Human rights and equality
The BHA is firmly committed to the protection and promotion of human rights, as exemplified in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights represent shared values rooted in our common humanity and our shared human needs, transcending particular cultural and religious traditions. This regard for human rights and for the equal dignity of all human beings underpins many of our policies.
Humanist principles of justice and of valuing the dignity of each individual also lead us to support equality and oppose unwarranted discrimination. Humanists have been deeply involved in campaigning against discrimination – from homophobia to racism – for decades. Humanists have also been in the forefront of developing modern ideas of human rights, and have been prominent human rights defenders.
The first decade of the twenty-first century in the UK saw:
- unprecedented measures to increase equality between individuals and outlaw irrelevant discrimination, culminating in the Equality Act 2010
- positive developments in human rights with the coming into effect in 2000 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) directly into UK law
- the foundation of the UK’s first Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), as well as the Scottish Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland
We were involved in advocating and supporting all of this progress and our then Chief Executive served on the UK Government’s steering group to plan for the EHRC, and on the reference group for the 2006 Equalities and Discrimination Law Reviews.
Human rights law is of particular importance to us since it establishes beyond doubt that it is unlawful to discriminate between religious and non-religious beliefs.
What we’re doing
Today, we concentrate on resolving situations where principles of human rights or equality are compromised in law or policy and where people are unfairly privileged or discriminated against because of their religion or belief. This involves defending existing protections from attack or repeal; working to end unjustified exemptions from equality and human rights law, such as many of those enjoyed by religious groups; and working for the enforcement of equality and human rights law in key areas where it is not being enforced.
For example we work for:
- an extension of section 6 of the Human Rights Act to treat religious organisations providing public services on behalf of the state as public authorities
- an end to the exemptions from the Equality Act for religious groups which allow much egregious discrimination on grounds of religion or belief and of sexual orientation to continue lawfully
- no weakening in the UK’s existing human rights settlement, for example as a result of proposals to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a ‘British Bill of Rights’, or pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights
- the realisation of a single equality act in Northern Ireland, as is the case in the rest of the UK, as well as the proposed Northern Ireland ‘Bill of Rights’ to supplement the Human Rights Act
- incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into UK law
- a fair and just balance between the right of one person to express or manifest a religion or belief and the rights of others not to suffer discrimination, where the two may conflict
- defending freedom of speech and expression, including internationally, on campus, and in advertising, while having appropriate limits on harassment and incitement to violence, and the right balance in law on conscientious objection
- Promoting socio-economic rights, for example through our affiliate Humanists for a Better World
- an end to irrelevant religious discrimination in publicly funded posts such as non-teaching jobs in religious schools or general pastoral support jobs in hospitals and prisons, which are often unfairly reserved only for religious people or people of particular religions
- equal treatment of the non-religious according to need in the limited number of roles that are legitimately reserved to meet a specific and specialist need such as belief-specific pastoral support for patients and staff in healthcare, prisons, or other institutional settings. In these settings, specific non-religious support is often lacking
- an end to the exemption from equality law for non-denominational organisations whose rules exclude non-religious people, as used to be the case for the Scouts and the Guides
- an end to religious privilege in marriage laws, through the legalisation of humanist and same-sex marriage across the UK
- fair and equal treatment of religious and non-religious perspectives in public broadcasting, including, for example, opening up Thought for the Day to humanist perspectives
There are other human rights and equality issues we have worked on in recent years that have seen success, for example the 2008 repeal of the blasphemy laws in England and Wales, and the Scouts’ and Guides’ 2014 decision to admit non-religious members for the first time (they were previously able to discriminate due to an exception in the Equality Act 2010).
As a human rights-based charity, almost everything we work on is underpinned by human rights. Other areas of our work that also have human rights and equalities angles include our campaigns around state-funded religious schools, religious education, for public service reform, and on ethical issues such as abortion and assisted dying.
Get in touch if you feel that you have been discriminated against on the grounds of your beliefs, whether or not you believe that the discrimination is unlawful. We would like to hear about examples of discrimination in any context. Similarly, we would like to hear about situations where non-believers are ‘forced’ to take part in religious services of any kind, are expected to pray (or expected to be present where prayers are said), or where religious symbols are displayed in what should be civic, inclusive and secular places. If you have experienced harassment or been insulted because of your humanist beliefs or lack of religious beliefs, please let us know about that as well.
We can use the examples you provide in our campaigning work, for example in submissions to Government, either in the form of figures about the incidence of discrimination, or – but only with your permission – as a specific example of discrimination. If you have a story to tell, please also let us know if we have your permission to use your name.
You can also make the Equality and Human Rights Commission aware of any examples of discrimination in any context by calling their helpline.
You can also support the BHA’s campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead or in addition, you can make a donation to the BHA.