As you might imagine, my last two posts about Lillian Ladele, civil registrar and religious zealot, would not be my last word on the subject. Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society says:
People are rightly protected from being discriminated against because of their religion, but the spirit of this law should not be perverted to allow religious people license to discriminate against others on the basis of their religious belief. Equality legislation is already undermined by numerous exemptions, practically all of them concessions to the religious. Every one of their privileges has a victim. After all, these exemptions are given to the very people most likely to discriminate.
We should be aware that the people behind this push to religionise our society are not the regular church-goers who generally wouldn’t dream of behaving in this bigoted way. It is a small group of determined zealots who will not stop until we’re all subject to their version of “religious freedom” (which seems to mean freedom for them, and restrictions for others). Often behind these apparently vulnerable individuals there stands a highly organised and well-funded pressure group.
The first sentence really is the most important here. Of course it would be wrong to have discriminated against Lillian Ladele on the grounds of her having a religion – any religion. And it’s worth remembering that we are in a period where the Church of England is breaking into subgroups because the main body of Anglicanism doesn’t support bigotry; women are considered equal, gay people are increasingly considered equal, and worthy of equal treatment and participation in the Church at all levels. Attitudes have shifted, and perhaps then it’s timely that the same argument should be paralleled in civil society, given that many of us assumed that equality before the law was a given.
The question in both spheres boils down to whether or not equality legislation means that freedom to believe should mean the freedom to discriminate. If it does how do you arbitrate the inevitable clash when zealots like Ladele and her friends in the Christian Institute decide to prove the point; if it doesn’t how is the line then drawn to curtail the limitations of belief within the law without infringing on the right to believe? As Sanderson points out there are already enough concessions in equality legislation (many from late-stage-Blair) to the religious, to make the answer murky, at least in the civil sphere. Merely placing the freedom to be irrational – to believe – alongside the freedom from ir rational hatred is always going to create problems. In this instance it legitimised the abuse of legislation which didn’t logically apply to the circumstances and allowing that to occur was just plain stupid (not unheard of in the era of New Labour). The Church however has got a much bigger problem.
The Daily Mail in its homophobic editorial was quite basically wrong. The majority of Church adherers (for most Christians now don’t actually go to Church) in this country are fundamentally tolerant, by which I mean more likely to take people for who they are, rather than what some crusty idiot who interprets words written two thousand years ago says they are. Of course women and out gay people can become priests, of course gay ceremonies should get the Church’s approval. But the literalist wings won’t stand for all this, because for them social change (which the CofE is quite good at) is something they can’t abide. Mad preachers interpret scripture to mean the Bible doesn’t account for it (when it probably does – Jesus Christ being somewhat of a rebel if I recall), therefore the equality of the sexes and sexual orientations can’t possibly be tolerated. As Simon Jenkins points out in a world where social change is happening in differing ways and faster than ever before in more places than ever, to pander to the social luddites is a waste of everyone’s time. Organisations which resist change die – the change has already happened and it’s time to move on.
All of this shows just how muddlesome the Lillian Ladele affair really is. Ladele and the Christian Institute clearly aren’t speaking on behalf of the majority of Christians in this country, who are increasingly good at minding their own business. They’re rather pleased gay people are getting married and are increasingly finding they work with, live with or are related to people who are. The point of civil partnership legislation in the first place was to enshrine in law the reality that gay people want exactly the same things out of relationships as straight people. That the law also has allowed the hyper-religious to discriminate against that reality based on belief alone is a mistake, as was the interpretation of the law which the employment tribunal went with. Were Lillian Ladele required to conduct a religious ceremony she may have had a point, if only for the sake of balance, but she remains a civil registrar – an area of civil society not yet ‘religionised’ in the post-9/11, post-late-stage-Blair days. It must stay that way for the health of society in general.
And as far as the Church of England goes:
The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, told The Sunday Telegraph that practising homosexuals should not be barred from becoming bishops.
He accused conservative Anglicans of being “exclusive” and narrow-minded in their opposition to gay clerics.
They’re moving on. Lillian Ladele’s victory needs to be reversed, merely to be consistent with where the Church itself is going. And the Church’s mainstream stance isn’t that far removed from civil society at all:
The Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, from Hackney, east London, said: ‘Why am I repugnant to the word of God? What is it about women clergy that scares people? We don’t have leprosy. It is not about the Bible, it is about hanging on to a male power base and keeping women out.’
There is no need to infringe on the right to believe. I’d hate to think of a society which was incapable of belief, where all irrational behaviour were somehow prevented, but gay rights also aren’t in contradiction with religious rights, either in the civil or religious spheres, in theory or in practice. The mainstream of both of them are continuing headlong in the direction of diversity, liberalism and equality. Sanderson is right – whilst it’s a problem that equality legislation is muddled, with some contradictory intentions and unexpected outcomes, it’s neither that nor Christianity itself which is the problem – it’s pressure groups like the Christian Institute, which encourage like-minded zealots and the easily manipulated to go for special rights on top of the equality before the law which is already there.