Balance is needed between LGBT rights and devout Christians

Janet Daby MP recently caused a stir with her comments that registrars should have the right to refuse to conduct same-sex marriages if such ceremonies conflict with their religious beliefs. She has since resigned from her post in the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Faith Minister. On her Twitter page, commenting on her resignation, she re-affirmed her commitment to supporting the legal right for same-sex couples to get married and the 15th year anniversary of civil partnerships – at the same time she confessed that her comments were “misjudged”.

This resignation has clearly been mandated by the Labour leadership – no doubt fearful of any potential backlash. However, this kneejerk reaction is indicative of a wider malaise within the Labour Party and its refusal to meaningfully engage with religion. It also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between those who are religious and the State, as well as what it means to be religious.

Over the past few years, it does appear that certain opportunities to reaffirm the right to religious freedom, specifically in expressing those religious beliefs through action not just word, have been missed.

One case that springs to mind is the case of the Christian bakers in Northern Ireland, who were dragged through the courts over their refusal to bake a cake with a slogan that they did not support. Their four-year ordeal ended after the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the favour of the bakery. That a case should have been brought so far against a private company for refusing to support a certain message is unacceptable and the Government could have made a real difference.

However, in this instance, the former Shadow Minister was discussing the freedom of religion while in public employment. It has been made quite clear, through court rulings and guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, that public servants are not allowed to “discriminate unlawfully against customers or service users” when providing a public service. Clearly, this includes registrars. This situation is founded upon Blair-era rights legislation which places the rights of gay people above the right to express “strong” Christian beliefs.

Now, I would not be averse to a carefully worded conscience clause for those in public service that would protect people of faith being penalised for objecting to performing certain tasks because of their religious duties. However, I am wary of the extents to which this could go. How would any judge or employment panel be suited to ruling on matters of faith, and which duties or beliefs should be protected? Indeed, I would argue that this would lead to a whole new level of problems for those who are religious, those with conflicting religious beliefs within public service and those who are not religious.

I would argue that the problem is not that religious rights are not protected, but that court cases have found that the rights of one minority are deemed more important than another. The legislation that the courts have based their rulings on need to be either amended or replaced so that no minority is placed above another.

Of course, a Christian who is aware of the rulings and guidance mentioned above would never seek to take on a public service role that would require them to make a decision between refusing to carry out their duty or compromising their religion. Disagreements are to be expected between Christians and non-Christians, but it is simply not a loving or sensible position to be putting yourself in. It does not benefit anyone involved as it forces as unnecessary confrontation.

As long as the law exists as it is, putting some minorities above others, it would be better for a Christian to seek employment elsewhere – and when a whole religious group feels that they cannot work in this area of public service, perhaps politicians should begin to be concerned.

Daby’s resignation springs from a failure to understand the problem – both in offering an inadequate solution to a very real problem and the overreaction that misses the point of the suggestion. Labour continues to believe in the mistaken orthodoxy – that any attempt to help protect religion is an immediate attack on the LGBT community. It is a failure of understanding that they cannot see that it is better for both groups to have equal protections and that would help end an artificial communication disconnect between the two groups.

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