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UK Human Rights Head: 'Law Stops at the Door of the Temple'

Outrage as official says exemptions to antidiscrimination laws are like Shari'ah law.

The chairman of the United Kingdom's Equality and Human Rights Commission has stirred up some debate after stating that religious exemptions to antidiscrimination laws should be limited to houses of worship.

Trevor Phillips, speaking during a debate organized by the Religion and Society Research Program, also compared Christian groups seeking exemptions from equality laws to Muslims who want to implement Shari‘ah law in parts of Britain.

"The law stops at the door of the temple as far as I'm concerned," he said. "Institutions have to make a decision whether they want to [provide public services under public rules] … but you can't say 'because we decide we're different then we need a different set of laws'."

Phillips referred to several cases where religious groups have protested requirements that they not discriminate on sexual grounds, including Catholic adoption agencies and the owners of a Christian bed and breakfast who were ordered to pay damages after turning away gay couples.

"To me there's nothing different in principle with a Catholic adoption agency, or indeed Methodist adoption agency, saying the rules in our community are different and therefore the law shouldn't apply to us," Phillips said. "Why not then say Shari'ah can be applied to different parts of the country? It doesn't work."

The remarks drew almost instant criticism. George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, called the statement "ridiculous."

"We are a democracy in which Christianity is established in the Church of England and a nation profoundly influenced by this faith in its Catholic and Anglican heritage," he said. "We need lawmakers to respect this heritage and seek accommodation wherever a strongly held faith seems to clash with new legislation."

Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Center, said Phillips' assertion was "inflammatory" and "intolerant," adding that Phillips "fails to understand the nature of faith and what inspires faith and what makes agencies like Catholic adoption agencies so selfless."

However, the National Secular Society's Keith Porteous Wood sided with Phillips. "There is no such thing as partial equality, and every time an exemption is made, someone else's rights are compromised."

Phillips later dismissed the criticism and said his comments were not meant to be controversial. "You would have to really work hard to make what I said 'inflammatory."

In August, CT reported on Phillips' assertion that though Christians face discrimination, politically motivated faith groups often blow it out of proportion.

Posted:February 17, 2012 at 3:25PM
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UK Human Rights Head: 'Law Stops at the Door of the Temple'