A topical issue in the US and the UK, is that of so-called “religious freedom”, the idea that freedom from discrimination should somehow allow people to ignore the law of the land, and even employment conditions, to apply religious-based discrimination of their own . One such case has been played out in the UK courts ever since civil partnerships were introduced here as a near-marriage possibility for same-sex couples a few years ago. A court judgement earlier this week showed clearly that not allowing a state employee to apply discrimination in the course of her job, did not represent discrimination against her. Representatives of the “Christian Institute” were prominent on the television news, proclaiming that this is an “important case” which they will now appeal to the Supreme Court (having just lost in the Court of Appeals). I agree: it is an important case – and important that she lost, as she will do again. I repeat: protection from discrimination, on the grounds of religion, orientation, or any other, does not grant anyone the right to discriminate in turn.
The specific story in question concerned a civil registrar who had refused, on the grounds of “conscience” to conduct a civil partnership ceremony. Now note, that one of the oddities of the British legislation is that while partnerships in practical terms are pretty close to marriage, they explicitly may not be treated as religious marriage. They may not, as a matter of law, be conducted on religious premises, nor may the ceremony include religious prayers or hymns. (For my own ceremony, Raymond and I were allowed a great deal of latitude in finding words and music that mattered to us – provided that none of it was remotely “religious”.)
Yet the registrar in question objected on “religious” grounds to having to preside over a ceremony to sign a legal contract that quite explicitly had nothing to do with religion. She lost her job. Aggrieved and encouraged by the religious right, she felt she had been “discriminated against” in the practice of her religious beliefs, and sued for wrongful dismissal. She lost, so she appealed. And lost again.
This is something I feel strongly about. Freedom for discrimination is just that – freedom from all discrimination. Civil rights means civil rights for all. That doesn’t just mean religious rights, but nor does it mean just gay rights. While this case was not in fact about religious rights, there are religious freedoms that need to be protected too, and which gay activists sometimes overlook, condemning all religious opposition as mere “bigotry”. Gay men, fighting prejudice, must equally fight against their own prejudices against straight women, transgendered, against drag queens or the leather S/M crowd. And dealing with the political implications over ballot struggles in California or elsewhere, we must avoid turning election post-mortems into prejudiced attacks against racial minorities.
Here is the story on the Christian civil registrar, from Ekklesia:
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The Court of Appeal has ruled that a local authority did not abuse religious liberty when it dismissed a civil registrar for refusing to carry out civil partnership ceremonies. The Court declared this morning (15 December) that there was no evidence of discrimination against Lilian Ladele, who objects to homosexuality due to her interpretation of Christianity.
The ruling is likely to be welcomed by human rights campaigners, both Christian and non-Christian. However, Ladele’s lawyers have announced that she will appeal to the Supreme Court, which recently replaced the law lords as the highest court in England and Wales.
Following the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005, Ladele said she could not officiate at them due to “religious conscience”.
The Christian Institute, who are supporting Ladele in her case, claim that she is a victim of anti-Christian discrimination by Islington Borough Council. But the court ruled today that, while the Council had treated Ladele unfairly “in some respects” relating to her dealings with them, she had “not been directly or indirectly discriminated against”.
The judges declared that only a “pedantically literal, unrealistic or acontextual interpretation” of comments made by the Council could lead to the conclusion that Ladele was treated differently because of her religion.
An employment tribunal in 2008 had upheld Ladele’s claim of religious discrimination, but this was overturned by an appeal tribunal, causing Ladele to turn to the Court of Appeal, which produced today’s judgment.
Read the full story here.
See the excellent commentary from Simon Hill at the Guardian:
The court of appeal has today given Christians a reason to celebrate. They have turned down an appeal by a registrar who refused to officiate at civil partnerships and have rejected her claim that she was discriminated against because of her Christian faith. This is good news for all those Christians who are fed up of seeing Christianity used as an excuse for homophobia.
As a trade unionist, I am not used to finding myself on the side of an employer against a worker. But in Lillian Ladele we find a worker who wanted to put her prejudice into practice through her employment.
I understand how many Christians have come to the appallingly mistaken conclusion that homosexuality is wrong. To my shame, I admit that when I became a Christian in my late teens, I was persuaded to adopt such a view myself.
But why, if Ladele could not officiate at ceremonies that went against her conscience, did this affect only one aspect of her faith? Why has she not refused to marry straight couples who are not truly in love with each other? Would she marry a man and a woman if they were planning an open marriage? Or if she discovered that one of them was secretly committing adultery? Her position is absurd.
This has not stopped her gaining enthusiastic support from the sort of Christians who will be spitting blood over today’s judgment. Ladele’s case has been backed all the way by the Christian Institute, a socially conservative pressure group. A senior figure at a major evangelical organisation recently told me that he thought that success for Ladele’s appeal was the most important issue currently facing British Christians.
Ladele is routinely described as a “Christian registrar” in headlines, as if this in itself explained her attitude. I’m not questioning Ladele’s commitment to Christianity, but the media’s constant use of the phrase sadly reinforces the equation of Christianity with homophobia, playing into the hands of the pro-Ladele camp.
Read the full commentary here