T + 639 Enquire Conference Part Four

Posted by raetsel at Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More write-ups on the talks I heard at the Enquire 2010 Conference


Dr. Evan Harris

Until the recent election Dr Harris was the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon and a prominent figure for science and secularism in the UK parliament. Unfortunately he lost his seat by just 176 votes.

Part of his talk was about the reasons why he lost his seat and how his views on secular and science topics might have affected that. He was subject to some particularly nasty smear campaigns, some more subtle and clever than others, from non-political party organisations such as animal liberationists and pro-life (anti-abortion) movements.

His main regret was that instead of ignoring this negative campaigning, having been advised it would back fir,e he did not start to actively counter it with proper explanations of his position on the issues and the reasons why. He plans to campaign to regain the seat at the next election.

Evan Harris is a very effective speaker and there was a lot of obvious warmth in the room for him and his situation. Having dealt with the reasons for his defeat he used the issues raised there as a means to layout the current legislative position for the topics related to the conference themes of atheism, humanism and secularism.

Dr Harris did not expect abortion law to be changed in the current parliament and felt that the current climate in relation to assisted dying and some high profile cases and court rulings might mean there could be some movement in a positive direction for that.

The biggest issue he felt was the use of loopholes in the Equality Act and other legislation that allows religious organisations ( such as churches ) and organisations with a religious ethos ( such as faith schools ) to discriminate against people for their gender, sexuality, beliefs and even lifestyle.

The UK is in fact in breach of EU directives in relation to equality in employment and infraction proceedings are being taken against the UK Government, who under Labour were contesting them. The key issue is the wide ranging exemptions that are being claimed in inappropriate circumstances.

The UK law and (EU directives to some extent), allow for key posts in a religious organisation to discriminate on grounds of gender, sexuality, belief etc. This is the exemption that means the Catholic Church can discriminate against women for the job of Priest. For organisations with a religious ethos such as charities or faith schools it is also allowable for key posts to be discriminatory however this is being widely used to allow faith schools to insist that for example even classroom teaching assistants in a faith school sign a statement of religious belief and must follow a lifestyle that is deemed appropriate.

Thus a gay person would be discriminated against not only if they didn't sign the statement to say they were christian, catholic muslim etc but even just on the basis that if they had a partner they would be in breach of the lifestyle clauses.

This is clearly a breach of the EU directive and even, arguably UK law and uses the exemptions far too widely.

As Dr Harris put it the fact that teacher's classroom assistant goes about perfectly legal activities such as living with someone of the same sex should have nothing to do with helping with the pottery class.

Dr Harris is hoping that a case can be brought to court where such discrimination can be successfully challenged and the precedent of case law could then be used to stop the loophole. He would also like the UK to stop contesting the infraction proceedings from the EU and change UK law with primary legislation. However given the Conservative Party views on Europe this seems unlikely.

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