Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Freedom of Religion in a Liberal Society?

Not for the first time, the government is headed for a clash with organised Christianity, in the form of the Catholic Church primarily, but well supported by Anglicanism's most senior figures. The issue is over new legislation that would force catholic adoption agencies to accept same sex couples as adoptive parents. This is legislation intended to iron out discrimination against gay couples.

There will not be wanting people to condemn the churches once more as 'anti-gay', and asking why churches should be exempt from legislation aimed at stamping out discrimination. The problem, of course, is that such this legislation directly interferes with the church's rights to live according to its religious belief system, and to insist that its institutions and agencies do the same.

Tony Blair is apparently keen to accommodate the churches' objections, as is his Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly. But they have been hoist here by their own petard. Mr. Blair's government has been overly keen on legislating just about everything for years, and such a frantic desire to ensure elgislation on every issue is bound to have a comeuppance, quite apart from its negative impact on a liberal society.

The gay adoption legislation is a classic case of a law too far. In seeking to protect the rights of one minority - gay people - it infringes the right of another - Christians. In fact, of course, were the proposed laws to exempt churches they would not be infringing the rights of gay couples; state agencies would still be happy to place children with same-sex couples. The fact that catholic agencies would not do so is simply in keeping with the catholic stance on homosexuality, but does not, in a pluralistic society, impose that stance on other agencies or people. Thus, the catholic right not to place children brought to its agencies with same sex couples does not limit the freedoms of gay couple to seek to be adopted parents through other, non-catholic agencies.

The proposed law could be seen as another attempt to force the Christian church to accept the secular concerns of the country in which it lives, and is perhaps therefore little different from the position of the early Christians, who suffered persecution if they did not worship the Roman emperor as God. Or it might simply be a cackhanded piece of legislation. Either way, the issue it raises about freedom of religion in a liberal society is a significant one, particularly if we also think back to the Religious Hatred Bill and the attempt to impose quotas on faith schools.

A liberal society cannot pick and choose the groups it wishes to defend, and should keep in mind the key test of whose liberties might be infringed by its legislation.

For the churches, there is a problem of perception. If it is to avoid the perception of simply being beastly to gays, it must be clearer and broader about its teaching - that whilst it regards homosexuality, along with a host of other personal predilections and behaviour, as sinful, it seeks to love the sinners. The Christian gospel presents a way of living for Christians, and teaches it as an appropriate way to conduct everyone's lives, but it does not seek to impose this on everyone, and nor should it be seen to do so.

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