By Peter G Tatchell
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has declared its support for legal “compromises” and “reasonable accommodations” to allow religious employees to refuse to serve members of the public if they deem such service to be in conflict with their faith.
The EHRC plans to make representations to the European Court of Human Rights in the cases of Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who refused to perform civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples, and Gary McFarlane, a Christian relationship counsellor who refused to provide relationship guidance to gay couples.
The EHRC argues that the existing equality laws are too “narrow” and should be modified to allow certain religious-motivated exemptions from the legislation that prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods and services.
Despite requests from the gay press for clarification regarding what these accommodations and compromises would mean in practice, the EHRC has not provided a satisfactory explanation.
This leaves unanswered the following question: Is the EHRC, in effect, backing Ladele’s and McFarlane’s right to discriminate?
I think we are entitled to know the accommodations and compromises that the EHRC wants in the specific cases of Ms Ladele and Mr McFarlane.
It strikes me as bizarre that the body established to challenge discrimination now appears to be arguing that people of faith ought to have some degree of exemption from the equality statutes that are design to protect everyone. Moreover, there is a whiff of double standards. The EHRC is not suggesting, quid pro quo, that employees with strongly held conscientious objections to religion should have the right to discriminate against Christians.
The EHRC appears to be justifying discrimination by religious adherents only. Its proposed intervention in the Ladele and McFarlane cases is based on the view that the current law is unfair and mistaken; that believers employed by public or private bodies should have the right to refuse to provide services to people whose views or lifestyles they disapprove of on religious grounds.
In the McFarlane and Ladele cases, the appellants want to be legally entitled to single out same-sex couples and refuse to provide a service to them. Presumably, some religious extremists would also like the right to deny services to certain women (single mums, those who dress immodestly and cohabiting and divorced women?) and to people of other faiths or no faith. The logic of the EHRC’s position is that discrimination against these people should also be permitted if it is based on deeply held religious beliefs.
It is truly shocking that the EHRC is giving apparent support to the notion that religious people should enjoy special exemptions from the equality laws that apply to everyone else.
Religionists would be rightly outraged if the law permitted atheists to deny them goods and services because of their faith. They would cry foul and demand protection against such discrimination. I would support their protests.
Yet faith fundamentalists now demand the right to discriminate against others who they disagree with and are prejudiced against. Their double standards are breath-taking. They want protection for themselves but seek to deny it to others.
Even though I do not subscribe to any religious belief, I defend the right of religious people to hold their views and I oppose discrimination against them.
What especially irritates me is the way the McFarlane and Ladele appeals to the European Court of Human Rights are based on the false claim that they are victims of discrimination; and that requiring Christians to obey the equality laws is a form of religious persecution. This is nonsense. Most Christians support the laws against discrimination and obey them because they believe they are fair and right. They do not adhere to the fundamentalist view that Christians are being discriminated against, let alone persecuted.
The suggestion that Christians are persecuted by equality legislation in the UK is an insult to the many Christians who are persecuted in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where churches are sometimes attacked and desecrated, where people can be arrested for holding Christian prayer meetings in the privacy of their own homes, and where Muslims who convert to Christianity have been arrested, jailed and even murdered on charges of apostasy.
I have spoken out against these anti-Christian ‘pogroms’, in the same way that I have also condemned discrimination concerning Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is and people of other faiths.
Christian fundamentalists should cease their phoney claims of persecution and drop their demand to be able to discriminate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Instead, they should concentrate on supporting their fellow Christians elsewhere in the world who are suffering real and grave persecution because of their faith.