Three Christians were yesterday convicted of criminal damage for a nonviolent anti-nuclear protest at the Ministry of Defence. They have all refused to pay the court costs imposed on them and are ready to go to jail as a matter of conscience.
The case has received almost no coverage at all. But today, four Christians are at the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that Christians as a group are being discriminated against in the UK. Two of them are arguing for their “right” to discriminate against same-sex couples. They’ve attracted a lot of media interest: I’ve done three radio interviews about the case since yesterday, and am about to do a fourth.
These four Christians speak the language of human rights, religious liberty and freedom of conscience. These are concepts that matter to me more than I can say. That is why I am so appalled by them being used by people who want to deny rights and freedoms to others.
Not all the cases that they are taking to the court are about sexuality. Two of the four are concerned the right to wear a cross at work. I support this right as a matter of free expression, but I doubt that it is really what these cases are about. At least one of the individuals concerned – Shirley Chaplin, a nurse – was offered the chance to wear a cross pinned to her uniform rather than on a chain (for safety reasons) but refused. The other two cases concern Gary McFarlane, a counsellor who did not want to give sex counselling to same-sex couples, and Lilian Ladele, a registrar who refused to be involved in same-sex civil partnerships (which I wrote about for the Guardian when she lost her earlier case).
These four very different cases are being wedged into a narrative about anti-Christian discrimination. The groups behind this case – the Christian Legal Centre, Christian Concern and the Christian Institute – have for some years been pushing the absurd notion that Christians as a group are being discriminated against in the UK. And this in the only country in the world in which Christian leaders have an automatic right to sit in Parliament and vote on legislation. Bishops who claim discrimination in speeches delivered from the privileged benches of the House of Lords seem to be lacking a sense of irony.
Of course, some Christians are suffering for their conscience – such as the three Catholics who will go to prison for protesting against Trident. Many others have engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience over war, militarism, climate change and the government’s vicious cuts agenda. It’s worth remembering that the symbol of the cross – which has featured so much in discussions of this case – derives from an imperial punishment for Jesus’ nonviolent resistance to injustice. I am a Christian because I have faith that God vindicated that resistance by raising Jesus from the dead.
Unlike Christians who campaign against war and capitalism, groups such as Christian Concern expect the UK to uphold their privileges because they hark back to a mythical ‘Christian nation’ that never existed. They frequently attack the ‘human rights agenda’ (indeed one of the most recent tweets from the Christian Institute does just that) but are ready to use the language of ‘human rights’ to fight for their own privileges.
To love our neighbours as ourselves means to uphold the rights and freedoms of people who disagree with us as much as our own. That’s why it’s important that we defend the right of groups such as Christian Concern to express and promote their own views – however vile we find those views to be. But a right to express a view does not equate to the freedom to discriminate against other people.
If these cases were to be upheld, it would be a massive step backwards in the struggle for queer freedom. Remember that these Christians want to discriminate against other Christians. They want to deny gay, bisexual, trans and other queer Christians the rights and liberties that they now enjoy. We mustn’t let this turn into another ‘gays v. Christians’ story. We must make sure that pro-equality Christians are heard just as loudly as the homophobes. It’s down to all of us to make it happen.