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UK equality law unfairly favours religious people, claims National Secular Society

by Tola Mbakwe

A new report by the National Secular Society (NSS) claims gaps in equality law is leading to "undesirable and unnecessary religious discrimination" in schools and the workplace, fuelling segregation.

The group said discrimination against the non-religious and members of religious minorities remains lawful across much of public life in Britain, a decade on from the Equality Act.

It add that those who are already marginalised are most likely to be negatively affected by omissions in the 2010 act, and are calling for urgent reform relating to education, 'caste-based discrimination' and employment.

This includes the removal of the collective worship requirement for all state schools and ending religious-based admissions and curriculums that favour a certain religion.

Roger Kiska from the Christian Legal Centre told Premier their concern forgets other rights. 

“There’s more than just the Equality Act, there's the Human Rights Act which guarantees freedom of religion. In almost every sector of society we have exemptions which allow people to enjoy their culture, their race, whatever their protected characteristic might be, freedom of religion is one of those. The Government has a legal obligation to protect that.

“I've always thought that calling them exemptions leads to things like this ,with the NSS saying this is a privilege, when in fact, it shouldn't be an exemption, it should be just one of these things that people say, ‘Hey, this is great. We have religious freedom in this country’, and we should let people enjoy their personal freedoms.”

The NSS insists that the diversity of religion in the UK has increased, and more than 50 per cent of British adults say they have no religion, and therefore schools should have less religious content. 

The report states that "exceptions to accommodate faith schools, faith-based admissions and religious practice in schools are leading to a level of religious discrimination that would not be tolerated in any other area of society."

The group wants the Government to remove exceptions that allow state-funded schools to choose individuals on the basis of religion or belief.

The report adds: "It would mean no state-funded school could discriminate against pupils in their admissions on the basis of their family's religion or religious activities, or by having a curriculum that favours a particular religion or belief.

"It would also protect staff and governors from religion-based discrimination, and necessitate the removal of the collective worship requirement for all schools."

Kiska told Premier: “The NSS has historically been the greatest oppressor of religion. They have a history of trying to get rid of Christian schools and undermine the ethos of Christian schools. And as a nation, we should be joyful that we have this level of pluralism and different faiths and different races, and that we could live harmoniously.”

The NSS has called for a system of secular community schools which would "by its nature treat families of all religion and belief backgrounds equally."

The report also suggests that an exception in the act which allows employers to discriminate on the basis of religion or belief when there is a "genuine occupational requirement" is "being overused".

It cited examples of job advertisements seeking candidates from particular religions where there was no clear explanation why such a person was required.

Kiska told Premier the sheer volume of Christians that contact the Christian Legal Centre claiming they’ve been discriminated against shows that religious people don’t receive special treatment.

“One of the ironies of the NSS report is that they continue referring to minorities, as if Christians enjoy some form of privilege. The reality is we deal with thousands of inquiries every year from Christians who are suffering some form of detriment just because they're exercising their faith, whether it be a moral opinion, or a belief. It's quite troubling that religious freedom is at the state it is because I really do believe that religious freedom is a barometer of a healthy democracy.”

In response to the NSS report, a Government Equality Hub spokeswoman said: "There is no place for discrimination in the UK. We are a nation that supports equality and diversity in all forms, and the Equality Act strives to foster equality across religions and secular interests."

Listen to Premier’s interview with Roger Kiska here:

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