UK unions lose case on faith and workers' equality rules

April 28, 2004

LONDON — The High Court upheld Britain's equality laws for workers Monday, disappointing trade unions that argue the rules fail to protect lesbian and gay workers from discrimination by "faith-based" employers.

Justice David Richards rebutted argument from the unions that 2003 Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations are incompatible with European law.

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

The laws were introduced in Britain to give effect to a 2000 European Council Directive that provided guidelines for equal treatment for workers, including the prevention of discrimination relating to sexual orientation.

Lawyers acting for seven unions – representing around 2 million workers and led by the Trades Union Council – argued that the British laws had failed to give full effect to the guidelines, and that they allowed employers to exclude same-sex couples from pension and benefits rights enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.

The laws were therefore "incompatible" with Britain's European Community law obligations and the European Convention on Human Rights, they claimed.

Christian groups, including the Evangelical Alliance and the Christian Schools Trust, intervened to resist the union challenge, which was brought against Trade and Industry Minister Patricia Hewitt.

Evangelical groups, who believe homosexuality is contrary to scripture, argued that Christian organizations had the right to decide their own policies regarding the employment of gays as clerics and as teachers in faith schools.

Richards, noting the importance of the case, gave the unions permission to appeal his decision in the Court of Appeal.

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the unions would consult with their legal teams over the next few days.

"The judgment is very disappointing," Barber said. "The unions took the case because they believe that a very important issue was at stake and that no one should be treated differently at work because of their sexuality." – Sapa-AP

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