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Government urged to protect religious freedom in new Bill of Rights

Daniel and Amy McArthur, who were fined after refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan, outside Belfast County Court (PA)

A new report by think tank Respublica, several of whose past recommendations have influenced government policy, has suggested a “reasonable accommodation” clause for religious beliefs in law.

The report, Beyond Belief, written by James Orr, a philosophy fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, was launched this morning in Parliament. It follows a series of cases in which Christians have lost their jobs or businesses, or been otherwise penalised, for acting on their consciences, especially in disputes over LGBT rights.

Most recently, Ashers bakery in Northern Ireland was fined for refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. The decision was upheld on appeal, a widely criticised decision which gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell described as “a defeat for freedom of expression”.

It follows similar cases, such as that of Lillian Ladele, a registrar who lost her job after asking not to preside at same-sex civil partnerships.

Beyond Belief warns that at the moment, “rights accrue not to who is right, but to whoever is the most politically connected and can persuade the state to take their side”.

It proposes a return to “the original and more reasonable account of rights, where reasonable accommodation is made once more between different minorities and nobody is more equal than anyone else.”

The report suggests that the British Bill of Rights, a piece of legislation which has been proposed by the Conservative government, could include a “reasonable accommodation” clause. A draft Bill of Rights has not yet been published.

Beyond Belief calls for the government to “set the principle of reasonable accommodation of religious belief on a constitutional footing”. Employers and public sector bodies would have to accommodate religious practice. In a similar way, the law already grants “reasonable adjustments” to some groups. For instance, Sikhs are allowed to wear a turban instead of a crashhelmet when riding a motorcycle.

The “reasonable accommodation” law would oblige public-sector employers to take steps so that religious employees were not placed in a difficult situation by their beliefs. What counted as “reasonable accomodation” might include “the degree to which an accommodation would be practical; the financial and/or other costs of implementing the accommodation; the availability of resources necessary to make an accommodation; and the degree of disruption that making an accommodation would entail.”

It explains that the clause would mean that “the employee would no longer bear the burden of proof – he would not need to show that a rule or requirement puts him at a disadvantage.

“Instead, the employee need only make a request that his religious beliefs or practices be accommodated, and the burden of proof rests with the employer to assess whether reaching an accommodation would impose an unreasonable degree of hardship.”

The report also recommends that the Equality and Human Rights Commission introduces a Religious Freedom Code of Practice, to help employers and service-providers work through difficulties over freedom of conscience. And it calls on universities to address their statutory duty to protect freedom of speech, after a series of cases in which .

The report argues that failure to protect religious freedom will harm the economy, if believers cannot engage in commerce (like running a bakery), and will hurt civil society, by making religious people less likely to volunteer. The “privatisation” of religion will also accelerate the decline in social trust, the report suggests.