Church care homes could be forced to remove crucifixes from their walls in case they offend “atheist cleaners” under the new Equality Bill, Catholic bishops have warned.
The way the bill is written means non-Christians could sue for harassment if church authorities do not remove religious imagery, according to Monsignor Andrew Summersgill, general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
He said the bill, currently being examined by Parliament’s Equality Bill Committee, could have a “chilling effect” on religious expression.
Under the terms of the bill, harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct with the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment”.
Bishops are concerned that religious authorities could be left in an impossible legal position, because under the bill it would be up to the employer to prove that displaying such an image did not amount to harassment or an employee.
In a written statement to the committee, Mgr Summersgill said: “A cleaner may be an atheist or of very different religious beliefs. Nonetheless if a cleaner found the crucifixes offensive there would be no defence in law against a charge of harassment.”
He added: “If this bill is serious about equality, everything possible must be done to avoid it having a chilling effect on religious expression and practice.”
The bishops are also worried that they Equality Bill will establish what they believe would amount to a “hierarchy of rights”, with the rights of homosexuals overruling those of religious expression.