A court ruling makes it harder for faith-based employers to discriminate

Source: The Economist

IT IS a problem that arises in every liberal democracy that upholds liberty of belief (and hence, the freedom of religious bodies to manage their own affairs) while also aiming to defend citizens, including job-seekers, from unfair discrimination. As part of their entitlement to run their own show, faith groups often claim some exemption from equality laws when they are recruiting people.

To take an extreme case, it would run counter to common sense if a church were judicially obliged to appoint a militant atheist as a priest, even if that candidate was well qualified on paper. But how generous should those exceptions be?

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In recent years some decisions by the American Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) have been pretty kind, as many people would see things, to religious employers. In 2012 a teacher laid off from a school linked to a Lutheran church in Michigan lost her unfair dismissal case on the grounds that she was technically a minister and her bosses were therefore exempt from equality laws. And in 2014 the ECHR vindicated the Spanish Catholic church after it effectively ended the teaching career of a priest who had married and joined a campaign against clerical celibacy rules. (The ECHR is an organ of the 47-nation Council of Europe and enforces its convention on human rights.)

But this month, a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ, pictured), which adjudicates the law of the 28-nation European Union, tilted in the other direction. It issued a pronouncement that will make it somewhat harder for faith-affiliated bodies, such as charities or colleges, to favour their own adherents, at least when hiring for jobs of a fairly secular type.

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