I did wonder when this particular chicken would start coming home to roost…
· Blair backs Ruth Kelly in church row
· Faith schools seek equality opt-out
The cabinet is in open warfare over new gay rights legislation after Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, who is a devout Catholic, blocked the plans following protests from religious organisations.
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, was so angry with the move that he wrote a letter to Kelly three weeks ago, telling her that the new rights should not be watered down.
The battle between what is being dubbed the government’s ‘Catholic tendency’ and their more liberal colleagues centres on proposals to stop schools, companies and other agencies refusing services to people purely because of their sexuality.
The very first thing to say here is a hearty ‘well done, keep it up, Alan!… and whatever you do, don’t back down on this!’
Anyone who’s the slightest bit surprised at this turn of events really hasn’t been paying too much attention as much the same exercise in last-minute backsliding accompanied the introduction of regulations outlawing discrimination on grounds of sexuality in employment, in which religious organisations, including ‘faith schools’ were handed an exemption at the last minute and after public consultation had concluded, ensuring that as few people as possible would notice the government pandering to religious bigotry.
One can see the same pattern of deception in the passage of the recent Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, where throughout the consultation stages the government let it be known that a repeal of the common law offences of blasphemy and blaspemous libel was on the cards, only to quietly let that slip away unnoticed once – again – public consultations were over.
So am I in the slightest bit surprised at this?
No, of course not. We’ve done it before and it would be naive to expect things to be different on this occasion, although what does need to be appeciated here is that the mere fact that legislation fall under the purview of Ruth Kelly is nowhere near as significant as some appear to think – she was safely cloistered away as Financial Secretary to the Treasury at the time that the Sexual Orientation Regulations 2003 were quietly spiked and her direct involvement in things – and public assumptions about her personal beliefs as a Roman Catholic and member of Opus Dei ((remember, she steadfastly refuses to comment on her actual beliefs) has only served to put this issue under the spotlight it deserves, this time around. If you’re really looking for the character stroking the white Persian cat on this one, you’re better off thinking in terms of the guy who, according to his former press enforcer, ‘doesn’t do god’.
I’ve already covered much of the background to this issue back in June, so to save time this link will take you back to the earlier article and introduce you to a couple of the Christian pressure groups who’re campaining on this issue, the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship and Christian Concern For Our Nation, who as you’ll see from the earlier piece share many things including a policy officer, Andrea Minichiello Williams.
What this does give me the chance to do is pick apart a gloriously specious piece of pseudo-logic that lies at the heart of this particular campaign, and indeed at the heart of many similar religious-inspired campaigns covering everything from abortion to Jerry Springer: The Opera, this being the idea that this is all about protecting ‘religious liberty’.
Philip Johnston’s article on the Sexual Orientation Regulations (2nd Oct) makes a perceptive point. Irrespective of sexual orientation or religious viewpoint, the Government should not have the power to force people to act against their conscience, provided this does not infringe the legitimate rights of others or the laws and customs of the country. The current proposals for the Regulations would infringe the right of Christians and Jews to act in accordance with the doctrinal teaching of their respective faiths which says that the practice of sex outside heterosexual marriage is wrong.
Further, to allow the executive to use secondary legislation, not subject to full Parliamentary scrutiny, to pass such a law is dangerous. Who will be next in finding that their morals, beliefs or lifestyle, are no longer acceptable to the Government?
The Government announced last week that there would be a 6 month delay in implementing the Regulations: we hope that this is recognition that, in their current form, the proposals are unworkable. The Government and the Women and Equality Unit of the DTI (the originators of the law) must ensure that the Regulations protect the basic right to freedom of conscience.We do not think that anyone who reflects carefully on the SORs could oppose a suggested amendment to the Regulations which states ‘Nothing in these Regulations will force anyone to promote, facilitate, encourage or assist the practice of a sexual orientation in a manner which is contrary to the strongly held religious convictions of the person’. We hope the Government will agree and act accordingly.
John Scriven, Chairman, Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship
The Venerable Michael Lawson, Archdeacon of Hampstead
Dr Philip Giddings, Vice Chair of House of Laity of General Synod
Yaqub Masih, Secretary General, UK Asian Christians
Colin Dye, Senior Minister, Kensington Temple
Reverend John Noble, Chairman of the National Charismatic Leaders Conference
(To contact signatories on this letter call Andrea Williams 0771 2591154. Partnership House, 157 Waterloo Road, London SE1 8XN)
(Letter to the Daily Telegraph – 13 October 2006
The conclusion is NOW IS THE TIME FOR CHRISTIANS TO MAKE IT CLEAR TO THE GOVERNMENT THAT THE LAW MUST PROTECT THE RIGHT OF CHURCHES, CHRISTIAN ORGANISATIONS, AND INDIVIDUAL CHRISTIANS TO ADHERE TO THE BIBLE’S TEACHING ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY.
We also believe it is important to remember why many Christians see the SORs as a very significant threat to our freedom to live as Christians: if the SORs are not changed from the wording currently suggested by the Government in the consultation document, Christians will not have the freedom to act in accordance with the Bible’s teaching that the only rightful sexual relationship is between a man and a woman in a monogamous marriage. Without an amendment to the current proposals for the SORs, any Christian, church or Christian organisation who provide goods, services, facilities, education or premises, will be acting illegally if they refuse to provide such things on the grounds that such provision would promote, enable or encourage homosexual sex. IT IS CRUCIAL THAT OUR FREEDOM OF CONSICENCE AND FREEDOM TO ACT ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE IS PROTECTED IN LAW BY AN AMMENDMENT TO THE SORs.
(Their capitals, not mine, by the way)
There are a several points worth picking up here, the first of which lies in the stated contention that "the Government should not have the power to force people to act against their conscience, provided this does not infringe the legitimate rights of others or the laws and customs of the country".
The general scope of the government’s powers is both a separate debate and somewhat immaterial to the matter at hand but inasmuch as governments are constrained in legislating on such matters, those constraints are set out in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights as enacted in UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998 as follows:
FREEDOM OF THOUGHT, CONSCIENCE AND RELIGION
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
The right to Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a qualified right; one in which people are entitled to believe in whatever or whomever they like, whether that happens to be God, Allah, Krishna, Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
However, when it comes to putting such beliefs into practice and acting upon them, the state reserves the right to legislate and impose restrictions in the interests of the common good. An extreme example of this one could argue is the belief held by some Islamic fundamentalists that blowing themselves and a bunch of other innocent people up on a tube train amounts to a religious martyrdom that guarantees them a place in paradise and 72 oh-so-willing virgins – one cannot legislate away such a belief however much one considers it to be abhorrent, however one governments can, and do, put in place legislation that aims to prevent such beliefs being translated in actions.
A more moderate example of the state legislating to restrict certain religious practices is one with which the majority of Christians can have no particular complaint as it lies in Britain’s marriage laws and, specifically, in the offence of bigamy. Britain, in common with US and other European countries does not recognise bigamous/polygamous marriages and imposes legal sanctions if such are entered into in this country, even though such practices are permitted by certain religions and religious sects such as Islam and the Mormon Church. In fact, if one researches the history of the constitutional separation of church and state in the US one finds that the precise point at which the US Supreme Court uneqivocally asserted the authority of the state to legislate, where necessary, in respect of religious practices turns out to be a case brought by the Moirmon Church in the 19th Century in which it attempted to defend its ‘right’ to practice polygamy within the state of Utah.
The core argument put forward in the letter to the Telegraph includes an important proviso – provided this does not infringe the legitimate rights of others – but then fails entirely to acknowledge that this situation does entail a conflict between religious belief and the legitimate rights of others, specifically the rights of the gay community to equal treatment in society in line with provisions for equal treatment accorded to other groups; women, ethnic minorities and people with a disability – were the authors of this letter less blinkered by their own prejudices they would recognise that this proviso has the effect of nullifying their entire argument.
The second article that I’ve quoted here states both that, "the law must protect the right of churches, Christain organisations and individual Christians to adhere to the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality’ and that ‘if the SORs are not changed from the wording currently suggested by the Government in the consultation document, Christians will not have the freedom to act in accordance with the Bible’s teaching that the only rightful sexual relationship is between a man and a woman in a monogamous marriage.’
To begin with, if one researches the subject properly one find that not only are there very few references to homosexual behaviour in the Bible – no more than 10-15 in the entire text – but that all such references are both unclear and open to interpretation.
For example the presumption that the ‘sin’ for which the Caananite town of Sodom was destroyed was the practice of homosexuality amongst its population – hence the term ‘sodomy’ for anal intercourse – does not appear in Christian theological literature until the 11th Century AD while elsewhere in the Bible the ‘sin’ of the Sodomites is cast in very different terms as being, alternately, adultery, excessive pride and gluttony, being inhospitable towards strangers, being ungodly, unprincipled and lawless or just generally being hedonistic and sexually immoral.
Analysis of the original source texts of the Bible – in either Hebrew in the case of the Old Testement or Greek for the New Testement, shows that in every instance in which the modern Bible refers to homosexuality, the precise terms from which such references are derived are unclear and open to different interpretations such that the precise intent of the author cannot be verified with absolute certainty. In most cases a more accurate translation of the original text would place the Biblical injunctions against homosexual behaviour in the context either of temple prostitution and/or paedophilia and not against homosexuality in general and one has to remember that the idea of that individuals have a sexual orientation is a very recent ‘invention’ dating back only to the 19th Century – the authors of these passages would have had no concrete concept of homosexuality as a defined ‘lifestyle’ int he modern sense of the term as such a concept would not exist for at least another 17-1800 years: much more in the case of passages from the Old Testement.
All one can say for certain is that the modern Bible reflects the prejudices and beliefs of later translators, which in turn negates the concept of the text containing a literal and absolute truth.
Equally, but for a single passage in Leviticus that advocates that homosexuals should be put to death, nowhere in the Bible does it state how Christians should conduct themselves in regards to the gay community, other that in regards to the generic injunction to proselytize and spread the Christian faith. Even if one accepts the idea that references to homosexual conduct in the Bible do refer to the generality of homosexuality it would seem that the only thing that the Bible requires of Christians under such an interpretation is that they refrain from such conduct themselves; nowhere does it state that homosexuals should be shunned, subjected to prejudice and bigotry or otherwise treated any differently by Christians than anyone else, even the most devout believer.
(And in the context of the Bed & Breakfast argument being put forward by those seeking a watering down of the new sexual orientation regulations one might note that in Matthew 10:14-15 implies that one of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah was a lack of hospitality…
 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.
 Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.)
To act according to the Bible, if as a Christian one accepts that it does contain express injunctions against homosexuality, requires only that one does not practice homosexuality oneself and, as such, the Sexual Orientation Regulations do not require Christians to act contrary to Biblical teachings or impinge on their religious freedom – with or without these regulations they are still entirely free to NOT practice homosexuality and that is all the the Bible appears to require of them.
This idea that simply by renting a gay couple a room for the night or allowing a gay organisations to hold a meeting in a Church Hall is someone promoting, facilitating, encouraging or otherwise assisting homosexual behaviour is hypocritical nonsense and an errant apologia for irrational prejudice. One only has to recall that merely treating a homosexual as an ordinary human being or acknowledging the existance of gay couples and gay relationships without expressing overblown ‘moral’ disapproval is sufficient to be considered to be ‘promoting’ homosexuality to appreciate fully just how narrow-minded a constituency we’re dealing with here.
And that’s the real crux of this issue.
What groups like CCFN (and Christian Voice for that matter) are seeking is both to preserve certain undue and outdated privileges accorded to the Christian faith – in the case the privilege of being able to engage in discriminatory behaviours that are otherwise denied to the wider population by law – and generally to impose their beliefs, values and attitudes on others by seeking to bend the law to those same values and beliefs.
Such attitudes and practices are perhaps less apparent in this this matter but are plainly obvious when one looks at other campaigns conducted by such groups, particulaly those relating to abortion and censorship, as in the case of JS:TO.
The simple fact is that if, as a Christian, you believe homosexuality to be sinful then you have the perfect and inalienable right to not engage in homosexual behaviours, much as you have the right not to have a abortion if you disagree with that and the right, also, not to watch a film, TV programme or play or listen to piece of music if it is likely to offend against your personal beliefs and sensibilities…
And in permitting you a free and unfettered right not to do any or all of those things, society recognises and preserves your basic freedom of the thought, conscience and religion.
Such rights do not, however, extend to restricting other who do not share your beliefs from engaging in such activities providing, of course, that such activities are within the law – which they all are.
In the letter to the Telegraph, the signatories put forward the view that…
We do not think that anyone who reflects carefully on the SORs could oppose a suggested amendment to the Regulations which states ‘Nothing in these Regulations will force anyone to promote, facilitate, encourage or assist the practice of a sexual orientation in a manner which is contrary to the strongly held religious convictions of the person’.
Well having reflected carefully on the SORs I can think of a sound, rational and practical objection to such an amendment and one that Parliament needs to consider most carefully.
How, in legal terms and under extant evidentiary rules, is a court of law dealing with an alleged case of discrimimation on ground of sexuality to adequately determine whether the defendant in such a case was genuinely motivated by strongly held religious convictions as opposed to irrational homophobia?
That, in practical terms, in the crucial question – what is the legal test to which a defence predicated on a claim of exemption to the regulations on religious grounds will be subjected and how will that test be assessed.
A court cannot simply accept such an assertion by a defendant without some corroboration, so what corroborating evidence would such a defendant have to provide?
A record of their attendance at a place of worship…?
But then, does the mere fact that one does not attend a church, mosque or other religious establishment on the regular basis prove that an individual does not have strongly held religious convictions? Of course not.
What about a testemonial from a Vicar, Priest or Imam, etc…?
But how reliable would such a testemonial be, given that the person giving the testemonial may be motivated by their own beliefs and convictions as much if not more than any particular knowledge of the religious convictions of the defendant? Might a cleric who, themselves, is prejudiced towards homosexuality not provide such a testemonial simply to make a political statement about the nature of these regulations…?
It’s not inconceivable.
Ownership of a religious text perhaps..?
But, what does that prove? Nothing. It could be a recent purchase, a family Bible or just one from the Gideons that the defendant has nicked from a hotel room as a souvenir.
What about a scriptural test, perhaps..?
Again, does the ability to quote chapter and verse from a religious text prove that an individual holds strong religious convictions?
They might just as easily have ‘crammed’ for such a test having not touched a Bible for years without holding any really belief in the contents of the text itself.
How about psychological profiling?
Is that really appropriate and could is really distinguish between a genuine believer and homophobe feigning religious convictions to get themselves out fo trouble?
A defence predicated on religious convictions can only be predicated on evidence that is, at best, hearsay and therefore unreliable in which case these regulations become, by design, completely unworkable…
…a fact that I would suspect the signatories to this letter are well aware.
More on this issue from:
Wongablog has also joined the fray with a fairly scathing (and very readable) piece