The question of whether religious groups are discriminated against because their views on homosexuality and similar issues do not conform with law is a perennially controversial one in Britain.
Now the chairman of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has waded into the controversy with a claim that some Christians with “intolerant” views are much more vociferous than Muslims on such issues.
“Muslim communities in this country are doing their damnedest to try to come to terms with their neighbours, to try to integrate, and they’re doing their best to try to develop an idea of Islam that is compatible with living in a modern liberal democracy,” said Trevor Phillips.
He spoke in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph on the eve of a landmark report the Commission will issue on Monday on religious discrimination in Britain. The report will say some religious groups have been victims of rising discrimination over the last decade. The number of employment tribunal cases on religion or belief brought each year has risen in this period from 70 to 1,000, but only a fraction of complaints are upheld.
There has been a series of high-profile legal cases involving Christians who feel discriminated against because of objections to homosexuality, notably relating to the issue of whether religious charities can bar homosexual couples from adopting children in their care.
Mr. Phillips argued that these cases may be fueled by evangelical activists seeking political influence.
“I think the most likely victim of actual religious discrimination in British society is a Muslim, but the person who is most likely to feel slighted because of their religion is an evangelical Christian,” he said.
The son of Guyana immigrants, Mr. Phillips said: “If you come from an Afro-Caribbean Christian background the attitudes to homosexuality are unambiguous, they are undiluted, they are nasty and in some cases homicidal.”
He said such people believe in “an old-time religion which in my view is incompatible with a modern, multi-ethnic, multicultural society.”
But he went on to say that churches have a right to block women and homosexuals from being priests and bishops if that is their wish. It was reported on Sunday that the Church of England has decided to allow homosexual priests to become bishops, provided they remain celibate.
Mr. Phillips did not touch on the fact Muslims and some Christian groups equally oppose homosexuality. His point appeared to be that Muslims make less of a public issue of British laws safeguarding homosexuals against discrimination.
In recent years about 85 Sharia courts have been established in Britain, a development that itself is controversial, but these courts do not concern themselves with homosexuality and similar issues. Most of their deliberations involve Muslim divorce and inheritance.
These courts are classified as arbitration tribunals under terms of the Arbitration Act of 1996. Their rulings are binding in law, provided that both parties in a dispute agree to give the Sharia courts the power to rule on their case.
Some months ago Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, provoked a national debate, with some people calling for his resignation, when he said the establishment of Sharia law “seems unavoidable” in Britain.
Lord Nicholas Phillips, the lord chief justice of Britain, later agreed that Muslims should be able to live according to Islamic law in terms of financial and marital issues.
But some Britons have argued against a two-tier legal system and, earlier this month, Lady Caroline Cox introduced a bill in the House of Lords that would force Sharia courts to acknowledge the primacy of English law. The bill was backed by women’s rights groups and the Secular Society.
It would impose a five-year jail sentence on anyone claiming or implying that Sharia courts or councils have legal jurisdiction over family or criminal law. It would ban the Sharia practice of giving a woman’s testimony only half the weight of a man’s.
“Equality under the law is a core value of British justice,” Lady Cox said. “My bill seeks to preserve that standard.”
Aina Khan, a solicitor who advises on Sharia law, told the Guardian newspaper: “Where she goes wrong is assuming that some sort of misogyny and discrimination goes on. Eighty percent of its users are women.”
Khurshid Drabu, adviser on constitutional affairs for the Muslim Council of Britain, said that if a woman suffers as a result of a decision by a Sharia council she is free to take her case to the British courts.
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune. He has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)