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It can be right to discriminate against the religious

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There is a surprising - and encouraging - gap in the government's new Equality Bill, which I columnized on yesterday. Discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender and sexuality will be outlawed - but not discrimination on the basis of religion. When I saw this, I gave a loud atheist cheer. A religion is a set of man-made superstitions, and I reserve my right to discriminate against anybody silly enough to choose to believe them.

You don't choose your race, sexuality, or gender, and they don't affect how well you do your job. But you do choose your religion - and there are instances in which it will make it impossible for you to do a job properly. If you are a burqua-wearing Muslim, you can't enter Miss Great Britain. If you are an Orthodox Jew who refuses to look women in the eye or make physical contact with them, you can't be a beautician. If you are an evangelical Christian, you can't work in a gay club. Go work somewhere else, or change your silly beliefs.

Recently a 19 year old Muslim girl called Bushra Noah applied for a job at a hairdressers where the staff showed off their hairstyles, for obvious reasons. She refused to - she wears a headscarf - so she was told the job just wasn't for her. She sued, and was rewarded £4000. This is ridiculous. If you choose to wear a headscarf, that's absolutely your right - but it means you are choosing not to work in a trendy salon.

Of course there are instances of much uglier discrimination. In July 2004, the BBC conducted an experiment: they sent out nearly identical job applications to over fifty British employers. The applicants with Anglo-Saxon names were twice as likely to be asked to interview as those with Muslim names. This obviously repels me. But is this religious discrimination - or racial? If those application had Hindu names, would they have been accepted? Are there all these bigots out there saying, "I hate those Muslims ' but I love Sikhs?" Of course not. This is anti-Asian prejudice irrespective of faith, and it should be dealt with by laws banning racial discrimination.

Besides, granting "religious rights" would actually undercut all the other rights in the Equality Bill, because religions often command discrimination against women and gay people. I gave an example last year in a column about the police:

Last year the Labour government introduced new equality legislation making it a crime to discriminate against gay people in the workplace [but] the government simultaneously introduced laws guaranteeing "religious rights." These have been pounced upon by religious homophobes, who insist that their "right to religious belief" includes their right to loudly hate gay people who happen to work alongside them… Whenever homophobia is exposed in a police station, the offending officers now plead that they are just following their religion and that is the end of that. Religion has become a get-out-of-jail-free card for homophobic officers… While obviously individuals have to be free to be homophobic in their homes in their spare time, when they are working for us, they have to treat us all equally.

If you are for human rights, then you have to be against amorphous and toxic "religious rights."

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