The Court of Appeal has given Christians a reason to celebrate. They have turned down an appeal by a registrar who refused to officiate at civil partnerships and have rejected her claim that she was discriminated against because of her Christian faith. This is good news for all those Christians who are fed up of seeing Christianity used as an excuse for homophobia.
As a trade unionist and an enthusiastic advocate of religious liberty, some have suggested that I am on the wrong side. It is true that I am not used to finding myself on the side of an employer against a worker. But in Lillian Ladele, we find a worker who wanted to put her prejudice into practice through her employment. And religious liberty is very different to the freedom to discriminate against other people. It should be no surprise that the organisation Liberty, which stands up for the freedoms of Christians as well as many others, has actively opposed Ladele's case.
I understand how many Christians have come to the appallingly mistaken conclusion that homosexuality is wrong. To my shame, I admit that when I became a Christian in my late teens, I was persuaded to adopt such a view myself.
But why, if Ladele could not officiate at ceremonies that went against her conscience, did this affect only one aspect of her faith? Why has she not refused to marry straight couples who are not truly in love with each other? Would she marry a man and a woman if they were planning an open marriage? Or if she discovered that one of them was secretly committing adultery? Her position is absurd.
This has not stopped her gaining enthusiastic support from the sort of Christians who will be spitting blood over today's judgment. Ladele's case has been backed all the way by the Christian Institute, a socially conservative pressure group. A senior figure at a major evangelical organisation recently told me that he thought that success for Ladele's appeal was the most important issue currently facing British Christians.
Ladele is routinely described as a “Christian registrar” in headlines, as if this in itself explained her attitude. I'm not questioning Ladele's commitment to Christianity, but the media's constant use of the phrase sadly reinforces the equation of Christianity with homophobia, playing into the hands of the pro-Ladele camp.
In reality, there are large numbers of Christians, including many evangelicals, who take a different view. The Evangelical Alliance Ireland last week caused surprise by supporting the introduction of civil partnerships in the Irish Republic. Their statement on the issue criticised Christians who “fight in the courts and legislatures for what remains of the dubious honours and advantages of Christendom”.
But groups such as the Christan Institute hark back to a Christendom situation, to a time when Christianity was associated with power and privilege and far fewer British people identified with non-Christian faiths or with secularism. Somehow, they manage to read the teachings of Jesus and conclude that his followers should demand privileges for themselves which are denied to others.
The alternative approach is for Christians to embrace the multifaith and multicultural situation of post-Christendom, in which Christianity can be far less compromised by wealth and power and Christians can stand with those on the margins as we work for a more just and compassionate world.
But Christians who take such a position tend to be far less visible in the media than those who defend prejudice and long for a return to a “Christian country” (supposing that such a thing ever existed). Each year, the media coverage of the Pride event in London will refer to the small number of Christians who turn up to demonstrate against homosexuality. The casual readers of such news may well not realise there are always more Christians participating in Pride than there are protesting against it.
Those of us whose Christian faith inspires us to support equality for LGBT people must take some of the blame for this ourselves. We have rarely been as vocal as the homophobes. Some have been swayed by a willingness to sacrifice the truth and justice of equality and inclusion to the desire for a superficial unity. Others have simply underestimated the need for speaking out, or been afraid to use Christian language to promote equality.
Today's ruling is one opportunity (there are many others) to redress this situation. Christians can welcome the court's decision. We can emphasise that it is not an affront to Christian values – it is a victory for Christian values. Using traditional Christian terminology, we can point that it is not homosexuality, but homophobia, that is sinful. Those of who have gone along with homophobia in the past can declare our repentance of it.
In Jesus Christ, we have a Messiah whose life embodied a message of radical inclusivity, a man who challenged religious hypocrisy and the abuse of power, who socialised with outcasts, broke religious and secular laws and forgave his persecutors as they killed him.
It is time for pro-equality Christians to make clear that our commitment to equality is not in tension with Christianity, or incidental to it, but flows naturally from it. It is a basic outworking of the New Testament's ethical message that “love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13,10).
(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This column is a slightly adapted version of an article that he wrote for the online Guardian on 15 December 2009. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/symonhill .