Wednesday, 23 January 2013

We’re all equal in the sight of God – and under the law?

I've always said that a 'bishopric' is an occupational qualification, dear boy, not just the office name.

A couple of weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued four verdicts (widely described as ‘landmark’), all relating to cases of alleged religious discrimination.  In all four cases English courts had dismissed claims, which had ended up as appeals at ECHR.  Two of the appeals (one of which was upheld) related to appellants’ rights to wear crucifixes while at work.  One appellant, a check-in worker with British Airways, won her case, as the company’s defence for its regulation – which had in any case been withdrawn some years ago – was that the religious symbol interfered with its corporate image.  The other appellant, a nurse, lost her case, as the employer argued successfully that the cross, worn outside the uniform, compromised health and safety.

The other two cases seem to me more fundamental as they touch on more basic issues, to do with how our right to exercise our freedoms interferes with others’ rights to exercise theirs.  In both cases, one involving a local authority registrar, the other a sex therapist, the appellant had argued that their employers’ insistence that they dealt with gay people infringed their religious beliefs. Both were dismissed, in effect, for their breach of their employers’ equalities policies.  The court was saying that the right of gay people to receive equal treatment outweighed an individual’s right to follow their conscience, as shaped by their religious beliefs.

My political philosophy courses (admittedly many years ago) led me to accept, as fundamental requirements of a ‘free’ and civilised society, two propositions:
  • That any freedom of mine must be restricted the moment its exercise materially interferes with anyone else’s, and…
  • …the law must apply equally to all – no-one is above the law.
Broadly speaking these ECHR judgements reinforce these principles.  So where does that leave the Church of England and its continued refusal to contemplate female bishops (admittedly only because of the views of a handful of dinosaurs among the lay members of Synod)?  At present it’s legal: UK law currently allows employers to discriminate if the employment “is for the purposes of organised religion” and a particular sexual orientation is necessary in order to comply with “the doctrines of the religion” or to avoid conflict “with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion's followers”.

In the wake of the latest judgements from ECHR it’s possible of course that the church’s position could be subject to a legal challenge.  But since the C of E is the established church, it’s not just a matter of legality.  I see no reasons why the law of the land should not apply equally to all organisations, religious or otherwise (though I can also see the problems that might create with other faiths and denominations – maybe the world isn’t ready for Catholic priestesses or female Imams).

But the Church of England is in a special position.  As the established church it sends bishops to the Lords who are free to take part in and vote on legislation. It is surely unacceptable that an organisation that is part of the law-making process can itself operate above the law it helps to shape.  In a democracy, no citizens should be above the law.  In a democracy, people are free to believe what they wish, but they have a responsibility as citizens not to act on beliefs which fail to treat others with equal concern and respect – and that applies to the church and its female clergy.