Legal System 1-0 Religious Bigots

In a landmark ruling the High Court has held that the law applies to everyone (including Pentecostalists).

If, like me, you were listening to Radio 4 this morning then you would have received an excellent lesson in the sheer lunacy of basing laws and legal systems on religious principles, and of giving religious beliefs a special legal status.

It started with Thought For The Day (TFTD). Radio 4’s daily preaching soapbox was gratefully occupied by a gentleman calling himself Tom Butler.

Butler kicked off by discussing the recent European legal ruling granting protected status to Cornish pasties, and in particular how one poor Cornish lady was upset at the rigorous regulations upon which that status was conditional. The regulations stated that Cornish pasties had to be crimped on the side, but this lady crimped hers on the top, so she could not now legally call her pasties “Cornish pasties”. She had refused to conform to the ruling.

Butler told us that, on the one hand, he respected this lady for sticking to her principles, but that on the other hand blindly sticking to principles often had bad consequences: lengthy friendships are terminated on matters of principle, neighbours bankrupt themselves because of a dispute about a hedge on matters of principle, and wars are fought on matters of principle.

Cornish pasties are not generally synonymous with key religious issues and to the best of my knowledge they are not specifically referenced in the Bible so, as always, the TFTD presenter had to spell out the tortuous religious link for the benefit of an eager, confused listener. (TFTD listeners, whether they are highly religious or highly irreligious, usually require from the presenter a very explicit explanation of any purported religious link to what is being discussed, so this was nothing out of the ordinary.)

The link was this: in the New Testament, Jesus got into a dispute with a group of religious leaders who, as Butler described them, were “most ready to act and judge on matters of principle: the Pharisees.” I imagine most, if not all, religious leaders judge on matters of principle, but the Pharisees were the worst (or the best?), according to Butler.

Anyway, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that they neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. Butler then went on to say that Jesus was not telling us that we shouldn’t act on principle, but that Jesus pointed us to the fundamental principle: “Love God with heart and soul and mind, and neighbours as ourselves”, and that we had to beware of any secondary principle which seemed to be in conflict with this.

Butler’s conclusion was unclear. Was the overriding factor justice, mercy and faithfulness, or was the overriding factor to love God? What if your duty to love God led to a lack of justice? Maybe his conclusion was: have some principles, by all means, but just don’t get carried away. Or if you do want to get carried away, use your brain and chuck a religious cloak over what you’re doing. The religious justification must be the correct one, of course, and not that crazy Pharisee rubbish. As with most religious arguments, you could probably have interpreted whatever Butler was saying in whatever way you wanted to suit whatever agenda you wanted.

As if by divine coincidence the very next item on Radio 4 concerned a couple who had run into some pretty heavy turbulence because of their religious principles: the devout Pentecostalists who had just been denied foster-caring placements because of their religiously-inspired anti-homosexual views.

We heard Owen and Eunice Johns explain that they found homosexuality unacceptable, because of their religious principles. When asked what they would do if a fostered child turned out to be homosexual they talked loosely of finding a solution and working through it, but they could not provide a coherent answer. Why was that? Because the only logical outcome for them in that situation would presumably have been the emotional and/or physical rejection of that child. On a matter of principle. A religious principle. I wonder what Butler would have made of this. The couple would presumably argue that this was simply pursuant to the fundamental principle to love God.

The most comical thing they said was:

“All we want is a level-playing field.”

Bollocks, that’s precisely what they didn’t want. Religion thrives on special treatment and it loathes inconvenient trivialities such as the rule of law and equality. What this couple wanted was a very uneven playing field. A shortcut here, a diversion there, a hurdle here, a goalpost there, a trapdoor here, all set to their specifications, and all according to their religious principles, and all with one very simple objective: to maximise their advantage over people they consider inferior. What they should have said was:

“All we wanted was the right to be bigoted and to ensure that a public service that is provided at taxpayers’ expense had a discriminatory effect. It now appears this is not allowed and that the law must apply to everyone equally. We are absolutely devastated.”

Let’s take a breather for a second. We mustn’t be too harsh on this couple. By all accounts they have previously provided desperately needed love and shelter to young vulnerable people, and some would say that the real tragedy here is that there is now one less home available to another child in need of fostering. But if a policeman unfairly discriminated against a member of the public, would that be excused purely on the grounds of previous bravery and crime reduction? If a paramedic unfairly discriminated against a member of the public, would that be excused purely on the grounds of lives saved in the past?

No, previous good deeds are not bargaining chips to be piled high and handed over to a judge in exchange for a golden ticket reading, “Congratulations, you now have the right to discriminate. You’ve really earned it.” Previous good deeds can serve as a useful barometer of someone’s overall character and, in this case, the previous good deeds would lead reasonable people to conclude that Owen and Eunice Johns are, in the main, incredibly decent people. But previous goods deeds cannot, of themselves, allow people to do whatever they want. I suppose another thing they need to be given credit for is coming clean about their bigotry, rather than concealing it.

The couple were represented by the Christian Legal Centre and the CLC’s lawyer, Andrea Minichiello Williams, is quoted in the Guardian article above as saying:

“How can judges get away with this? The law has been increasingly interpreted by judges in a way which favours homosexual rights over freedom of conscience. Britain is now leading Europe in intolerance to religious belief.”

Let’s examine those three statements one by one.

  1. How can judges get away with this?
  2. You mean, applying the law fairly and equally and not giving religiously-motivated discrimination special legal treatment? Easy. That’s their job, you muppet.

  3. The law has been increasingly interpreted by judges in a way which favours homosexual rights over freedom of conscience.
  4. Good. In fact, the law favours everyone’s right not to be unfairly discriminated against in the provision of a public service (especially when the individual concerned is a child) over someone’s right to pick and choose which laws they like. Once the legal system provides an escape route marked with the words “Freedom of Conscience”, a reasonably well-trained koala bear should be able to recognise the inevitable consequences: at a stroke, our laws and legal system would be rendered impotent, pathetically so.

    Don’t want to pay taxes?

    Have a read of a bizarre holy text and find a justification for not paying them. Can’t find a passage that’s quite right? Not a problem – just interpret another passage creatively, or say it was privately revealed to you by God/s himself/herself/itself/themselves. Or why not be really creative and start your own religion? Of course, a few celebrity recruits is always helpful but don’t worry, that’s not a strict legal requirement. Remember, cult multiplied by time multiplied by people equals religion, so why not be an entrepreneur? If religion is such a good thing, let’s have more religions. Let’s shake the market up a bit.

    Want to discriminate against black folk?

    Just scour the Deep South of America for a rabid, racist, fundamentalist redneck pastor, who will provide you with whatever religious justification you request. And if you can’t find a rabid, racist, fundamentalist redneck pastor that you like, just become one.

    Want to subjugate your women, sorry, want to subjugate women? Or discriminate against Jews and other infidels (which includes Pentecostalists, by the way, so be careful what you wish for, Owen and Eunice)?

    Kindly mark the relevant passages of the Koran with post-it notes and hand it to the clerk, who will pass it to the judge for you. You are now free to leave the court, and please accept the judge’s apologies for the inconvenience.

    What do you mean, it can’t be that simple? It IS that simple. Have some faith, have a whole fuckin’ bucketload! The stronger your faith, the more you can discriminate. Those pesky man-made laws need no longer apply to you. Think of it as the mother of all human rights: the right to choose the laws you want to obey.

  5. Britain is now leading Europe in intolerance to religious belief.
  6. ***HORSESHIT ALERT***

    This case does not prohibit anyone from having whatever religious beliefs they choose. What it makes clear is that behaviour which has a discriminatory effect cannot be justified on the grounds that it is a religious belief. It’s a simple distinction between religious freedom and religious privilege. Every privilege has its victim. Intolerance to religious belief looks like this and this.

I think we can breathe a huge sigh of relief that our courts have once again applied secular principles to the application of justice. It’s often said that the law is an ass, and sometimes it truly is, but it wasn’t here. The law can spot a half-baked con trick a mile away.

If people are still uncomfortable about the outcome of this case, on the basis that something might just not feel right, I suggest completely ignoring the couple’s religious motivation for their anti-homosexual views. If another couple had simply said they felt homosexuality was wrong and had not applied a religious veneer, I doubt they would receive sympathy.

Butler was right that sticking to principles can lead to trouble, as Owen and Eunice Johns have found out, and he was right that there must be some type of fundamental principle. But that principle is not the duty to love God and it is not the right to receive special treatment and privilege. It’s the rule of law and equality. That’s a principle that really is worth sticking to. Whatever the cost.

I’ll end by reproducing the wording from a previous judgment on a similar case concerning a relationships counsellor. The law lord in that previous case was Lord Justice Laws (a devout Anglican and hardly the type of “aggressive secularist” that some in the Christian lobby like to whinge about) and the judgment in the Johns case specifically quoted this:

“The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified; it is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective, but it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary. We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion, any belief system, cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the State, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.”

“So it is that the law must firmly safeguard the right to hold and express religious beliefs. Equally firmly, it must eschew any protection of such a belief’s content in the name only of its religious credentials. Both principles are necessary conditions of a free and rational regime.”

Amen to that.

***

12 January 2012: You can follow The Re-Enlightenment on Twitter @REnlightenment and you can sign up for email notification of new articles on this blog’s home page.

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