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Turning the tables on the Inquisitors

A barrister says the widespread condemnation of the court victory of a Christian registrar shows up the intolerance of today’s liberal crusaders.

Neil Addison

Topics Politics

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Catholic barrister and legal author Neil Addison offers a personal view on the case of Christian registrar, Lillian Ladele. Addison argues that Ladele’s victory provides welcome recognition for the right of religious people to refuse to carry out work which contradicts their beliefs.

In June, Christian registrar Lillian Ladele won a case for religious discrimination against her employers, Islington Council in London, after she was ‘discriminated, bullied and harrassed’ for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples. To judge from the howls of anguish following the judgement, one might think that the Inquisition was already setting up stakes outside St Paul’s, with the Archbishop of Canterbury issuing fatwas from Number 10.

‘Secularism in peril!’, declared the National Secular Society (NSS) (1) after its president, Terry Sanderson, wrote in a Guardian comment piece that ‘This is a catastrophic judgment, not just for gay people but for the wider community’. It might seem easy just to dismiss this comment as just one, rather predictable, reaction by a particularly anti-religious organisation. But, significantly, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) decided that the NSS statement should be the only information about the Ladele case to be put on the its website (it has now been removed).

Since the CEHR has a statutory responsibility to oppose all forms of discrimination, one might have expected it to have applauded, rather than criticised, a victory for a victim of religious discrimination. But the reaction of the CEHR and other ‘liberal’ commentators to the Ladele case has shown up the nasty, intolerant underside of the modern diversity and equality establishment, and its double standards concerning the interrelationship of Christianity, law and society. In addition, the reactions demonstrate an increasing inability to understand the concept of conscientious moral objection.

If you take the trouble to read the tribunal judgement in the Ladele case (2), it will become clear that Ladele was not trying to avoid her work responsibilities, nor was she abusive or insulting to any gay colleagues or members of the public. She had moral, religious objections to performing civil partnership ceremonies because she saw that as an endorsement of homosexual conduct – something she disagreed with. So, when a civil partnership came up, she asked other staff members, who were happy to perform them, to step in. This did not cause any administrative problems for her employers, Islington Council. It did not delay or cause problems for a single civil partnership and no complaints about Lillian were received from any gay member of the public.

But two employees at Islington, who described themselves as ‘members of the gay community’, complained about Ladele. In consequence, Lillian was bullied by her manager and details of her personal situation and a ‘confidential’ management letter about her was revealed to the local Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Forum. What her complainants ultimately objected to was not what Lillian did or how she acted, but what she thought and what she believed. She could not be allowed to continue her work in peace, she had to be challenged and her views had to be changed because, in the mind of the heresy hunters of the modern diversity industry, she was guilty of ‘thought crime’.

Ladele’s case was brought under the 2003 Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) regulations (3), which were brought in at the same time as the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) regulations (4). In paragraph 50 of its judgement, the employment tribunal notes that there is a complex interrelationship between these two sets of regulations and the two principles of non-discrimination they represent: ‘This is a case where there is a direct conflict between the legislative protection afforded to religion and belief and the legislative protection afforded to sexual orientation… One set of rights cannot overrule the other set of rights.’

In all areas of discrimination law, there is the question of ‘reasonable accommodation’ so that, for example, Sikh employees are not required to take off their turbans in order to conform to the uniform worn by everyone else. However, during the tribunal hearing, Ladele’s manager said: ‘I don’t believe we should be accommodating people’s religious beliefs in the registry service.’

The tribunal had to reject that point of view just as they would have to reject the point of view of any manager who didn’t believe it was necessary to accommodate someone’s sexual orientation, disability, sex, race or age. If it had been impracticable for Islington to accommodate Lillian, or if it would have made the working of the registry service impossible or unreasonably difficult, then Ladele would not have won her case. But the evidence was that Ladele’s unwillingness to conduct civil partnerships caused no such problems. Her manager was not prepared to accommodate her religious beliefs because the manager did not agree with them.

Rod Liddle criticised Ladele in The Sunday Times and described Christians as a ‘vanishingly small section of the British population’ (5). Even if assuming, for the sake of the argument, his remark is true, surely the whole purpose of discrimination law is to protect minorities? In any event, the number of civil partnerships in 2007 – 8,728 – is also ‘vanishingly small’ compared to the number of marriages – 275,140 (7).

Part of the hysterical overreaction to the Ladele case arises from a profound theological illiteracy in modern society and a refusal to recognise that there is a distinction between discriminating against someone because of their actions and being morally complicit in those actions. For example, Ben Summerskill, the national director of the gay rights campaign, Stonewall, suggested on BBC News that because of the Ladele case, Christian firefighters might refuse to rescue gay people trapped in a burning building. In a recent BMA general meeting it was suggested that Muslim doctors might refuse to treat alcoholics. In neither of these hypothetical situations would a Christian or Muslim have any theological, or legal, basis for refusing their services because in neither case would they be morally complicit in the actions of the people they were assisting.

If a gay couple is trapped in a fire, then a firefighter who saves them is passing no moral judgement on them or their sexual activities nor is he morally complicit in them. However, a registrar who ‘marries’ them is morally complicit. Similarly, a Muslim doctor who treats an alcoholic is not morally complicit in their alcohol drinking, but a Muslim shop assistant who sells alcohol is. This failure to recognise the concept of moral complicity lies at the heart of the problem that the Roman Catholic adoption agencies face since being required to abide by the Sexual Orientation Regulations. If an adoption agency places a child for adoption with a gay couple then it is, in effect, giving moral approval to that relationship and is thereby morally complicit in it. There is no explicit scope for conscientious objection and the giving of a child for adoption is treated on the same legal basis as the selling of a beef burger.

Several commentators on the Ladele case have suggested that, because Lillian was engaged in a secular employment, her religious views should have no relevance. I have some sympathy with that view. However, if we are to have a division between secular and sacred then that division cannot just be one way. If religious belief should stay out of secular employment and services, then surely discrimination law should similarly stay out of religion services and employment, but that is not the way the law works. In 2007, the Bishop of Hereford was taken to an employment tribunal over his decision that the diocese should not employ a gay youth worker (8). The Christian views on sexual morality were not regarded as relevant by the tribunal.

By extending anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation and religious belief, the law has, in effect, entered the area of personal conscience to an extent not seen in this country since the repeal of the Anti-Catholic Test Acts in 1829. Today, the descendents of Torquemada and the Inquisition no longer work for the Church – they have instead become diversity officers mercilessly enforcing the new orthodoxy and relentlessly hounding those, like Lillian Ladele, who are the heretics of the new age.

Neil Addison is a barrister and author of Religious Discrimination and Hatred Law, published by Taylor Francis. He runs the website www.ReligionLaw.co.uk.

(1) Secularism in peril as Christian registrar wins tribunal case, National Secular Society

(2) Miss L Ladele v London Borough of Islington

(3) The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, Office of Public Sector Information

(4) The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, Office of Public Sector Information

(5) Lillian, the marriage registrar who’s wedded to bigotry, The Sunday Times, 13 July 2008

(6) Civil partnerships: numbers almost halved in 2007, Office of National Statistics

(7) Marriages, Office of National Statistics

(8) Gay man wins £47k church payout, BBC News, 8 February 2008

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Topics Politics

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