Christianity, conscience and the European Court

by Symon Hill

I’m delighted with the news from the European Court of Human Rights this morning. The court has thrown out three of the four cases brought by Christians who claim that they suffered discrimination because of their religion. Two of the rejected cases were brought by people claiming that they had the right to discriminate against same-sex couples. 

The news of the ruling came through as I was discussing the cases on Radio Five Live Breakfast shortly after 9.00am.

I strongly believe that opponents of same-sex relationships should have the right not only to hold their own views but also to publicise and promote them. What they do not have a right to do is to use their jobs to deprive gay and bisexual people of their rights. Far from being the victims of discrimination, these individuals are wanting the freedom to discriminate against others.

On Radio Five Live, I debated with David Landrum from the Evangelical Alliance. While I don’t agree with the Alliance on sexuality, their comments are usually more measured than those of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre, the groups behind the cases at the European Court.

I found myself having a relatively healthy dialogue with David, until he claimed that his views were shared by “Christians who take the Bible seriously”. The implication was that people who interpret the Bible differently to him are taking it less seriously. I’m sure that the claim was made in the past by Christians who used the Bible to justify slavery, racism and domestic abuse. They could not see the wood for the trees: Jesus’ message of radical love that is a challenge to both legalism and self-interest.

Later on in the programme, I was up against Alan Craig of the Christian People’s Alliance. Alan repeatedly talked of the importance of “tolerance”. This is a bit rich from a man who regularly comes out with the most viciously homophobic rhetoric and who has compared the promotion of gay and bisexual civil rights to the Nazi conquest of Europe.

Alan claimed that there was a “parallel” between the rights granted by the UK to conscientious objectors (COs) in wartime and the rights claimed by people who don’t want to work with same-sex couples. I’m not sure if this is an argument he uses generally or one he chose particularly to use against me, knowing that I’m a Christian pacifist.

The “parallel” is inaccurate in a number of ways. Firstly, the rights of pacifists in the UK have been limited: dozens of COs died in prison in the first world war while anti-war publications and campaigns were banned in the second world war – a point rarely made in the airbrushed history of the war with which we are presented in schools and popular culture. Secondly, I am not denying that people such as Lilian Ladele – the civil registrar who refused to register same-sex civil partnerships – have a right to express their views. What I am saying is that they don’t have a right to use their employment to discriminate against others.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that Alan Craig’s argument completely misrepresents the nature of conscientious objection to war. Pacifism is not about opting out. It is about standing up for something different. It is good that there is at least some right to conscientious objection recognised in UK law. But let’s not forget that it is only there because the law maintains the right of the government to conscript people to carry out violence in its name. Conscientious objection is not about asking for rights for ourselves; it is about pointing the way to a different way of doing things.

In recent years, a number of Christians in the UK have gone to prison after taking nonviolent direct action against the arms trade and preparations for war. They are not backed by the Christian Legal Centre. They rarely make headline news. Their conscience and their faith have compelled them to act. As the apostle Paul says, Christians should not “conform to the patterns of this world”. We need to challenge greed, war, inequality – and homophobia. 

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3 thoughts on “Christianity, conscience and the European Court

  1. jemima101 says:

    I found his use of conscientious objectors disingenuous to say the least, as well as insulting to the real pressures they have faced, and still face today. There seemed a willful inability to understand the difference between holding an opinion and forcing that opinion on others, especially when it comes to a job such as Registrar which is a public office.

  2. […] I’ve tried to explain my reasoning further in an article on Queers for Jesus, which you can read here. The Five Live programme on which I discussed the issues, along with other guests, can be heard […]

  3. […] example, Daniel continued, just recently, British Christians had been scandalously told by the European Court of Human Rights that they could not “conscientiously object” to […]

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