Why Belief (Religion) should not be a "protected characteristic"

In 2010, the United Kingdom created the current Equality Act, which unified several previously-disparate pieces of legislation which had previously protected the British against prejudice on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and other "protected characteristics".  Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of these is "belief or religion".

Why is this a problem?  Because the entire purpose of the act is to ensure all protected characteristics are treated the same, and at least at my university, one way they have to be treated is that diversity must be actively supported, and in fact we need to go out of our way to make sure people who self-identify with a protected characteristic feel welcome.  In general, of course, that's an excellent idea.  But with respect to beliefs, one of the societal purposes of a university is to discuss & critique beliefs.  Such critique may not feel like, or even be, a welcoming process.

Note: The University of Bath's current Statement of Equalities Objectives observes "that the Equality & Human Rights Commission limits the use of belief in this context to things that "affect your life choices or the way you live".  Of course, as a Cognitive Scientist, I know this doesn't actually eliminate any form of knowledge an agent holds whatsoever from the definition. But for the sake of argument, here I'll restrict my arguments to beliefs that affect lifestyle choices such as diet and who you associate with and how you die.

Previously (and I think in an unresolved internal contradiction, still), British law recognised the importance of  questioning beliefs of all sorts.  Speech that would be illegal in the rest of the city of Bath (or any other UK city) because it was for example, seditious, is legal on a university campus. You cannot threaten or insult a person, nor incite violence, but you are allowed even to ridicule and "abuse" a belief, including a religion.  That this may lead a person to feel insulted or unwelcome was not previously seen as a problem.  This is laid out in the Universities UK document Freedom of speech on campus: rights and responsibilities in UK universities (pdf).  A quote:
Equality legislation is complemented by criminal law in the Public Order Act 1986, which makes it a criminal offence to stir up racial and religious hatred. This includes the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, and may often be a factor in determining whether or not to allow a visiting speaker to attend a speaker meeting. There is a specific exemption in the legislation relating to religious hatred which acknowledges that the offences should not be applied ‘in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief systems.’ [p. 50]
One of my concerns is that, unlike the other protected characteristics, we cannot possibly make people of all beliefs feel welcome at the same time.  You cannot provide halal food on campus in a way that makes people who believe animal welfare matters feel welcome.  The University of Bristol Christian Union decided yesterday that you cannot treat women as equals (let them speak without having a husband present at the lectern with them) and make Christians feel welcome.  The fact a law is unenforceable is widely considered to indicate it is a bad law.  In this case, also one damaging to academic enquiry, and therefore human progress.

Addendum: After some discussion (in person, by email & on facebook – thanks everyone) I realised that I need to make two things clear.  My point is not that having a belief deserves no protection (my title is misleading, but that's why I put "protected characteristic" in quotes).  My point is that the nature of the protection that people with beliefs (er, everyone) should be accorded is fundamentally different from the protection that should be accorded because someone who is a women, belongs to a racial minority, or has a disability.  There are actually two reasons belief is different:
  1. Belief is the only protected characteristic that can conflict with the other ones.  Protecting a woman's right to speak or anyone's right to marry cannot conflict with providing disability access. But all three of the above can conflict with a person's beliefs.  Apparently there have already been lawsuits because of these conflicts, e.g. because allowing women to be present conflicts with someone's religion.  Apparently these lawsuits have not been resolved consistently so far.
  2. One of the things that make Universities unique institutions (and this is recognised under British law) is that they are particularly set aside as places that dangerous ideas can be considered and debated.  Therefore, given that there is a conflict in the law, I think universities should want to be clear about what the appropriate course of action for resolving that conflict should be.
What I am advocating therefore is to take "Belief and Religion" out of the unified Equality Act, and instead treat it with its own legislation which makes clear the distinction above:  that while you cannot be personally harassed or threatened because of the beliefs you hold, your beliefs themselves can be criticised even in extreme ways.  This is necessary because society needs to keep learning, because the world will always be changing.

Update:  On a related note not entirely due to legislation, see an alum document Harvard's declining support for free speech,  The Slow Death of Free Speech at Harvard. (via Steve Pinker).
The Slow Death of Free Speech at Harvard

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