An open letter to the Bishop of Winchester

By Iain McLean
5 Feb 2010

Dear Friend,

On 25 January 2010, you were one of the bishops who helped to defeat the Government in the House of Lords on the Equality Bill. At the heart of the debate were three amendments which sought to make religious organisations’ exemptions from anti-discrimination law as wide as possible. The Government, under pressure (it was said) from both the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, wanted to restrict those exemptions to cover only the employment and discipline of spiritual leaders. You and six of your colleagues attended the Lords to ensure that the Government was defeated. One of the three amendments was carried by only five votes; so you and your fellow bishops were decisive in defeating the anti-discrimination legislation proposed by the Government. It is now reported that the Government, which is running out of parliamentary time, will not seek to reverse this defeat.

You also urged rejection of another amendment, which was sponsored by three faith communities, one of them the Quakers, to which I belong. The other two were Liberal Judaism and the Unitarian Church. At present, the Civil Partnership Act forbids civil partnership ceremonies from taking place in any religious premises. Our three faith communities have considered the matter prayerfully, and we think that the Act discriminates against couples who wish their partnership to be marked by a religious token of their commitment. We would like the ban to be repealed, so that those faith communities which wish – and only those which wish – should be allowed to hold civil partnership ceremonies on their premises. As Julia Neuberger, president of Liberal Judaism, pointed out in the House before you spoke, the amendment is purely permissive. The existing ban inhibits the free exercise of our religion. If we were in the USA, it would probably be unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

You urged rejection of our amendment on the grounds of:

the likelihood of a steady and continuing pressure on, if not a forcing of, the churches, the Church of England among them, to compromise on our convictions that marriage has a character that is distinct from that of a civil partnership. Churches of all sorts really should not reduce or fudge, let alone deny, that distinction (Hansard, Lords, 25 January).

This is a ‘slippery slope’ argument. What moral status does such an argument have? If you think we are wrong, nothing in our amendment would have forced you to change your view. But you go further. You say what, in your view, “churches of all sorts” should do. Presumably, you meant to include synagogues in this statement.

Friend, by what right do you make that statement? In past centuries, Quakers, Jews, and Unitarians have faced discrimination and punishment for refusing to conform to the official religion of the state. In the USA, Baptists, deists, and Quakers came together to ensure that the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses were written into the Constitution in 1791:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

In conscience, do you not feel that the time has come for an Establishment and Free Exercise clause here too? The Church of England’s website says, of you and your fellow bishops in Parliament:

Bishops provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight to the work of the Upper House and are a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.

You are not a voice for this person of faith, nor for the president of Liberal Judaism. Many people of faith think that discrimination on grounds of gender or sexuality is an evil. Where not all people of faith think the same way, perhaps we should all heed the advice of our Quaker Advices & Queries: Think it possible that you may be mistaken.

In Friendship,

Iain McLean

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Iain McLean FBA is Official Fellow in Politics and Professor of Politics at Oxford University. He is author of What's Wrong with the British Constitution? (OUP 2009), with Scot Peterson, and is a Quaker with a background in the Church of Scotland.

This article has been reproduced with kind permission of http://www.opendemocracy.net under their Creative Commons license.

See also this follow-up to Professor McLean's letter by Stuart White, 'What about my freedom of religion?' - http://tinyurl.com/yljswjh

OpendDemocracy's 'Our Kingdom' discussion area is a collection of material on power and liberty in Britain today: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom

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