Rights and Wrongs

The Case of Lilian Ladele, hounded out of her job as a registrar for her Christian beliefs, is evidence of a rising religious intolerance

Suppose you are a registrar, happily employed by a council to solemnise civil partnerships for couples on their special day. You have played this role for several years, and are often profusely thanked for your good work. Suddenly, the law changes. Now same-sex couples can have their partnerships solemnised too. 

As an orthodox Christian, you approve of sexual activity only if it is between a man and a woman joined exclusively to one another and preferably in the eyes of God. Hardly a novel sentiment, this view is shared across the great monotheistic faiths. It is rooted in reason, tradition and nature, and in scripture too. 

You thus ask your employer to recuse you from same-sex ceremonies, volunteering to work so that other registrars—of whom there are plenty—
are available. There is no obligation on your employer to appoint you as a same-sex partnership registrar, simply the duty to make available designated officials in case need arises. There is no detriment in service to any same-sex couple or to the council’s ability to provide the lawful range of civil partnerships. Other than your own line manager and a few close colleagues, no one even knows of your quietly-held dissent. The work roster requires only a small adjustment to satisfy your needs and all are happy.

It would seem to most people that it would be reasonable in this case for the council to accommodate your beliefs. If, however, you are Lillian Ladele, a Christian unlucky enough to be employed by the London borough of Islington, that quietist conscientious objection will be rudely trounced. You will be threatened with disciplinary proceedings for alleged pre-emptive breaches of Islington’s “diversity” policy, and have your employment contract unilaterally varied to force participation in same-sex partnerships. In effect, you will be hounded out of your job.

Thanks to the Equality Act 2010 (consolidating inter alia the regulations that forced the closure of every Catholic adoption agency), English law contains a conflict between the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion. This conflict is brought into sharp focus by Ladele’s case: her litigation against the council has now wound its way up to the European Court of Human Rights. The court’s judgment on Ladele and three other religious liberty cases is expected very shortly, before the departure of its outgoing British President, Sir Nicholas Bratza.

Ladele claims Islington breached her religious freedoms under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, “either alone or in community with others and in public and private”, and the freedom to manifest this “religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. The court has to consider whether the clashing discrimination prohibitions constitute limitations on the appellant’s Article rights “prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”. Given the reasonableness of Ladele’s claim, it seems any democratic society worth its name should accept that accommodation. So why not Britain? 

The problem is now made harder by an obligation in the Equality Act which burdens the entire public sectorand any body exercising public functionsto have “due regard” to the “need” to “eliminate discrimination”, to “advance equality of opportunity” and “foster good relations” between the religious/non-religious and those with any sexual orientation and none. These ends are to be met by removing or minimising disadvantages suffered by those discriminated against, “meeting their needs” and “encouraging” them to participate in public life. 

Each of these ideas can be seized by either the pro-religious or the pro-gay to suit their ends. In Islington’s case, it was the pro-gays who won in the domestic courts. But in doing so, they presented latent discrimination as real discrimination. Only if every registrar refused to conduct same-sex partnerships would harm be suffered, or if they otherwise abused their position to restrict the right of homosexual partners to same-sex partnerships.

We will shortly know whether the European Court will protect religious liberty or take the position adopted by the United Kingdom in oral argument before it: Christians can either shut up or get another job. The state no longer takes a neutral position on the competing conceptions of the good life represented in this debate: it is passing bad law that is easily interpreted to become a sword against religious belief rather than a shield against genuine discrimination. A return to the insidious criminalisation of homosexuality that existed before the Wolfenden Report of 1957 is impossible. As the public square evolves, it has to balance and respect all rights, and not just the preferred choices of some, if it is to be truly liberal.

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