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Christians and Equality Legislation

One of the major challenges facing Christians in the UK at the moment is how to react to recent changes in equality legislation which have curtailed the freedom of Christians to practice according to their consciences in the public sphere.

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Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, caused controversy recently when he said that Christians who want to be exempt from equality legislation are like Muslims trying to impose sharia on Britain. The Christians in Parliament report on the freedom of Christians in the UK (Clearing the Ground) has just been published by the Evangelical Alliance. It is a thoughtful report and ought to be widely read by Christians. A number of important legal judgements have recently been delivered on the relationship between the rights to religious freedom and free expression, and the obligation not to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

This issue is not at all easy, and we are only just beginning to think through how Christians ought to respond to the current challenges. These are a few of my preliminary thoughts:

1. Christian have to face up to the fact that the law has changed and that our freedoms have been curtailed as a result. We are no longer free to do what we took for granted we could do in the past. Christians are therefore like smokers, who were once the dominant majority of society, but have found their right to indulge their habit in public progressively narrowed, or like bloodsport participants, who are no longer permitted to hunt with dogs. As a result of the Equalities Act and the Human Rights Act it is only possible to insist that a person is a believer for a job where this is a genuine occupational requirement, and it is no longer possible to refuse to provide goods and services to those who have a homosexual orientation. The Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence to use language that is “insulting”, which circumscribes the rhetoric we are entitled to use to declare homosexual activity to be sinful. These changes mean, for example, that we can no longer insist on employing a Christian (or even a heterosexual) cleaner at church, nor is it possible to maintain a “Christian” law or accountancy firm by employing only believing partners and staff. Christians cannot preach hell-fire sermons against the “sin of sodomy” at a gay-pride march. Twenty-five years ago such actions would have been perfectly lawful (but not necessarily right or wise!).

2. We also have to face up to the fact that the constitutional framework of the UK has changed. There is no point harking back to a past settlement and insisting that the UK is constitutionally a Protestant Reformed country with an established church. We are a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, plural society, and our fundamental rights are determined by the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Charter and various UK pieces of legislation. This change occurred under the surface many years ago, but its effects are only just beginning to be felt by the wider Christian community. It would be more honest to face the truth, disestablish the church (which I think would be better for the gospel) and end the pretence that we are a constitutionally Christian country. The reality is that religion is regarded as one right to be balanced against others. The historic constitutional position is irrelevant. Until we get over this hurdle it is difficult to have a sensible debate about the way forward and there will be a fundamental divide between Christians who wish to see the re-establishment/maintenance of a Christian state and those who regard this as an unrealistic, if not biblically questionable, pipe dream.

3. We we need to come to terms with the fact that the desire to discriminate against people on the grounds of sexual orientation is regarded as equivalent to racism in law. The law as it stands does not protect an absolute right to manifest religion in worship, teaching, practice and observance but allows this to be limited if “necessary in a democratic society in 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 developing jurisprudence of the courts regards it as necessary to limit religious freedom so as to protect the rights and freedoms of the homosexual community. In the current cultural climate it is inevitable that the rights of religious believers to practice according to their consciences in public will be ruled subservient to the rights of the gay community to be free from insult, ridicule, hatred or discrimination (see the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Vejdeland v Sweden 9th February 2012). We have to face up to the fact that, however deeply held our convictions of conscience may be, discrimination based on sexual orientation is regarded as equivalent to discrimination based on “race, origin or colour”. The secular world, the law and the courts will view us as holding views akin to those of white supremacists, and treat us accordingly. We are used to being regarded as respectable and good for society, but this is clearly no longer the case.

4. We shouldn’t be surprised if we accept public funding to help with our projects (perhaps community projects, homeless shelters etc), the public authorities providing such funding refuse to allow us to use such facilities for evangelism and demand that we comply with their statutory diversity policies. If the state pays us to care for the homeless it is entirely predictable that it will demand that there are no overt references to our faith. The state is entitled to call our bluff as to whether our motive for doing these things is truly social care alone, or as covert vehicle for our mission. If we want to be able to act in a clearly Christian way we will need to refuse to accept government funding, and do less but in a more faithful way. We need to operate on the basis of a de facto separation between church and state. If we take the state’s money we have to be willing to pay the price. In many cases it will be better not to take the money.

5. We shouldn’t be overly fearful when Christians are arrested and threatened with prosecution for alleged hate speech against homosexuals because they have said that they believe homosexuality to be sinful, or by displaying biblical texts to this effect. In most cases these incidents come to nothing, although they are painful and disturbing for the individuals affected. In the light of the McPherson inquiry the police allow individuals to self-define “hate” crimes. Thus when a person claims that they have been insulted on the grounds of their sexual orientation, the incident will be treated as if a hate crime has in fact occurred. This is often unnecessary, but we mustn’t be cowed into silence by fear of having to defend ourselves. We need to defend our innocence where no infringement of the law took place, as Paul did when he asserted his Roman citizenship to avoid mistreatment. We need a sense of perspective which understands that institutions with a historic reputation for racism and homophobia, like the police, will tend to be over zealous in their determination to establish their “equality” credentials in contemporary society. This may change over time, but we also need to be wise in what we do, say and how we say it.

6. We ought to be grateful for the protections that we do enjoy as a result of the equalities legislation. The law is not a one way street. The current law concerns only the public provision of goods and services, and in our own homes and private lives we are free to practice as we choose. Religious organisations enjoy significant exemptions which enable them to insist, for example, that clergy be exclusively male. The law means that public bodies and the providers of good and services cannot discriminate against Christians on the grounds of their religion. This protects Christian wanting to hire premises for their meetings, and Christians seeking to adopt from local authorities and other adoption agencies.

7. We have to articulate how we think the clashes between mutually incompatible beliefs and practices in the public sphere should be resolved in an empirically plural society. There is no point simply demanding that our convictions be privileged. In this sense Trevor Phillips was entirely right, even though his sharia example was ill chosen. We cannot expect special treatment. In the past Christians have assumed a right to cultural dominance and used it to enact limitations on the practices of others (whether other religious groups or the homosexual community). This is no longer viable now that we ourselves are a minority culture in an overwhelmingly agnostic or atheistic context. Non-conformists should surely instinctively support the extension of as much liberty as possible to all, since this is what we cherish for ourselves and have fought for in our history. Oliver Cromwell granted tolerance to independents and invited the Jews to return. Non-conformists realised that Catholics would need to be given full-civic rights and freedoms under the Reform Acts if they were to enjoy the same civil rights themselves. This perspective includes extending to others the right to do what we would consider to be sinful and wrong, and which would cause harm to themselves, subject to limitations where this would cause significant harm to non-consenting others. In the end the right to preach the gospel (which is offensive to unbelievers) in a plural society is closely linked to the right of others to stage Jerry Springer the Opera, no matter how offensive we might find it to be.

8. We have to recognise that there can be no absolute right to freedom of expression and practice in a plural society. Some years ago I visited a fundamentalist college in the US. I was shocked that they had a rule against inter-racial dating, believing that the Bible taught that intermingling of the races was sinful. This has now changed, but some Christians still hold this view. Apartheid was sometimes defended on Biblical grounds. Some Christians stood against the abolition of the slave trade on biblical grounds. We all accept some limitations on the right to do as we believe to be right in the greater interests of civic order. We need to recognise that there is balancing process involved and, whilst we might want to argue for a different balance, we can’t argue for an absolute right. There is an inevitable contextual pragmatism involved in balancing competing rights in a plural society, which will vary from society to society. For this reason it is perfectly possible to argue both for the introduction of civil partnerships to meet the civil expectations of homosexual couples and also to campaign against the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples. This is a matter of balancing competing and mutually incompatible beliefs in a plural society. We ought to fight hardest to preserve the right of the church to function as the church: to meet, worship, and proclaim the gospel. We should not give this up lightly, and if it is taken away we have no option but to practice disobedience.

9. As Christians we do not believe that we owe ultimate loyalty to the state and the law. Where there is a conflict between the demands of the civil government and the commands of God we must obey God rather than men. This is why we will always be subversives to human government. Conscientious objection is not a “right” that we need to be given, but a duty we must undertake in extreme circumstances. In appropriate circumstances we must be willing to refuse to obey, and then be prepared to take the consequences of breaking the law. Daniel and the apostles are our examples here. We also need to be prepared to support and care for each other as we face punishment for conscientious disobedience. Christians tend to be picked off individually when they act according to conscience, but we need to support each other as a community. This is surely what the Hebrews were being urged to do (Hebrews 13v1-3).

10. We need to acknowledge that part of the problem is the very nature of the Christian faith. Christianity is ultimately a religion of the heart rather than externals. As such there is no biblical obligation to wear a cross, display a symbol or wear particular clothing. We may find it unfair that other faiths appear to gain more sensitive treatment because it is a religious obligation to, for example, wear a turban, carry a knife or to wear a headscarf. There is little value in fighting to have the right to do something that isn’t integral to our faith, and we don’t want to turn our faith into a legalistic matter of externals just because we feel unfairly treated.

11. Most importantly, we need to do serious theological work thinking through exactly what the Bible teaches in regard to Christian conscience. One of the reasons we find it hard to respond to the changes we are facing is that we have no agreed understanding of what obedience to God demands in practice, and of distinguishing between personal preferences that are not biblically mandated and essential, and genuine issues of conscience. We cannot operate merely on the basis of believers’ assertions that they have an issue of conscience. Many Christians therefore find it difficult to be wholeheartedly supportive of the hotel owners who refused to provide a double-bedded room to a couple in a civil partnership. Whilst they might respect their right to hold this view in conscience, they question whether such a stance was biblically required, and therefore whether it was warranted to exercise civil disobedience. It appears inconsistent to operate such a policy, on the grounds that it would promoting sin, without also ensuring that homosexual and unmarried heterosexual couples accommodated in twin-bedded rooms refrain from having sex on the premises (many students find the provision of a single bed no obstacle to sex outside marriage!). It sadly often appears that Christians have a conscientious objection to homosexual practice, but not to other sins that the Bible would regard as equally serious in God’s eyes. Should hotel owners, for example, have a right in conscience to refuse accommodation to heterosexual married couples from other faiths who may practice their religion on the premises? The New Testament teaches that the worship of a false god (which is in fact a demon masquerading as a God according to 1 Corinthians 9!) is at least as offensive to God as sex outside of marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Similarly is it a matter of Christian conscience to be able to preach against homosexuality using vivid and emotive rhetoric in any public context? Is this required by God to be faithful to him? In Vejdeland v Sweden the European Court of Human Rights upheld the convictions of four people who had left leaflets in pupils lockers at a secondary school which stated that homosexuality was “a deviant sexual proclivity” with “a morally destructive effect on the substance of society” and alleging that it was the main reason that AIDS and HIV had got a foothold and that the “homosexual lobby” played down paedophilia. The court ruled that the defendants’ right to free expression was legitimately curtailed in this case, especially because the leaflets were left in the lockers of people of a young and sensitive age, who had no opportunity to decline or accept them, in circumstances where those who had left them had no right of free access to the school. Do we regard it as a Christian right of conscience to be able to distribute literature of an equivalent nature in a similarly underhand way?

12. The crucial question we have to address is this: When are Christians truly implicated in, and responsible before God for, the sins of others? Is this just to be left to individual conscience so that we defend any who feel that they have an issue of conscience? Does a registrar officiating at a civil partnership, for example, incur personal moral responsibility for condoning the sin of the couple concerned? What about a registrar who is asked to officiate at a civil marriage of a couple, one of whom has been divorced in circumstances in which the Bible would consider a remarriage to be adulterous? What about a Christian judge who is required to apply valid legislation which grants a lesbian partner the right to be registered as a parent of a child to whom she has no biological relation, or to approve an adoption by a homosexual couple, or to grant a divorce to parties where there are no biblical grounds for so doing? What about a Christian civil servant who is required to amend the birth certificate of a transsexual to state their newly assigned gender, or who works for the Department of Health which oversees the provision of abortion services on the NHS? What about a health and safety official who has the legal responsibility to licence pubs, lap dancing clubs and massage parlours? What about a till operator at Sainsbury’s who has to check through extra-safe condoms being purchased by a homosexual couple as part of their weekly shop? We need to give very careful consideration to the biblical material in the accounts of Joseph, Daniel, Esther and Naaman as we develop a theology of complicity and conscientious separation. It is surprising how willing these men and women of God, heroes of the faith, seemingly were to become involved in serving, and indirectly advancing the interests of, rulers who were far from upholding God’s standards of morality and social justice. In the New Testament we have to grapple with the example of converted Roman soldiers, Caesar’s palace staff and the slaves of non-Christian masters. What were issues of conscience for them? I am not suggesting that the answer to these questions is easy, but we do need to be teaching our people what the Bible requires of them. Their consciences need to be biblically shaped, not just reflective of preferences and traditions which may not be biblically required.

As I suggested at the start these are extremely complex issues. Christians have too long operated lazily from an obsolete Christendom paradigm, which has left them caught out in the new realities we face. We need to do hard thinking and praying to discern how to respond to the challenges of today, and to know when to fight and when to recognise that we have no real biblical basis for demanding perceived rights. In the long-term the balance of mutually incompatible rights might be changed. Professor Julian Rivers argues in the Clearing the Ground report for the adoption of a policy of “reasonable accommodation” of the consciences of others. However I suspect this would, at best, take several generations to bring about and will be impossible as long as the gay community maintains the narrative that its is a persecuted minority in need of protection. Whilst this narrative continues to dominate the thinking of our elites, legislators and judiciary we will almost certainly have to live with the fact that gay-rights will trump religious rights in the public sphere - because the law already says that they do.


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