Religious liberty in public life

The chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Sir Trevor Philips, has argued there needs to be ‘reasonable accommodation’ of religion and belief in law. The EHRC has gone further still and intervened in four cases of alleged Christian discrimination appealing alongside these individuals in Strasbourg. Following the EHRC’s decision, Gary Streeter MP has sponsored an Early Day Motion stating:

That this House welcomes the decision of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to intervene in support of four cases involving discrimination against Christians that are presently with the European Court of Human Rights; notes that this is a long overdue recognition of the need to defend religious liberty and marks an important development in relation to a better understanding of the role of faith in public life; and further welcomes the Commission’s advocacy for reasonable accommodation in the workplace as an acknowledgement of the place of conscientious objection for those with religious belief.

As Cranmer notes ‘It is indeed “long overdue recognition” which hopefully “marks an important development in relation to a better understanding of the role of faith in public life”‘.

It is hardly a new observation that, wherever the rights of individuals are concerned, there will always be competing interests. Civil liberties have long been balanced against issues of national security and the right to freedom of speech has, more recently at least, been balanced against the probability that such words may incite violence e.g. incitement to racial hatred act 2006. Similarly, the rights of religious believers have been balanced against the rights of other groups. This balancing act has often given priority to one group above another. Many Christians feel their strongly held beliefs and consciences have, for some time, played second fiddle to the rights of others.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, has stated:

All reasonable people will agree both that equality law in this area must be clear and also that there is scope in a secular democracy for reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs when that accommodation does not affect the rights and freedoms of others. But it is one thing to make the case for reasonable accommodation in matters such as religious holidays, and quite another if the accommodation sought is to allow the believer to discriminate against others in the provision of a service.

However, this seems wholly unreasonable. Copson argues religious belief will be tolerated when it ‘does not affect the rights and freedoms of others’. Nevertheless, where the interests of others impinge on the rights and freedom of religious groups Copson is not nearly so concerned. Similarly, in the Guardian, Copson argues:

Two of the cases in which the EHRC will intervene are that of Lillian Ladele, the registrar who refused to fulfil her duties because of her opposition to same-sex partnerships, and Gary McFarlane, who refused to treat gay couples in his job as a counsellor at Relate. They both argued that they should be excused their duties in relation to gay people because of their religious beliefs. Is it possible that the EHRC might say that was fair enough, as long as alternative registrars or counsellors could be offered to the gay couples in question?

If so, this would be to argue for a retrograde step in English law. The line drawn in the case of Ladele set a vital precedent in recognising the fundamental (some would say constitutional) nature of the rights of gay and lesbian people to be protected from discrimination. It must certainly be maintained, and it is shocking that the EHRC will not say – right now, and upfront – that, whatever representations are made to it by groups seeking to influence the content of its intervention, it will rule out any support for the arguments advanced by McFarlane or Ladele.

However, Copson is not arguing for equal provision of service, the refusal of which would certainly be discriminatory. Rather, he is arguing that such services must be performed by those whose consciences will not allow them to do so. Why is it so vitally important that a Christian who objects to same-sex partnership be the one to perform the duty? If the duty were refused altogether by the organisation supposed to carry it out then there may be a case for claiming discrimination. Where the duty is carried out, what difference does it make who performs it? Why can’t both rights be upheld? It seems Copson is intent on forcing those with religious beliefs to carry out duties against their conscience irrespective of whether the conscience of the individual and the rights of those seeking the service can both be satisfied.

Cranmer observes that ‘reasonable adjustment’ has worked well for those with disability. He states: 

work rotas and clothing regulations have been changed and other reasonable adjustments made to accommodate the needs of those who cannot see, hear or walk. Employers have a statutory obligation to accommodate the needs of those who cannot physically perform certain activities, so why can they not also be obliged to accommodate those who cannot spiritually conform? Legs that will not walk are no different from eyes that cannot see or ears that cannot hear. Trevor Phillips appears now to be of the view that these are no different from the conscience that will not countenance.

Sadly, at present, the EDM only has 14 signatories. As Calvin L. Smith points out:

several hundred signatures might well serve to act as a shot across the bows of those elites aggressively seeking to push religious views firmly into the private sphere. So what is your MP doing about this? Signing an EDM costs very little, and who knows what a short email or letter might do.