Christian rights vs gay rights?

…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.

The questions

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.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Ethics, Homosexuality, Politics and faith, Sex and sexuality, World events and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Christian rights vs gay rights?

  1. smellofburntwiggle says:

    Hmm, picking your way through thorny subjects!
    I think you give slightly too much credence to the freedom-to-follow-your-misguided-conscience side… especially in the mixed race example. There are some ‘consciences’ which are in such direct conflict to a humane and tolerant civilised society that to accommodate them colludes in unhealthy (unacceptable?) behaviour.

    In less dramatic ways this subject often crops up in day to day life in British schools. These are all real examples; Should certian sects be allowed to deprive their children of all access to technology? And have their children always eat their packed lunch on a table alone? How far is it reasonable to expect schools to accommodate this? Should Musilm children of strict parents be allowed to miss PE on fasting days and music and art, all of which are their entitlement in state education )? How about being obliged to act out the story of the 3 little pigs in Nursery?

    My feeling is that missing a whole subject area is not on, but flexibility within is fine..
    BUT here’s the crunch question, if I as a class teacher decided to study a Harry Potter book in class, and some folk had issues with that, would I be prepared to abandon the book?

    In my experience common sense has usually won out – Sikhs can wear their bracelet except when doing gym inPE when there’s a GENUINE health and safety risk; anyone can remove their children from RE or sex ed or collective worship so long as they provide an suitable alternative. Muslims are provided with a room to pray at lunch time in Ramadan but expected to participate in PE so long as suitable modest clothes are worn… it’s when faith groups/schools won’t compromise and get all militant that the problems begin.

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    • “There are some ‘consciences’ which are in such direct conflict to a humane and tolerant civilised society that to accommodate them colludes in unhealthy (unacceptable?) behaviour.”

      That’s an interesting point, and I broadly agree. The reason I raised it though is precisely because an increasing number of people would see any moral discomfort regarding homosexual activity as being ‘in direct conflict to a humane and tolerant civilised society’.

      I don’t know for sure what I think about that, but I do think people need to be able to hold to their own scruples even if they aren’t popular. But whether they should insist on continuing in a particular job which constantly conflicts with their scruples is a different matter – I would say probably not.

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  2. smellofburntwiggle says:

    I know it can be risky taking the values of “a humane and tolerant civillised society” as one’s bench-mark and it’s important for some who feel strongly convinced to be ‘salt and light’ and stand against decline in societal morality or test cases which clarify the law.. but at the same time there has to be safeguards against things like race discrimination.

    I think your’e a bit hard on yourself when you say
    “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.”
    presumably that was part of the line of reasoning that led to you being in the line of work you chose

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    • Yes absolutely – and that’s the difficulty, getting the balance right between standing up for what you see as morality/truth while safeguarding against genuine discrimination (whether racial, sexual or religious). Very glad I don’t have to make the legislative decisions!

      Ah, thanks for your support – yes indeed, I’d definitely be in a much higher-paid job if it weren’t for my stringent scruples… 😉

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  3. smellofburntwiggle says:

    Hmm, I wonder on which issues British politicians are allowed to vote according to their consciences.

    Given that you “don’t think it’s generally constructive to force someone to act contrary to conscience, however misguided” (must find out how to do that mauve quote box thingy)
    maybe in your ideal world, offenders/employers would get sent on the equivalent of a speed awareness course; an empathy / people-who-are-different-from-me awareness course.

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  4. dsholland says:

    I had to take one of those courses, and what stuck with me was (in our material) there was actually a defined time past which a look is a lear – 6 seconds. Good to know, but for the record lusting in your heart can be much faster. So I guess that means 6 seconds is the longest anyone should be expected to tolerate it 🙂

    The correlation then is that even if we can’t legislate “moral” behavior we can legislate tolerance of “immoral” behavior.

    To your example it seems to me that it is “immoral” for an employer to be intolerant of Race, Creed, Color. Wearing a crucifix or a star of david falls under Creed. I believe we have legislated they should expect to be sued. If the employer can demonstrate why that particular symbol prevents the employee from doing their job (consider a drag queen as the hostess in a family restaurant – I’m not convinced that rises to the required level) they can demonstrate that in court. That’s what courts are for (so we don’t just kill each other to get our way).

    Again, sometimes doing our job requires a certain level of tolerance (Policeman, Nurse, Fireman for example). If we cannot handle that level of tolerance we need to seek other employment or deal with the consequences (which for “first-responders” may be catastrophic for all concerned).

    You make a powerful point when you say a loving (golden rule) society can not be legislated. We cannot force people to love one another, but we can legislate the level of hatred we are allowed to express toward one another.
    It seems to me “gay rights” falls in this category. You cannot force my tolerance, but you can limit my intolerance.

    Coming back to Christian themes – the law cannot make us clean, it just exposes our weakness. That’s why we need the oft-forgotten rule before the golden one, it exposes the greatest weakness of all.

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    • It does seem a little contrary to commonsense to try and put a defined time on when a look becomes a leer – as surely it’s about how you look rather than how long you look for. As you say, maybe it’s more about how much of being looked at someone feels they can put up with before it becomes a problem – but again that can surely vary.

      But I think your point stands – we can only really legislate how much ‘unacceptable’ behaviour we’re prepared to put up with under what circumstances (though even then only to an extent). The real difficulty comes in deciding what is and isn’t acceptable in various situations and on what basis – so in these cases the wearing of religious symbols at work, or the exercising of conscience in a potentially discriminatory way at work.

      When you say the ‘oft-forgotten rule before the golden one’, do you mean the commandment to love?

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      • dsholland says:

        This puts me in mind of the Galatians 5:23 (no law against these things). We do not write laws to limit and control good behavior – just bad behavior. This is why I say law exposes our weakness.

        So the saying “You can’t legislate morality” is incomplete because we can and do legislate immorality. And we agree the problem comes in the definition of immorality, but it helps I think if we understand just what we are trying to do. As with the look/lear, it makes no sense to put a time limit on the definition of what is in the heart. It absolutely makes sense to say how long you have to control it based on how long I have to bear it.

        The two rules were first to love the Lord your God then the second to love your neighbor. We tend to drop the first (IMO). If we drop the first rule, then we can all live in harmony using the second rule (the Golden one) because the source of the conflict is removed (I’m being foolish here).

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        • Interesting stuff. I suppose my original point is simply that law-making is never going to create the perfect society – only Christ is. The law just keeps us in check in the meantime! Which is probably roughly what you were saying too.

          Re the first and second rules, I think they’re fundamentally interconnected. If you truly love your neighbour, you are in an indirect way loving God (that’s what I get from the Sheep and the Goats story anyway).

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