Most assembly trustees, and individ-uals, are now familiar with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), but there seems to be less appreciation that most of the provisions in the DDA have now been replaced by The Equality Act 2010 (the Act), which came into force on 1st October 2010, and has to be complied with. (The Act does not apply in Northern Ireland).
The Act bans unfair treatment at work, and makes it unlawful to discriminate against, harass, or victimise a person when providing a service (which includes the provision of goods or facilities) or when exercising a public function. There are nine ‘protected characteristics’ (set out in Chapter 1 of the Act) and these are: disability, age, gender reassignment, pregnancy or maternity, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion and belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
There is real concern over the possible impact of the Act on biblical teaching and practices. However, it is not the intention of this article to deal with anything other than the first protected characteristic above, namely disability, to seek to provide some guidance on what additional responsibilities arise under the Act.
The Act places duties on ‘service providers’, which includes churches and trusts, and the premises used by them in connection with ‘church’ activities. The Act is about making activities accessible to everyone, and covers many forms of disability.
A person is ‘disabled’ under the Act if they have a physical or mental impairment that has ‘substantial’ (meaning more than minor or trivial) or ‘long term’ (meaning twelve months or more) negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities. Some forms of disability are obvious, such as mobility impairment (wheelchair users), physical (severe arthritis), or facial disfigurement, but some will be hidden (diabetes, epilepsy, mental health). It is important that thought is given to the spectrum of impairments or disabilities. However, what may not be immediately appreciated is that those with cancer, HIV, or Multiple Schlerosis, and some other intermittent or progressive conditions, automatically meet the disability definition under the Act, from the moment of diagnosis, and are to be treated as ‘disabled’.
The Act is about more than making premises available for wheelchair users. There is the requirement to consider all the many forms of disability, including, hearing and visual impairment, reduced mobility, manual dexterity, and learning disability. ‘Service providers’ are to take reasonable steps to change practices or procedures that make it unreasonably difficult for a disabled person to make use of the facilities and premises. This would include considering the physical access to all areas of the premises, the use of WC’s, notice boards, car parks and grounds, etc. This might include either removing or altering any physical feature which is acting as a barrier to the disabled person, or providing a reasonable means of avoiding it. A ‘physical feature’ can include: the design or construction of the building, an approach to, or exit from the building; fixtures, fittings and furniture; or any other physical element. Thought should be given to wall, floor and ceiling colours. If the walls, doors and floors are of a very similar colour or texture, those with visual impairment may find it difficult to differentiate between, for example, a wall and a door.
It is suggested that compliance with the Act should be reviewed as part of the annual trustees and/or assembly leadership. Such a review could assess:
A list of priorities for action could be compiled, if required. Lack of funds is not a defence against the scope of the Act, in the same way that it was not a defence for non-compliance with the DDA.
‘Can an assembly control who it lets its premises to? Does the Equality Act mean it could be forced to let its buildings to groups, or those of other beliefs, it would not wish to be associated with?’
It is suggested that an assembly can insist that no activities, related to other religions or beliefs, take place in the buildings it controls; and it can resist letting its buildings to be used by particular people or groups on the grounds of their sexual orientation. However, to be immune from the Act, it is likely that the assembly or trust would need to show that it does not normally hire out its premises for payment. It is, perhaps, not unusual for an assembly with large premises to be approached by a smaller Christian fellowship to use their premises for a wedding, baptism, or conference. Such a ‘letting’ would not create a precedent for the use of the premises by any, or all. If, however, the assembly regularly lets out its surplus space on a commercial basis then it probably cannot discriminate against certain groups, or activities. Churches have been known to be caught out on this, so it is a real danger.