Sunday April 1, 2007
A leading bishop has fuelled the controversy over the Church of England and equality after being accused of refusing to employ a youth worker because he is gay.
The Bishop of Hereford, the Right Reverend Anthony Priddis, blocked the appointment of John Reaney, 41, Reaney's lawyers say, despite the unanimous decision of an interview panel, including two vicars, to give him the job.
Reaney, from north Wales, claims he had been told after the interview that confirmation that he had got the job from Priddis was just a formality. Instead he was subjected to embarrassing and intimate questions about his private life before being informed by letter that he could not be offered the job because he was a practising homosexual.
On Wednesday the bishop will appear before an employment tribunal in Cardiff to defend his decision. In the first case of its kind, his lawyers are expected to argue that lay appointments by the Church of England should be exempt, as are clerical posts, from anti-discrimination laws.
Anni Holden, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Hereford, said: 'We expect the same sexual standards of behaviour from our support ministers or lay ministers as we do of clergy.' The standard they expect is based on a statement from the House of Bishops in the Nineties which said it was acceptable for staff to be gay but that they must remain celibate.
Reaney's lawyers will argue that his rejection was based purely on his sexuality, and heterosexual staff were never asked similar questions about their private lives.
The case will highlight the controversy in the Church of England facing Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, below, and could exacerbate the conflict between Christian beliefs and equality laws that are aimed at protecting the rights of gay and lesbian people. In January, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, wrote to the Prime Minister threatening to shut down Catholic adoption agencies unless they were exempt from laws that would would stop them refusing to place children with gay couples.
Reaney's case hinges on regulations passed in 2003 that outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexuality but carried a narrow exemption for organised religion. A judicial review confirmed it should only apply to a handful of jobs that were closest to the clergy.
This case will be the first to test how broadly that exemption applies and is being funded by the gay equality organisation Stonewall. Chief executive Ben Summerskill said the case smacked of 'quite offensive 19th-century prejudice'. He argued: 'It seems to be evidence of very real prejudice within the Church of England which completely undermines the claims we have heard recently from bishops and others that they have respect for gay people. It is utterly inappropriate that the church or anyone else should seek to summarily dismiss or refuse to employ someone simply on the basis of sexual orientation and that is why Stonewall is supporting the case. This is the first time that this will be tested in a completely open tribunal and it is absolutely proper that the Bishop of Hereford himself is required to attend.'
If Priddis were to win it could throw open the door for others to block actively gay candidates from non-clerical positions within the church such as youth workers or press officers.
However, Reaney's solicitors say they are confident that the law will protect him. 'My client was unanimously recommended for the post by an interview panel of eight,' said Alison Downie, partner and head of employment at Bindman and Partners.
'He is a committed Christian who has devoted his life to sharing his Christian faith with others. He regrets having to bring this claim but he felt he had no option. The church discriminated against him on the grounds of his sexual orientation when the Bishop of Hereford refused to confirm his appointment to the post.
'He feels he has been denied the opportunity to contribute to the work of the church. In my view the legal protection for gay people is robust and the church is not entitled to claim any exemption from that protection for such a post.'
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said it was 'disgraceful that the churches were given these exemptions at all'. 'But we hope that this case will demonstrate once and for all that those opt-outs must be interpreted very narrowly. They must apply only to people directly involved in promoting religion - such as vicars, priests and nuns.
'Gay people must not find themselves pushed out of work because the church doesn't like their sexuality. I hope the bishop of Hereford comes out of this with a great deal of egg on his face.'
The Employment Equality Regulations were passed in 2003 to provide protection in the workplace to gay, lesbian and bisexual people. The reforms, drafted to comply with an EU directive, outlawed both direct and indirect discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. However, they included an exemption for organised religion. The regulations were challenged by gay rights groups and unions who wanted to know how far the exemption spread. There were fears that teachers in faith schools would not be protected. However, the courts confirmed that the exemption would only apply in a tiny number of cases such as priests and imams. Those working in faith schools or religious charities would be protected. This case will test for the first time if support staff working for the Church of England, such as youth workers, are also exempt from the regulations.
[I normally respect the right to conscience, but it's difficult to muster sympathy for the Bishop of Hereford. His panel did unanimously recommend Mr Reany.]