Conscience and justice

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
26 Jan 2007

Nine years ago “probably the most controversial, brilliant, independent-minded and principled politician of his age” died. This was how the Birmingham Post described the devout Anglican Enoch Powell, who believed it would infringe the rights of those he championed to be subjected to anti-discrimination legislation, and spoke out forcefully.

Powell was sacked from the shadow cabinet after a speech in 1968 in which he warned of the dangers of race relations laws and immigration by large numbers of non-white people, and predicted, "Like the Romans, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'."

Famously, a few years later, Robert Relf was willing to go to jail rather than take down a sign outside his house reading ‘For Sale - to a white family only'.

I remembered the stance taken by these principled but misguided men when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York stated in a letter to the Prime Minister: “In legislating to protect and promote the rights of particular groups the government is faced with the delicate but important challenge of not thereby creating the conditions within which others feel their rights to have been ignored or sacrificed, or in which the dictates of personal conscience are put at risk. The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well meaning.”

It might be argued that the situation is different today, when some are objecting strongly, on grounds of their faith, to being required not to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation. Few in mainstream faith communities or political parties in Britain today would proclaim such racist views as those of Powell and Relf.

But this was certainly not the case when laws prohibiting discrimination on grounds of ethnicity (with no exemptions for belief or conscience) were first passed. Indeed many racists regarded themselves as seeking to protect the nation’s Christian heritage. Even now, across Europe, there has been a resurgence of the extreme right, including a grouping in the European Parliament committed to ‘defending Christian values, the family, and European civilization’. If the Archbishops are right, race relations legislation is wrong.

Controversy over the claim that ‘conscience’ can overrule measures protecting lesbians, gays and their families from discrimination has been growing. In September 2006, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow spoke out in defence of nine firefighters disciplined for refusing to hand out fire safety leaflets during a lesbian and gay festival. A fire service spokesperson explained that "Firefighters cannot, and will not, pick and choose to whom they offer fire safety advice. Strathclyde Fire and Rescue has a responsibility to protect every one of the 2.3m people it serves, irrespective of race, religion or sexuality."

But, said the Archbishop, "The duty to obey one's conscience is a higher duty than that of obeying orders.” In January 2007 the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster urged that adoption agencies connected with his church not be required, in order to continue to work with local authorities, to consider same-sex couples as adoptive parents, and thus “act against the teaching of the Church and their own consciences”. In support of his plea, the Church of England Archbishops wrote the letter quoted above.

Another area where conscience is sometimes regarded as not in line with the law is of state interference in a husband’s rights over his wife, and parents’ rights over their children, which some see as divinely ordained. An article on a right-wing Christian website, for instance, condemns the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 for introducing “an offence of ‘marital rape,’ drafted by the Law Commission, unknown in the Law of God, and in conflict with the marriage service of the Book of Common Prayer, where the promises given by a man and woman to each other establish a binding consent to sexual intercourse”.

Also a committee concerned with putting into practice the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is accused of demanding that “the God-given duty of parents to discipline their children be legislated away both in the home and in private schools”. There have even been cases in the UK where supposedly pious men of other religious backgrounds have murdered relatives for acting in ways they considered immoral.

However, many Christians, along with people of other faiths and none, would regard it as going against their consciences not to do their utmost to prevent violence in the home or discrimination. These not only cause material, and often psychological and spiritual, damage to those on the receiving end but also nourish the belief among perpetrators, and those who collude, that some people are not made in God’s image and need not be treated with care and respect. Especially if one believes that "those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1 John 4.20), this is an extremely serious matter.

In any case, while Christians and others might sometimes defy a law which they consider unjust, they would usually do so after careful consideration, as part of a campaign for its repeal and with a willingness to take the consequences. Nobody should be above the law. The principle championed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York would open the door to all kinds of consequences which they themselves would no doubt deplore.

I recognise the distress of those called on to treat equally those for whom they feel fear or contempt, however irrational. We humans are unfortunately prone to pursue power and privilege and to victimise others, and must struggle with our own as well as society’s failings if we are fully to respond to God’s image in our diverse neighbours.

There are also problems involved in forcing anyone to do anything: it is better by far when people freely choose to treat others with respect. Yet, if laws are sometimes necessary, those which prevent the vulnerable from injury and unfair treatment should be upheld.

Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka and lives in London. She works in the voluntary sector.

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