Lord Carey is bringing Christianity into disrepute, say critics

By staff writers
April 18, 2010

Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has had his call for special legal provisions for Christians, and his warnings about "civil unrest", roundly rejected by lawyers, human rights advocates, commentators - and other Christians.

Legal experts say that attempts to have cases involving religious claims heard by hand-picked judges would set a dangerous precedent and undermine the impartiality of the justice system in Britain.

Lord Carey, who is allying himself with a small but vocal group of hardline conservatives within the Church of England and among pressure groups, has claimed that there may be “civil unrest” if judges continue with what he described as “disturbing” and “dangerous” rulings in discrimination cases.

His concern is that court rulings are increasingly undermining attempts to defend public discrimination against gay people and others on the grounds of religion, and because claims for special or different treatment by Christians, as distinct from others, are also being rejected.

Campaigners who want religious claims to trump equality ones argue that it is "discriminatory" to require Christians not to discriminate against LGBT people in the provision of goods and services - a view which many more, including Christians, view as perverse and indefensible.

But Lord Carey has gone further, suggesting that cases involving religion should be heard by special "religion sensitive" court appointees, and effectively implying that judges and others involved in the present court system are biased against Christianity and other religious traditions.

His remarks came in the light of a case involving an appeal brought by Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor from Bristol, who lost his job with the charity Relate after he refused to offer counselling to a homosexual couple. The unfair dismissal ruling went against him in this instance because of provisions related his employment contract, which his employers argued he had violated.

Lord Carey said it was “but a short step" from this case "to a 'religious bar' to any employment by Christians.”

But critics say that the extreme rhetoric, claims and proposals being put forward by some Christians opposed to equality provisions for gay people are unsustainable in fact, unfair in judicial effect, and detrimental to the cause of Christianity.

Samantha Knight, a barrister at Matrix Chambers, said: "It would be highly problematic to try and constitute a special panel to hear cases involving religious issues."

She continued: "The system we have is that any judge is able to determine a case involving any issue of human rights, which obviously includes religious rights."

"How would you decide which judges go on it, and what sort of religion should be represented? How do you factor in a balance? This would set a very dangerous precedent," said Ms Knight.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which has urged the churches to embrace the public equalities agenda on Christian principles, said: "Lord Carey's intervention will be widely seen as unhelpful, inept, and unjust in its implications. It is supposed to be 'defending Christianity', but in so doing it is seeking to impose through the law just one version of Christian understanding. Such an approach is actually more likely to bring Christianity into disrepute than to strengthen it."

He continued: "Christians are not being treated unfairly in the court system. They are merely being asked to play by the same rules as everyone else when providing public goods and services. Seeking special exemptions, opt-outs, different rules and different judges in order to allow Christians to discriminate against LGBT people will be seen by most inside and outside the churches as wrong and contrary to the Christian message of overflowing love for our neighbours."

"What is happening," said Barrow, "is that internal arguments about sexuality and sexual morality within the churches are being projected into the wider public arena, with the claim that the 'sensitivities' of one side of this argument should have general legal force in situations where the rights of those who have nothing to do with the church, as well as some who are being excluded within it, are being violated. But the idea that people like Lord Carey should effectively have jurisdiction in public law is absurd, unnecessary and unfeasible - and has nothing to do with 'religious rights'. Rather it is based on a claim for privilege which is no longer sustainable in a post-Christendom world, and which many other Christians find offensive on theological, not just civic, grounds."

The Cutting Edge Consortium of both religious and non-religious groups, which includes Ekklesia, has argued against the 'opt-out' pressure from the institutional churches.

Secular and humanist groups, including the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society, have also condemned Lord Carey's comments.

The Equality Bill received the royal assent recently after the pre-election 'wash up' of legislation in process. But it has watered down provisions on the rights of homosexuals in religious organisations.

Cutting Edge points out that this amounts to allowing discrimination against Christians and people of faith who are gay, as well as others, and that the "religious rights" defended by Christian anti-equality advocates is therefore only for people who think like them, not for everybody.

Meanwhile, on BBC Radio 4 last week, the Rev Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister who has also been a major entrepreneur for Christian and church involvement in welfare provision, suggested the churches should stop "bleating" about their loss of power and influence in wider society and look at how they could make a positive impact and impression through their actions.

Groups like Faithworks, a large evangelical agency, have accepted the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SoRs) which forbid discriminating against gay people in the provision of goods and services, while other church bodies have strongly objected to them.

In his 2006 book Faith and Politics After Christendom, Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley predicted increasing tension and even unrest in conservative Christian circles over the loss of power, influence and privilege for institutional religion and the Established Church within the social order.

But the think-tank argues that Christianity is much larger than institutionally 'established' religion (Christendom) and that the undermining of a top-down, command-and-control version of the church is an opportunity for an authentically liberating understanding of the Christian message to re-emerge.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.