June 2007 – Many Christians in the United Kingdom (U.K.) fear that new laws passed by Parliament, designed to protect homosexuals from discrimination, will soon be used to threaten the religious freedoms of those who refuse to accept that lifestyle.
That fear seemed to materialize almost immediately, after a bishop in the Church of England was hauled before an employment tribunal when he refused to hire as a youth worker a non-repentant homosexual man.
The Right Reverend Anthony Priddis, Bishop of Hereford, was brought up on charges of sexual orientation discrimination by John Reaney, and the case is a potential blockbuster.
Reaney’s qualifications for the post are apparently not in question. The 41-year-old gay man had previously done church youth work and received enthusiastic recommendations, including from the national youth officer for the Church of England.
The basis of the charges is the passage of the Equality Act in 2006, which contains Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The SORs provide fairly narrow exemptions for churches and clergy, but the question has not yet been resolved concerning lay employees – such as a non-ordained youth worker like Reaney – and support staff.
Believe, but don’t practice
A review of the law and its potential applications, titled Legislative Scrutiny: Sexual Orientation Regulations, was ordered by the British Parliament’s House of Lords and House of Commons and published in February.
In its explanation of the reach of the SORs, Legislative Scrutiny made a disturbing distinction between religious belief and action. While the document stated that “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is absolute and cannot be restricted,” it then said that “the right to manifest one’s religion or belief in practice is qualified and capable of limitation” under certain circumstances, “including for the protection of the rights of others,” notably homosexuals.
One of those limitations of religious belief appears to be in the hiring of church workers that fall outside the very narrow exemption of clergy. Matthew Batten, a spokesman for the U.K. gay rights group Stonewall, which is paying for Reaney’s case, said the only religious exemption provided by the new laws is “for a small handful of people who work in doctrinal work like vicars and preachers.”
Shrinking areas of freedom
There are other manifestations of religious belief which appear to be banned under the new SORs, according to the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF), a group that was formed to be a Christian influence on lawyers and the law in the U.K.
For example, the group said: “There is no protection for individuals to guarantee their freedom of conscience – the only exemption for religious belief … applies to organizations rather than individuals.”
Thus “a Christian printing company would be acting illegally if they were prepared to print a book about the importance of marriage, but refused to print a book promoting homosexual relationships, including homosexual sex,” LCF said.
Likewise, a Christian who owned a business that he advertised as a “Christian day care” could be forced to hire a homosexual applicant, even if doing so would go against his religious beliefs.
Another expression of religious activity that would fall under the requirements of the SORs would be ministries which provide public services in conjunction with the government. If any Christian ministry in the U.K. received government money to provide for the homeless or the poor, for example, they would be forced to follow the SORs without exception – including hiring homosexuals for ministry positions.
“[N]o exemption applies where a religious organization is performing a public function on behalf of a public authority,” the Legislative Scrutiny document stated.
In fact, LCF said on its Web site, a church which received government funds to run an overnight homeless shelter, for example, “would not even be able to refuse membership of the church to openly practicing homosexuals.”
This onerous requirement would essentially force churches to choose between working with the government or giving up many of their ministries.
This was precisely the case with Catholic charities in the U.K., who have stated unequivocally that if the SORs were approved by Parliament, they would cease involvement in the adoption process, rather than be forced to place children with homosexual couples.
The SORs also apply to Christian schools. According to the Legislative Scrutiny, “The Committee does not consider that the right to freedom of conscience and religion requires the school curriculum to be exempted from the Sexual Orientation Regulations.”
Under no circumstances – even in Christian schools – should gay students be “subjected to teaching, as part of the religious education or other curriculum, that their sexual orientation is sinful or morally wrong,” the document said.
While Christian schools were certainly free to teach that certain religions believe that homosexuality is sinful, those schools should not be allowed to teach “a particular religion’s doctrinal beliefs [about human sexuality] as if they were objectively true.”
For many, the easy passage of the SORs in the U.K. and the very narrow religious exemptions illustrate a growing dismissiveness of Christianity – and even downright hostility towards it.
For example, when a constituent wrote to Alan Simpson, a member of Parliament, to request that Simpson oppose the SOR legislation, an aide sent a nasty reply. “You disgust me,” said aide Paul May. “You are so totally and utterly out of touch with the real world that it is no surprise to me that the Christian faith is fizzling out to nothing in the United Kingdom. Perhaps when we have managed to turn all our children gay, the problem of religious bigotry affecting our laws will no longer be an issue.”
Ironically, such animosity comes under the guise of tolerance and pluralism. Nevertheless, the Archbishop of Westminster for the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who represents the four million Catholics in England and Wales, said, “What looks like liberality is in reality a radical exclusion of religion from the public sphere.”
That exclusion suits some homosexual activists just fine. The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, a gay rights group in the U.K., issued a press statement in March charging the Catholic Church with homophobia and a failure to embrace the homosexuality of gay students that attend Catholic schools.
“For the sake of these children and for the community at large, which should be protected from the promotion of bigotry in schools,” the group said, “the Catholic Church should be stripped of its educational establishments.”
Many Christian leaders are fully aware that the call for diversity is merely a smokescreen for the enemies of religion. According to Lifesitenews.com, Father Tim Finigan, head of the Association of Priests for the Gospel of Life, a Catholic group, said the SORs and similar legislative efforts are part of the “implacable secularist agenda of modern Britain.”
And when it comes to religious freedoms, said the Right Reverend George Cassidy, an Anglican bishop, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the right to freedom of religion is being treated as of lesser weight than other human rights.”
The SORs were scheduled to take effect April 30, after which faith-based groups will have 21 months to bring their policies in line with the new regulations.
For Bishop Priddis, judgment day comes much sooner: the employment tribunal was expected to issue a written ruling sometime in June.