I MAKE make no apology for writing about the issue of free speech and equality law for a third week running. Yesterday saw a landmark court judgment which has the potential to change the tenor of the current debate. It is important to be clear what that judgment means and what it does not mean. One group, the gender-critical, have had their rights re-affirmed. No group, particularly not trans people, has lost any rights.

Tim Hopkins, director of the Equality Network and my former comrade from the struggle for LGB rights, has asked me to spell out my objections to Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme.

I had hoped my last two columns made clear that I share the concerns widely held by lawyers and other commentators, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the expert author of an independent report commissioned by the University of Essex, all of which have been the subject of numerous recent news reports.

In summary, these concerns are that misleading advice has been given as to the protected characteristics under the Equality Act, that the law on unlawful discrimination and free speech has been misrepresented and that this may have led to discrimination – particularly against women, people with gender-critical beliefs and same-sex attracted lesbians.

READ MORE: Moral panic over Stonewall and trans rights is fuelled by misinterpretation

The fact so many organisations have left and are leaving the Stonewall scheme shows these concerns are real and substantial. Yesterday’s judgment makes it quite clear that guidance which leads to women with gender-critical views being dismissed as bigots is wrong in law and discriminatory.

A further legal challenge is pending in England amid concerns police forces signed up to the Stonewall scheme are breaching police rules on political activity and risking their impartiality by association with groups that could create a conflict of interest.

Simon Fanshawe, one of the original founders of Stonewall, says the problem is that Stonewall has embarked upon a course of action which is divisive. In its zeal to support self-identification of sex, it has represented the law as it wanted it to be rather than as it is, refused to acknowledge legitimate concerns and said that anyone who believes that sex is binary is a bigot. The organisation’s director even went so far as to compare such views to antisemitism which caused understandable outrage in the Jewish community.

Yesterday’s judgment shows she was quite wrong to say that.

A fellow National columnist suggested it might be of assistance for them to read out the Equality Act to me. This suggestion betrays a rather naïve understanding of how statute law works. The law on the page requires to be interpreted and applied. Where there is disagreement as to how that should be done, people may resort to the courts to seek an authoritative ruling.

Yesterday, we got one of those from the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in a case brought by Maya Forstater, who lost her job because of her gender-critical beliefs. The case defines these as the belief that biological sex is real, important, immutable and not to be conflated with gender identity. The EAT held that such beliefs are protected under the Equality Act and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court said that gender-critical beliefs are protected because they are beliefs that are widely shared, including amongst respected academics, and are also consistent with the law on sex and gender. Holding or expressing such beliefs does not inherently interfere with the rights of trans people, even though some people may find them offensive or even distressing.

This does not mean people with gender-critical views can “indiscriminately” or “gratuitously” refuse to use a trans colleague’s preferred pronouns. To do so may constitute unlawful harassment of that person. But expressing such views does not necessarily constitute harassment and whether it does in any given situation will depend on the facts and circumstances.

SO now it is crystal clear that holding gender-critical beliefs is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act and that it is unlawful for employers, service providers or membership organisations to discriminate against, harass or victimise their employees, service users or members simply for holding or expressing such beliefs.

Trans people will still have the protection of the law against discrimination and harassment both because they hold the protected characteristic of gender re-assignment and because their philosophical belief in gender identity is equally deserving of protection. But this judgment will help to protect women, and men, from spurious claims of transphobia designed to shut down the articulation of arguments flowing from the belief that sex is immutable and sex matters.

Students such as Lisa Keogh, as well as academics who have had to endure disciplinary investigations for expressing gender-critical views may have legal remedies against their universities. Members of trade unions and political parties who have been hounded from office or party membership for holding gender-critical beliefs may have legal remedies against their union or party.

READ MORE: Patrick Harvie: Never forget origins of using trans people as a wedge issue

Most importantly, this judgment will make it easier to have a proper, informed debate about whether there is any conflict between self-identification of sex and women’s sex-based rights under the Equality Act.

Stonewall and other advocacy organisations should not stick their heads in the sand about this judgment or misrepresent it. It is categorically not an attack on trans rights. Leading LGB equality advocates such as some of the founders of Stonewall who are now in the LGB Alliance have not suddenly turned into bigots overnight. Nor have lifelong feminists. Concern is widespread and the debate needs a reset.

It would help to reconsider what we are trying to achieve. Most people, apart from the Tory MPs howling at the moon yesterday during a debate on the rights of asylum seekers, believe in equality and fairness for all. It is easier to listen respectfully to different views on how this might be realised when we recognise that we all share the same goal.

Employers, service providers and membership organisations need to revisit their equality and diversity policies to make sure they state the law correctly and don’t discriminate against any of the protected characteristics.

Political parties and trade unions need some sort of truth and reconciliation or conflict resolution process to bring back into the fold members who have left, or been sidelined for holding gender-critical beliefs. They will also need to address the problems that have been caused by members who have wrongly been given the impression that they can make unfounded allegations of transphobia to marginalise their political rivals.

Governments across the UK will no doubt be acutely aware that under the Equality Act the Public Sector Equality Duty obliges them to foster good relations between groups with different protected characteristics.

READ MORE: Joanna Cherry: We must work to ensure equalities policies conform to the law

This is never more important than when reforms are contemplated that risk putting the rights of groups with different protected characteristics at loggerheads. In 2019, together with a trans woman constituent I wrote to the cabinet secretary with responsibility for equalities suggesting that the tensions over reform of the Gender Recognition Act might be resolved by a Citizens’ Assembly.

We wrote that we believed the majority of the issues thrown up by moves to reform the current GRA process can be resolved. However, we equally conceded there are issues which may not be resolved and that these must be brought into the open and properly examined.

Now seems a good time to renew that call.