By Hilary White

LONDON, November 24, 2009 ( – In what may be the first test of the new legal situation created by the European Union's Lisbon Treaty, the European Commission has said that absolutely no exemptions can be allowed in anti-discrimination laws, even for religious conscience. In a letter to the British government, the EU has demanded that Britain abolish laws protecting religious freedom rights with regards to “sexual orientation.”

In a “reasoned opinion,” the EU's equal opportunities commissioner, Vladimir Spidla, told the government on Friday that it has failed correctly to implement an EU Council Directive on discrimination.

Spidla said, “We call on the UK government to make the necessary changes to its anti-discrimination legislation as soon as possible so as to fully comply with the EU rules.”

The Government's “exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for religious employers are broader than that permitted by the directive,” the EU said. The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union responsible for upholding the Union's treaties.

The Commission's ruling follows a 2004 complaint by the anti-religion organisation, the National Secular Society, that complained the opt-outs constitute “illegal discrimination against homosexuals.”

The current exemption allows religious groups to refuse a job to a homosexual applicant to avoid “conflicting with the strongly-held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion's followers.”

Under regulation 18 of the Sexual Orientation Regulations of the Equality Act (SORs), registered religious charities, such as Catholic adoption agencies, are allowed to act in accordance with the constitutional documents that specify their religious purpose. Under this regulation, it is theoretically possible for such charities to refuse to allow children to be adopted out to homosexual “partners”

But a new bill being drafted by the government has met with the approval of the EU. It will allow religious organisations to refuse to employ homosexuals only if the job involves actively promoting or practising a religion.

Spidla said, “We welcome the proposed Equality Bill and hope that it will come into force quickly.”

At the same time, homosexualist activist groups are lobbying for changes in the law that may ultimately force churches to perform civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex partners. Stonewall, one of Britain's most successful lobbying groups, is seeking an amendment to the Equality Bill which will allow churches to host the services. Currently such services must take place in a registry office to be legal.

But as Ben Summerskill, head of Stonewall, explained: “Right now, faiths shouldn't be forced to hold civil partnerships, although in ten or 20 years, that may change.”