Cameron and Religion: Payback Time

Cameron“Please forgive me, for I have sinned. As the democratically-elected leader of a democracy I have tried to ensure identical legal rights for all citizens.” – David Cameron, Prime Minister

In two of my recent blog posts, on Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for press reform and equal marriage, I’ve managed to say some rather nice words about David Cameron.

On both these issues I’ve argued Cameron deserves credit for his leadership. He has taken a considerable battering in the form of enemy fire from his political opponents on Leveson and friendly fire from his own party on equal marriage.

It was only a matter of time before my cheerleading for Cameron had to stop, and in fact at the very end of my equal marriage post I displayed my shrewd skills of political tea-leaf reading by predicting he would have to throw a large hunk of meat to the religious lobby as a form of appeasement.

It was always going to be difficult for Cameron to push for legal equality for homosexuals without having to grovel to his religious friends shortly afterwards. And so the inevitable has happened: at an Easter reception in Downing Street Cameron has said his government is not only committed to Britain’s links with the Church of England but that it wants to:

“stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation that can sometimes happen in our society.”

It seems as though this act of reassurance to religious leaders, complete with the now-trademark demonization of secularism and secularists, will be a regular fixture in the Downing Street diary. I wrote about last year’s almost carbon-copy Easter egg party here.

As always the examples of this alleged aggressive secularisation” are not entirely compelling, which is possibly why Cameron felt the need to temper his slur by saying it sometimes happens in our society”. Maybe that’s the relatively uncommon usage of the word sometimes to mean “not very often”. Or “never”.

Referring to the National Secular Society’s successful council prayers judicial review against Bideford Town Council (which I discussed here), Cameron tried to encourage his guests to ignore the judgement of a democracy’s competent court:

“We’ve sent out a very clear message to aggressive secularists…We changed the law so that people can go on saying prayers before council meetings.”

The legal effect of the Localism Act, the supposed change in law to which Cameron is referring, is yet to be tested. In any case, it’s a sideshow which misses the point.

There was no problem and there remains no problem with prayers before council meetings.  Bideford Town Council ran into choppy legal waters because prayers were a formal agenda item for meetings. The council rejected two perfectly reasonable compromises, either of which would have avoided litigation: prayers to be said before the meeting, on council premises; or a period of silence at the beginning of the meeting where the religious and the non-religious could all gather their thoughts as they wished.

But then, politicians and religious leaders often have a near-vampiric reaction to inconvenient obstacles like facts and honest debate, hence Cameron’s failure to describe the events in Devon accurately and his dishonest suggestion now that the Localism Act reverses the High Court’s decision.

Of course the key issue that has angered many religious groups, and the driving factor behind this hideously undignified act of prime ministerial grovelling, is equal marriage. You might have thought that religious groups, for so long the tormentors of homosexuals and the architects of the tallest hurdles to their legal equality, might have finally displayed a humble dose of “love thy neighbour” on this essential point of human rights.

But no, as bullies so often do they have managed to portray themselves as the victims on same-sex marriage, both during the passage of the Bill and now in their expectation that they’re owed something in return.

The legal assurance of a “quadruple legal lock”, which not only excuses the Church of England from the tiresome obligation of performing same-sex marriages but actually specifically forbids them from doing so, wasn’t enough for the Church, and funnily enough (even though it isn’t really funny) not allowing the Church of England to perform same-sex marriages unnecessarily infringes the religious freedom of those within the Church who happen to support such unions.

I’m no fool. I understand the general nature of politics. The Prime Minister can’t give everyone what they want and he has to keep as many people on his side as possible. I get that.

But what does it say about power-seeking religious leaders with a dreadful track record of supporting human rights that they need to be appeased by our Prime Minister because he had the temerity to introduce legislation giving legal equality to those who have historically had their rights infringed by religious leaders, even though the legislation went to very reasonable (and indeed excessive) lengths to protect the Church of England?

And what does it say about a Prime Minister who will so readily grovel for his sin of pursuing equality before the law?  Even in the brutally unforgiving jungle of political realism, is that something for which the United Kingdom’s democratically-elected leader ought to repent? Ever?