Permission to lie with impunity, M’lud?

It is with much amusement that I find that the Christian Institute is currently picking a legal fight with, of all companies, Google after it decided that this proposed AdWords entry breached its acceptable content guidelines:

UK Abortion law
Key views and news on abortion
law from The Christian Institute
www.christian.org.uk

Google’s grounds for refusing to run this advert are:

At this time, Google policy does not permit the advertisement of websites that contain “abortion and religion-related content”, . As noted in our advertising terms and conditions, we reserve the right to exercise editorial discretion when it comes to the advertising we accept on our site.

With Google’s apparent stance being that it only takes advertising on searches for abortion from organisations that provide ‘factual information’ on the subject of abortion, all of which has got the Christian Institute hot under the collar and making the usual threats about suing under the Equality Act’s provisions covering ‘religious discrimination’ and, as usual harping on about ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘religious liberty’ even though neither is relevant to the issue at hand.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an important legal principle at stake here, which is why I rather hope that the Christian Institute will follow through with its threat of legal action against Google, as the outcome of such an action could set an important legal precedent not just in relation to the provisions of the Equality Act as it applies to religious discrimination but more generally in law.

The fundamental question this case could raise is the question of to what extent the law is required to recognise the validity of religious belief in circumstances that fall outside strictly theological matters and, particularly, where there is substantial evidence to suggest that, no matter how sincere the belief, the belief itself, or the manner in which it is interpreted and applied to a particular situation, event or practice, is factually incorrect.  In short, is Google ‘discriminating’ against the Christian Institute because of its religious beliefs about abortion or because it has resorted to publishing factually inaccurate information about abortion and, in particular, about the scientific and medical evidence relating to abortion, in order to promote those beliefs.

The former would be religious discrimination, however, to be seen to satisfy that condition the Christian Institute would be required to limit the information it provide about abortion purely to theological, philosophical and scriptural matters, matters that are unequivocally religious in character. If, as it has done, it crosses that line and begins to offer what it purports to be factual information relating to matters that ordinarily fall outside the sphere of religious belief, one matters of an intrinsically scientific nature then the situation is a very different and rather more complex one.

Google is quite within its rights to decline to take this advert because, in its opinion, the Christian Institute promotes factually inaccurate information about abortion – there is nothing in law to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of bad science. To counter that argument, the Christian Institute will have to argue that it has right not be discriminated against in publishing misleading information on non-religious matters simply because that information is in accordance with it religious beliefs, even though such conduct would put in breach of two sections of the Advertising Standards Authorities code of practice for advertisers, specifically:

HONESTY

6.1 Marketers should not exploit the credulity, lack of knowledge or inexperience of consumers.

and…

TRUTHFULNESS

7.1 No marketing communication should mislead, or be likely to mislead, by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise.

In short, what the Christian Institute are seeking, by default, is the right to lie, mislead and behave unethically, with impunity, on just about any subject providing it can substantiate a claim that the bullshit it publishes and promotes is in accordance with its religious beliefs.

It hasn’t got a hope in hell’s chance of being successful – the courts are nothing like stupid enough to fall for such an argument, especially as the Equality Act broadens the legal definition of what constitutes religion or belief in such a way that just about anything that can demonstrate that it has a ‘a clear structure and belief system’ that i not political could at least claim to be covered by the act.

In the unlikely event of a court accepting the Christian Institute’s claim of religious discrimination, just about every practitioner of ‘new age’ woo who can lay claim to a systematic belief in some form of sky-fairy or a systematic ‘philosophy’ of some description could claim to be protected from discrimination on the grounds of talking bollocks simply by arguing that their beliefs permit them to disseminate any bullshit they like as long its consistent with what they believe – the very ideas of objective truth, facts and evidence would become almost meaningless in law in relation to advertising and other forms of publication.

That said, this case is not without its potential upside – a ruling in Google’s favour would clearly establish the principle that companies, in providing services and also in employment, are not required to pay any significant regard to religious opinions on non-religious matters if those opinions are not in accordance with established facts or supported by material evidence.

Such a ruling would be of particular importance in education as it would rule out the possibility of groups like the Christian Institute to use the provisions of the Equality Act as a means of trying to force nonsense like Intelligent Design in to schools be the back door, i.e. by claiming that it would be religious discrimination were a school to decline a job application from a biology teacher who believes in ID or discipline and even dismiss such a teacher for seeking to introduce ID into science lessons.

So this case is important, and not to be dismissed lightly, because a rejection of the Christian Institute’s arguments will create an important precedent, not to mention, of course, that the case could well provide a considerable amount of entertainment value as part of Google’s defence is likely to be a demonstration to the court of precisely how and why the information that the Christian Institute is providing on abortion is misleading and lacking in material facts, raising the possibility that we may see a Dover-style demolition of the Christian Institute’s arguments on abortion.