Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Will we need another 1829?

Daniel O'Connell, MP from 1828-41 bar three and a bit years, rampant papist.
From the Reformation to 1829 this sceptered isle supported discrimination against Catholics on the basis of their religion. The penal laws were very frank about this and we as a society now accept that the religious freedoms of Catholics during this period were prejudiced by these laws. In 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act ended the penal laws though at the same time other laws were brought in to lower the proportion of Catholics who could vote. Today we had a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that means that Christians now have an assurance in law that they are free to display religious symbols on their person. I live in University accomodation and keep a crucifix on my desk because that is where I pray. I often have people to visit or pop in for a cup of tea or a drink and occasionally having a crucifix in the room starts a conversation about faith which, as you may be able to tell from this blog, I'm quite open to discussing. My faith cannot be the sort of thing I keep in my bottom draw, out of sight out of mind, because if it were I'd be doing it wrong.

British Airways initially prevented their employee Nadia Eweida, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, from wearing her cross around her neck where it could be seen, this despite the reasonable accomodation in their dress code for items of clothing required by other religions such as khimar veils for Muslim women and turbans and kippahs for Sikh and Jewish men. BA argued that the difference between what it was and was not willing to make allowance for was those articles of clothing required by a faith and those members of that faith chose to adopt. One doesn't have to be a genius to see that this is not sustainable since it neglects the personal aspect of faith. I for example need reminding that Jesus died because I and my fellow human beings sin and having this reminder of a crucifix on my desk or around my neck helps me to be a better Catholic. I am required by my faith to be a good Catholic, so for me personally that helps me fulfill that requirement.

I'm so far from having anything like a lawyer's mind, but I wonder if this has any bearing on the ruling by Mr Justice Langstaff in December in which he removed the right of Christians not to work on Sundays because some Christians were prepared to work on Sundays, a right which, incidentally, the government who liberalised Sunday trading in 1994 guaranteed it would not infringe. In 1996 it quietly repealed the provisions that ensured working on Sunday would be voluntary. There is a long standing principle in British law that the judiciary refrains from making rulings on religious questions, yet here Langstaff decided that the Ten Commandments were not an important part of Christian beleif and so it was optional. The ECHR seem to suggest that freedom of religion has an important personal aspect as well as being related to what others in one's religious group consider necessary: Ms Eweida feels it necessary to wear her cross, it is not the common practice or requirement of her denomination. If someone personally feels that they are bound to observe the fourth commandement, as it is laid out in Exodus or the Catechism (CCC 2172 and 2174) regardless of whether the rest of their denomination do, do they have that right and does their freedom on conscience comes before the wishes of their employer?

Whilst the ECHR did uphold the one religious freedom, they did then supress another today. The case of Gary McFarlane who is a councellor but who's agency fired him for refusing to give sex therapy to gay couples. I'm not really sure where this issue arose. Surely the sensible thing for the organisation, who reportedly had staff capable and willing to dispense sex therapy to gay couples, would be to swap one or two things around so that Mr McFarlane's concience needn't be compromised. Instead they seem to have pushed an agenda of false equality: the gay couple's right to sex therapy (if such exists) wasn't being compromised because the agency could still have provided it by means of other practitioners. Again, surely anyone who feels that they are bound not to promote what they, for genuine religious reasons such as that the Bible opposes it or their denomination does so. The ECHR has basically barred people who hold this reasonable religious objection, founded on established philosophical principles of natural law, from the profession of councelling. The National Secular Society has suggested that a ruling in the opposite direction would have meant any member of staff in any shop could have refused to serve a gay person. This is patently ridiculous. The two issues are very much separate. Mr McFarlane was refusing to compromise his concience on a matter of a sin itself, not the people who commit that sin. Being a Christian who loves his neighbour but hates sin, he said explicitly on the BBC that he does not imply any judgement on the people for engaging in gay sex, but only the act of gay sex in and of itself. There is no discrimination against or defamation of a person here, only an unwillingness to promote something he (purely incidentally, along with a not insignificant proportion of the world's population) believe to be sinful behaviour. If I worked for a bank and part of my job was to help clients avoid tax I wouldn't be able to do so in good concience. Even though many people think tax avoidance is fine, I don't and I can't promote something I think is a sin. I may do the other parts of my job excellently and if there are other people willing to participate in what I believe to be a sinful practice, then all it takes is minor rearrangement not to deprive the client of his right to the service or me of my freedom of concience. We can all have our cake and eat it. Where is the personal aspect of religious freedom in the ECHR's judgement here? The same is true of the case of Liliane Ladele who was unable to perform civil partnerships. Shirley Chaplin, the fourth of the judgements handed down today had her case dismissed because the court believed there to be valid health and safety concerns about her wearing a cross which dangled from a necklace whilst treating patients in a hospital.

Where does this logically progress to? Well, the public as well as the private sector. An MP who goes against his party's policy on abortion not being allowed to stand for that party? A citizen who refuses to uphold laws he or she believes to promote sin not being allowed the rights of a citizen to vote? I'm not saying this is going to happen, only that these things are logically permissable according to the ruling that Mr McFarlane's dismissal was just because he was unable to perform one aspect of a job which encompassed many roles, where his inability to perform that aspect did not prejudice anyone else's freedom.

The really telling thing in all this is the National Humanist Society's comment on a hierarchy of rights. Rights work in a hierarchy any which way, one right to life is greater than another's right to walk down the street, for instance. The National Humanist Society think that we have too much religious freedom in this country and so want to bring its standing down in that hierarchy. I think if today has told us anything, it's that religious liberties are not well enough protected in this country and will not bear further degredation at the hands of the secular agenda currently fasionable in nooks and crannies of the corridors of power.

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