “abandoned Sikh Principles“, that he and his supporters were a “sham“, that Shergill had “sought to instigate serious riots and create an atmosphere of terror” by proclaiming that Baba Jeet Singh had won a court case in India and was seeking to misappropriate local Sikh temples.
Lisboa v. Realpubs Ltd & Ors  UKEAT 0224_10_1101 (11 January 2011) – Read judgment
The Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT)has ruled that a well-known gay pub’s strategy to encourage straight customers led to gay customers being treated less favourably, meaning that the a gay employee was forced to resign.
The policies included seating straight customers at the front of the pub where they would be most visible to passers by. The Claimant was an employee of the well-known London pub the Coleherne. The Coleherne was thought to be the city’s first ‘gay pub’ and had been operating as such for the past forty years, but in September 2008 reopened as a gastro-pub, The Pembroke.
Updated | The reference to sexual orientation in a resolution on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executionshas been restored. The General Assembly voted 93 in favour of the US proposal, with 55 countries voting against and 27 abstaining, with some 16 delegations taking the floor to explain their position.
As previously reported, for the first time since 1999 the resolution would not have expressly condemned such killings on the grounds of sexual orientation following an amendment by the African Group and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
The UK government was in fact forced to change its policy following a series of court rulings, as the US government might have been if the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy had made it to the Supreme Court, which was looking inevitable before the Senate vote.
The long-standing ban on homosexuals serving in the United States military has been struck down by the US Senate. Now the repeal needs to be confirmed by President Obama, who is a long-standing opponent of the ban.
The Senate voted 65 to 31 to approve a repeal of the Clinton-era policy which sought to diminish the ban by not asking soldiers about their sexual orientation, but also requiring them to keep it a secret during their service. It was argued that this policy ultimately led to discrimination which was found to be unconstitutional.
The Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Commitee of the United Nations has narrowly voted to remove sexual orientation from a draft resolution against extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
In light of the guarantee of the right to life, liberty and security of person in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the resolution condemns all extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and demands that all States take effective action to prevent, combat, investigate and eliminate such executions.
RT (Zimbabwe) & Ors v Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWCA Civ 1285 (18 November 2010) – Read judgment
The Court of Appeal has ruled that asylum seekers cannot be forced to lie about not holding political beliefs when returning to their home country. The potentially wide-ranging decision extends the protection arising from a recent Supreme Court decision which found that homosexuals could not be sent back to their home country if they would have to lie about their sexuality.
The case concerned four Zimbabwean asylum seekers. In previous asylum cases involving Zimbabwe, it had been assumed that it is legitimate to require applicants, in order to avoid persecution, to demonstrate loyalty to Zanu-PF, itself a persecutory regime. The men in this case did not hold strong political views, but did not support the Zanu-PF either. The question was whether it would breach their human rights to send them back if they would be forced to join the ruling party.
J M v. The United Kingdom – 37060/06  ECHR 1361 – Read judgment
The European Court of Rights has declared that rules on child maintenance prior to introduction of the Civil Partnership Act discriminated against those in same-sex relationships.
The events happened nearly a decade ago and the law in relation to same-sex couples has greatly altered since, so it will be of limited relevance to those paying child benefit now. Of more interest is the reasoning of the majority in deciding the case under the right to peaceful enjoyment of property rather than the right to family life.
The case summary is based on the Court’s press release, and is followed by my comment.
The UK Supreme Court Blog has posted an exclusive interview with Baroness Hale, the Supreme Court’s only female judge. The interview is worth reading in full but I would like to highlight a few of her comments which are relevant to human rights.
By way of background, Baroness Brenda Hale is the first and only woman who sits in the UK’s highest appeal court. She came to the bench after a career in academia and a post at the Law Commission. As she admits in the interview, he areas of interest – such as family law, human rights and equality law – are quite different from those of the other justices who mostly come from a commercial law background.
The Charity Commission has rejected a bid by a Catholic organisation to amend its charitable objects in order to restrict its adoption services to heterosexuals. The case highlights the significant protections which have been put in place by recent equality law, and the policing role which the Charity Commission is required to play from a human rights perspective.
The Commission was ordered by the High Court in March to look at its initial decision again in light of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The law behind the case is quite convoluted, but is worth looking at again as it is likely to have significant implications for gay couples looking to adopt as well as for religious charities in general.
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