Believers worried new law could force Churches to keep Atheists on Staff

Feb 07, 2003 06:19 PM EST

London -- Some Christian believers are aghast at possible legislation that could force churches in Britain to keep atheists or even Satanists on their staff.

The Equal Treatment Directive, a piece of European Union legislation that Britain plans to adopt later this year, bans employment discrimination on grounds such as religion, belief or sexual orientation.

The legislation would allow churches to claim an exemption when appointing staff on the basis that Christian belief is essential to the ethos of the organisation. The evangelical Christian Institute says, however, the exemption will not apply when dismissing staff - meaning that people who might lose their faith or take up another faith could not be removed.

Churches that refuse to appoint or promote practising gays and lesbians will also be vulnerable to legal action, and even discussions of why homosexuality is seen as wrong could prompt a lawsuit for harassment, according to the institute.

Parish clergy will be exempt from the directive because they are not viewed as employees.

The director of the Christian Institute, Colin Hart, said the British government was planning to "squeeze churches into a secular mould". He described it as "outrageous" that while churches would not be able to dismiss a staff member who became a Satanist, political parties could dismiss an employee who switched sides.

Meanwhile, Paul Roberts, a lawyer in a Christian legal practice, believes the provisions of the Equal Treatment Directive could be used to muzzle churches which proclaim the faith. He said the directive's definition of harassment "raises the spectre that reasoned presentation of evangelical Christian views could amount to harassment of, for example, a Muslim or a homosexual".

Professor Ian Leigh of Durham University, a human rights lawyer, said: "The government regulations place the modern concept of equality over and above religious liberty."

Colin Hart remains hopeful that the directive will still be amended but, he noted, "it is late in the day".

By Cedric Pulford