…or, should we be able to express beliefs and exercise moral conscience in the workplace?
So last week we heard about four Christians from the UK taking cases to the European court of human rights about unfair dismissal, relating to the expression or practice of their religious beliefs at work.
Two were about the wearing faith symbols (one was dismissed for refusing to remove a cross necklace). The other two relate to the exercise of moral conscience on the specific subject of homosexual practice – one a registrar who wouldn’t conduct civil partnerships for gay couples; the other a relationship counsellor with Relate who had felt unable to offer sex therapy to gay couples.
I’m writing this not because I have an axe to grind on these subjects, but rather because I’m not sure what I think. I have entirely mixed feelings about the issues, which seem to me to be highly complex and to raise all sorts of questions about faith and society, freedoms of expression and conscience, personal identity and discrimination, human rights and employment law. I’m not sure that there are any easy right or wrong answers.
Firstly then here are some of the questions I think are raised, and to which I don’t have easy answers:
Regarding the first set of cases, to what extent do people have a right to express their religious or other beliefs at work, particularly by the wearing of symbols? Is it a fundamental right, or a ‘nice to have’, and on what basis? Is it all merely a matter of complying with workplace dress code, or something deeper?
Conversely, do customers or colleagues have a right not to be subject to the expression of someone else’s beliefs? Do we have a right not to be upset/offended, or conversely a duty not to give serious intentional offence to others? Do employers have a right to require their staff not to display religious or other symbols, and on what grounds?
Does it all depend partly on the nature of the work, and also on the nature of the religious beliefs and symbols and the likelihood of their causing serious upset or offence to others? And if an employee is asked to remove a religious symbol and refuses, should the outcome take into account the reasonableness of the reasons why they were asked to and also the reasons why they refused?
Regarding the second set of cases, to what extent do people have a right to exercise their moral conscience at work? Should that apply even to the extent of withholding services from others when that might be interpreted as discriminatory? Conversely, do people have a fundamental right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality and/or faith and what does this mean in practical terms? What happens where two such ‘rights’ appear to conflict – the right to be treated equally, and the right to exercise religious conscience?
And finally, if someone does exercise their conscience or express their beliefs in contravention of law or workplace rules, should they just accept the legal and employment consequences or should they fight it in the courts?
The cases then raise questions about the whole basis, application and exercise of human rights and freedoms. On a deeper level, they also raise questions about identity. How fundamental to a person’s identity are their religious belief and/or sexual orientation; are they fundamental in the same way or to the same extent that race and gender are? (And does that depend partly on whether people are born gay or become gay later?) Is the expression or exercise of that belief or orientation – including in sexual activity – also fundamental to personal identity and wholeness? And if a person believes on deeply-held religious or other grounds that particular kinds of sexual acts are morally wrong, does that make them inherently prejudiced against people with a particular sexual orientation?
Identity, prejudice and conscience
Just on this last point I would say that (in my view) considering homosexual acts to be morally wrong does not necessarily constitute homophobic prejudice. Most Christians also believe heterosexual acts to be morally wrong if they are not expressed within a marriage-style commitment. Or to take a slightly different example, many vegetarians consider meat-eating to be offensive and immoral, but that does not necessarily constitute prejudice against non-vegetarians. To believe that someone’s behaviour is immoral need not automatically constitute prejudice against the person (though it can do).
However, many would argue that a person’s sexuality is inherent and is fundamental to their identity (in the same kind of way that race is, and that vegetarianism isn’t). And some would say furthermore that everyone has a right to express their sexuality in sexual activity or behaviour. So to call homosexual activity immoral is to denigrate a fundamental part of a homosexual person’s identity, and is therefore homophobic.
On the other hand, we don’t know for sure how inherent a person’s sexual orientation is; the scientific jury is still out on whether homosexuality is a born trait or a developed one (nature or nurture). And even if it is inherent, it’s not obvious on what basis we can claim a ‘right’ to sexual activity – whether homo, hetero or anything else.
It seems to me that the equally contentious case of abortion gives us a parallel and precedent here. UK doctors are allowed to opt out of performing abortions on grounds of conscience, which seems reasonable. So by extension I would say that if someone is convinced on whatever grounds that homosexual acts are morally wrong, they should also have the opportunity to act according to conscience by opting out of offering marriage or sexual counselling services to gay couples. Otherwise their own conscience is compromised, and the service they offer may also be compromised. I’m not arguing for discrimination – gay couples should definitely still have access to the same services, but just provided by a different registrar or counsellor.
I would nonetheless raise a couple of queries about my argument. Firstly, if a Christian believes it to be against their conscience to offer sex therapy to gay couples, would they also in conscience refuse to offer it to non-married heterosexuals? If not, that might certainly seem to suggest homophobia. Secondly, if a person’s conscience is preventing them from carrying out a significant portion of the work they are employed to do, at what point might they need to consider changing jobs?
And let’s extend the argument to an even more extreme case – what about someone who believes mixed-race relationships to be biblically or morally wrong? Should they still be allowed to follow their conscience? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s generally constructive to force someone to act contrary to conscience, however misguided, but at this point there would be serious questions about the person’s ability to carry out the full functions of their job.
Dreams of an ideal society
So as I say, there are no straightforward answers to the complex questions raised by these cases – or if there are, I certainly don’t have them. What I do have is a vision of the kind of society I’d like to live in.
I would like to live in a society in which no-one is genuinely discriminated against on the basis of their gender, race, sexuality, beliefs, age or anything else. I would also like to live in a society in which everyone is free to express their identities and views, religious or otherwise, while doing so with all respect and consideration for others. I would like to live in a society in which everyone is free to exercise their genuine moral convictions on matters of conscience without stigma or penalty, while again doing so with respect and consideration for others. And I would like to live in a society in which we all care about and are willing to stand up for each other’s perspective and ‘rights’ rather than merely fighting for our own.
Essentially, this is a society based on the Golden Rule: treat others as you would have them treat you. It’s what I think the kingdom of heaven might look like; a community based on the law of love. But this kind of society cannot be achieved by legislation; you cannot impose the law of love by statute. Laws may be able to provide a starting point and a framework in which such a community can develop, but until our hearts change it’s like herding cats, or trying to house bonobos in Buckingham palace. (Which reminds me of an old joke about Prince Charles and a gorilla’s dad… maybe later.)
My ideal society isn’t based on the concept of human rights exactly, but rather on the Christian idea of human worth. I believe in the immeasurable, total and therefore equal worth and value of every person, regardless of race, creed, sexuality etc. (That doesn’t mean I believe everyone’s beliefs or behaviour to be equally healthy or valid; just that they as people are of equal worth.) My basis for this belief is the Christian understanding that every person is made in the image of God, and is completely and unconditionally loved by and precious to God. I therefore believe that all people should be treated with great respect, dignity, honour and kindness.
Now, as Christians I believe we should lead the way in according this respect to others; however, I do not believe we ought to be the ones demanding this treatment for ourselves, or that we should stand on our ‘rights’.
So when it comes to the exercise of our conscience, my view is that Christians do need to follow their convictions, though preferably only after much thought, prayer and wise counsel. However, if this means facing consequences or penalties such as dismissal from work or even legal action, my own feeling is that it would be better for us to accept this, rather than kicking up a huge fuss or insisting on our human rights. (I would be glad for others to stand up for Christians – or others – who exercise their conscience though.)
Of course, this is all a little academic for me; a nice safe exercise in moral thinking. I don’t think I’ve yet been asked to do something at work which compromises my conscience, nor have I suffered as a result of sticking to my convictions. When that happens, I may completely change my tune.
Now for that joke. What’s the difference between a bald man, Prince Charles and a gorilla’s father? One has no hair apparent, one is the Heir Apparent, and the other is a hairy parent. I thank you.