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Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, A/HRC/7/10/Add.3, 7 February 2008: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland


B. Overview of reported concerns

27. Members of various Christian denominations (Church of England, Church of Ireland, Church of Scotland, Methodist, Presbyterian, Protestant, Roman Catholic, etc.) reported discrimination and violence related to sectarianism, not only in Northern Ireland but also in the rest of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, Christian Students’ Unions at several universities were reported to face pressures with regard to their adherence to university equal opportunities policies. In general, the Government’s Sexual Orientations Regulations were perceived by some Christians as hampering the work of Christian adoption agencies and establishing a hierarchy of rights with religion having a rather low priority. Another example of this trend was a court judgement which ruled that an employee’s freedom to manifest his religious beliefs was not infringed by his dismissal for refusal to agree to work on Sunday. On the other hand, the particular role and privileges of the Church of England were criticized by some Christians as no longer reflecting the religious demography of the country and the rising proportion of other Christian denominations.

C. Thematic Issues

5. Balancing of competing rights

47. Some recent statutory equality provisions are reported to lead to a clash of religious convictions with other strands, for example sexual orientation. On the one hand, some Christian interlocutors raised their concerns that religion would have to conform to a non- religious world view; while not being opposed to antidiscrimination legislation as such, they felt discriminated by sexual orientation regulations and indicated that many Christian adoption agencies would close if not given an opt-out from having to place children with homosexual couples. On the other hand, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community argued that the existing statutory exemptions already favour religion and they stressed that non-discriminatory delivery of goods and services is crucial especially when public services are contracted out to faith-based organizations.

48. The Special Rapporteur was informed about the differences of the pertinent regulations in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006, which make it unlawful to discriminate or subject another person to harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation, provide for an exception to organizations relating to religion and belief. Thus it is not unlawful for such an organization to restrict membership, participation in activities, the provision of goods, services or activities, or the use or disposal of premises on the ground of sexual orientation if this is necessary to comply with the doctrine of the organization or in order to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers. The regulations for Northern Ireland, which came into force on 1 January 2007, however, do not extend the exception to organizations whose sole or main purpose is commercial or to those who act under a contract with and on behalf of a public authority. Similar regulations for the rest of the United Kingdom are in force since 30 April 2007, but the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 in Great Britain do not contain harassment clauses as the corresponding regulations for Northern Ireland. These harassment provisions have been subject to judicial review and the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland decided on 11 September 2007 to quash them, inter alia, because the width and vagueness of the definition of harassment gave rise to a risk of incompatibility with both freedom of speech and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.[1]


Balancing of competing rights

72. Concerning the issue of balancing competing rights, the Special Rapporteur would like to emphasize that there exists no hierarchy of discrimination grounds. She welcomes the fact that the mandate of the recently established Commission for Equality and Human Rights includes promoting understanding and encouraging good practices concerning relations between members of groups who share a common attribute in respect of age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation. The approach taken by the pertinent anti-discrimination legislation seems to be quite balanced and there are specific exemptions or transitional provisions for organizations relating to religion and belief. Ultimately, balancing different competing rights can only be decided on a case-by-case basis taking into account the particular circumstances and implications of the case.

Link to full text of the report: Mission report-SR Freedom of Religion-United Kingdom-2008-eng

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. 1. High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, Queen’s Bench Division, (2007) NIQB 66, paras. 40-43.