John Bercow wants to privilege gay rights over religious freedom. Here’s why that’s a problem

It should come as no surprise to anybody that the establishment generally think LGBT+ rights to be really quite important. But it is now becoming clear just how important they hold them to be.

Hosting the Pink News summer reception in parliament, John Bercow – the House of Commons Speaker – said this:

I respect people’s rights to adhere to and profess their faith, but for me, where there is a clash between somebody’s adherence to faith on the one hand and the acknowledgement of and demonstration of respect for human rights, the latter has to trump the former.

So, just to be totally clear, John Bercow is of the view that where a faith conflicts with LGBT+ freedom, LGBT+ folks must of necessity always win out. The basis for this assertion is that, according to Bercow, LGBT+ rights are human rights.

The problem with this view, of course, is that the freedom of religion is also a human right. Indeed, John Bercow is surely aware that almost all of our modern human rights can trace their lineage back to the religious toleration being sought by those whose faith was, by conscience, outside of the established church in England. The freedom on which the others hang is the freedom of religion.

Even if one rejects that historically demonstrable point, we are still left with a problem. If LGBT+ rights are to be preferred as human rights, what does that tell us of the freedom of religion except that John Bercow does not deem it a human right? But the Human Rights Act 1998, Article 9, begs to differ.

The issue here boils down to how we balance human rights. The problem we have gotten ourselves into is not one of competing human rights, which oughtn’t to compete at all. The problem we’ve got is that we are now intent on privileging certain groups – particularly those we deem previously downtrodden – over those we consider to have been, at least at one time, in the ascendancy.

As an aside, I am looking forward to the day that Evangelical Dissenting churches – who have never been in the ascendancy – receive such privilege. Sadly, I suspect, we will be naively lumped under the generic banner of ‘Christian’ and deemed to have already been privileged despite history showing it ain’t so. Despite our historic and heinous treatment by both the Anglican and Catholic establishments, we are considered by our present, religiously illiterate establishment to have been a privileged group.

But, of course, none of us should really be looking for special treatment. If we are genuinely committed to equality, we should be looking for the same treatment across the board. This is what makes the argument of competing rights, and the privileging of certain groups, so difficult. For in so doing, we actually undercut some of the rights common to all in order to facilitate the advance of certain privileges that are given only to a select group.

Now, to be controversial among my Christian brethren, I personally wasn’t all that bothered about the introduction of gay marriage. I took something akin to the Anabaptist view that Tim Keller outlined:

A recent article on the Huffington Post reported on a discussion among journalists about how younger evangelicals view the issue of same-sex marriage. I was present, and I said that I have noted many younger evangelicals are taking an Anabaptist-like position; that is, that while they still believe homosexuality to be a sin, they don’t think the government should put that belief into law for the nation.

In explaining the Anabaptist tradition, I was quoted saying, “You can believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal.” I did say that—but it was purely a statement of fact. It is possible to hold that position, though it isn’t my position, nor was I promoting or endorsing the position. I was simply reporting on the growth of that view.

It strikes me, on a dissenting view, it is entirely reasonable to hold that position.

As far as the Bible is concerned, conducting marriages actually has very little to do with the church. As Don Carson said here:

It is important to see that, strictly speaking, marriage (despite the Roman Catholic church), is not a sacrament to be reserved for Christians. It is a creation ordinance — that is, it is part of the plan of creation itself, something that God has ordained for man/woman pairs everywhere, not something that flows out of the life of the church and that belongs only to Christians.

In France, for example, all marriages must be performed before a civil authority. I see no objection to that; in fact, I think it is a good thing (even if it arose in France for bad reasons), for it clarifies issues.

For this reason, it is very hard to make an argument that the state should ‘get out of marriage’, as UKIP once argued. It is a function of the state. If anything, as Carson suggests, the church should get out of marriage and leave the state to do whatever it will. As Jonathan Leeman argues here, the one who carries out weddings ‘should recognize that he is performing this function not in his biblically-authorized capacity as a pastor but as an agent of the state’.

My concern in the gay marriage debate was less whether it was permitted in law and more what churches would be compelled to do. I’m not going to lose vast amounts of sleep over the state permitting something I find biblically problematic, not least because they do this often and regularly with little pushback. But I am seriously concerned when there is a suggestion that the state is going to force churches to act in ways that are contrary to scripture. It is quite right that the church should not endorse gay marriage, for all the well-rehearsed biblical reasons that are obvious to anybody who is genuine in reading scripture on its own terms, but to permit something is not to endorse it.

Leeman says here, ‘To vote for [same sex marriage], to legislate it, to rule in favor of it, to tell your friends at the office that you think it’s just fine—all this is sin. To support it publicly or privately is to “give approval to those who practice” the very things that God promises to judge—exactly what we’re told not to do’. The only one of those I would label ‘sin’ is to tell people you think there is nothing sinful about SSM – that would be to deny the Word of God. But the rest? Consider the following.

I would hope that most Christians would support, and vote for, the right of Muslim people to worship freely in mosques. I see no reason to believe the worship of a god other than Yahweh is any less sinful than homosexuality. If anything, it is surely worse! Yet, in one case we (almost uniformly) believe it right to extend freedom to act in ways that are contrary to scripture whilst in the other we do not. That strikes me as highly inconsistent if our basis for denying the one is that it is contrary to scripture and to permit it is to endorse it.

If supporting the right of others to worship false gods is not deemed to be actively encouraging the worship of those false gods, and doesn’t undermine our ability to continue to state both within and without our churches that such is sinful, I struggle to see how the same doesn’t apply to SSM. I can happily call SSM sinful, and counsel people against it for all sorts of reasons, without troubling myself too much about whether the state choose to permit it or not. If we had something akin to the French system, it would be very easy to permit the state to do what it will, whilst the church may happily opt out of what it will, without fear of denying anybody anything. Only the established church and a faulty view of ordinances stemming from Catholicism stand in the way, neither of which should affect the dissenting view.

However, to come back to the point, John Bercow is not quite happy with even this. It would be his view that if a gay couple wished to get married in a church, their rights should trump the right of the church to act in accord with its conscience and not conduct the marriage. This is something of a problem.

It is one thing to permit others the right to do something with which you disagree, which we do all the time without that being an act of sin on our part, it is quite another to join in and actively endorse the sinful thing we have decided not to legally proscribe. It is legitimate to permit others to do things that would go against our conscience were we to do them without endorsing those things; it is an altogether different issue to expect those whose consciences won’t bend to actively participate in that which they consider sin. Aside from the morality of it, it is foolish on the part of legislators as it forces people of faith into civil disobedience that could easily be avoided.

Inasmuch as LGBT+ people are humans (and, for the avoidance of any doubt, of course they are!) then human rights evidently extend to them. They are as much people made in the image of God as anyone. To them belong the same rights as anybody else made in that same image. But we run into problems when we begin to privilege their rights over and above the rights of other humans whose rights also ought to be upheld. It is my concern with many of the recent ‘rights cases’ that have arisen that we are moving into the realm of compelled actions and beliefs.

Whilst I am sympathetic to many of the intentions behind recent anti-discrimination laws, I am convinced almost all of them have been entirely misguided. Whilst I believe it is (usually) wrong to discriminate in the provision of services, the only way to uphold the human rights of all is to allow people to serve whomever they want – and, indeed, refuse service to whomever they want – whilst also permitting others the freedom to go elsewhere, protest, boycott and even organise against any such people if they so wish.

Ultimately, it is not a human right to receive service in a shop nor to be married in a particular church or any such thing. Freedom of thought and belief – and the right to act in accordance with those thoughts and beliefs – are, by contrast, human rights. Those who refuse service, or hold views that most of us deem contrary to common decency, may face boycotts and protests. What they should not face, however, is a compulsion under threat of the law to act against their conscience, no matter how unpalatable we may find the stance they are taking.

John Bercow’s stance is a problem for us all. He would undermine the freedom of religion upon which all other freedoms stand – including the LGBT+ ones he wants to privilege. If it is possible to set certain rights over others – especially those that only apply to specific groups – what guarantee has anyone got that, though their rights may be privileged now, they will not be supplanted by another group in future? History is full of exactly that happening over and again. The only way to avoid this is to determine rights that are common to all rather than those which privilege, or only apply, to certain groups.

For Christians, if we do not wish to be compelled to act against our consciences, it will inevitably mean being willing to actively permit things that, though we ourselves would eschew them, we will allow others to do. The key to this is determining what rights are, in actual fact, common to all and then actively fighting to see them promoted consistently to all, even those with whom we deeply disagree. None of this stops us calling out sin for what it is. None of it stops us from pointing to scripture and saying that certain behaviours and ideas are sinful. What it means is giving people the same freedom that we want for ourselves; namely, the right to act according to our conscience and beliefs based on the Word of God.