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Equality North East

EHRC intervention in cases of religious discrimination

On 11 July 2011, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced its application to intervene at the European Court of Human Rights in four cases involving religious discrimination in the workplace.

Following the announcement, the EHRC circulated the following ‘Q and A’ providing clarification:

Q. Why did the Commission make applications to intervene in these four cases?

These four cases were already before European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) before the Commission considered intervening and it is our expectation that all four are highly likely to be heard together because they involve the same legal question.

Commissioners on our Regulatory Committee took the view that, given our role as the National Human Rights Institution and equality regulator, it was not appropriate for these important cases to be heard without our input into the complex equality and human rights issues, including to ensure the principle of ‘reasonable accommodation’ is considered by the court.

We recognise that our stakeholders have important practical experience of how these issues affect the workplace and we intend to seek the views of our stakeholders before making submissions to the ECtHR . We will therefore be contacting our stakeholders as soon as we receive notification from the Court that our intervention is permitted for their views in the anticipated 3 week period during which we prepare our submissions.

Q. Who is the Commission supporting?

The Court does not permit interventions to support one party or to comment on the facts. In our role as an intervener in existing legal proceedings, we do not support either party in a case but simply seek to aid the court with the benefit of the Commission’s policy input and interpretation of the law.

The purpose of our intervention is to explain that the law should consider how it may give better respect for religious rights within the workplace than has hitherto been the case, without diminishing the rights of others. We want to change the view that there needs to be an either/or situation. The spotlight and focus is placed too frequently on conflict in place of dialogue that could help identify other acceptable workable solutions.

The accommodation of rights is not a zero sum equation whereby one right cancels out or trumps another. We believe that if the law and practice were considered more widely, then in many situations there would be scope for diverse rights to be respected.

Our view is that careful, sensitive and balanced treatment and consideration is discouraged by the approach taken by the courts to date. In turn, this hinders the development and dissemination of better practice amongst those with duties. We believe that where possible ways should be found within the law of promoting the resolution of disputes at an early stage, without protracted, costly, complex legal proceedings that irretrievably damage relations between the parties.

Q. Does this intervention reflect a new approach to the Commission’s work to ensure equality and prevent discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation?

Certainly not. We do not and will not licence discrimination and we continue to believe in the importance of taking action to eliminate it. For example, we will continue to support the appeal to the Court of Appeal to defend the rights of the gay couple who were not allowed to share a double room at a hotel on behalf of civil partners Martyn Hall and Steve Preddy.

There is not – and cannot be – any change in the Commission’s role as the NHRI and equality regulator with responsibility for preventing discrimination against people on grounds of sexual orientation, a responsibility that we aspire to fulfil to the best of our ability.

We would like to reassure our stakeholders that under no circumstances would the Commission condone or permit the refusal of public services to lesbian or gay people.

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July 20, 2011

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