UK judges moving towards ‘secular state’, says former archbishop

Posted Apr 30, 2010 by Andrew John
Judges in the United Kingdom have been accused of moving towards a “secular state,” downgrading the rights of religious believers.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord (George) Carey
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord (George) Carey
Wikimedia Commons
The accusation comes from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (George) Carey, who attacked what he called a “deeply worrying” ruling in the High Court that has denied a man the right to appeal against an unfair-dismissal ruling.
Gary McFarlane worked for Relate, formerly the Marriage Guidance Council, but he refused to provide therapy for same-sex couples, citing his Christianity.
Lord Justice Laws said in the High Court this week that legislation to protect a position “held purely on religious grounds” could not be justified. It would, he said, be “irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective [. . .] divisive, capricious and arbitrary.”
“His judgment at an appeal hearing by Gary McFarlane, 48, from Bristol, will fuel resentment among Christian groups at what they see as unfair treatment,” says the Guardian. “McFarlane was seeking to appeal against an employment appeal tribunal ruling by Relate Avon [Avon is an English county] in 2008. He alleged unfair dismissal on the grounds of religious discrimination.”
Carey had earlier called for a special panel of judges with “proven sensitivity and understanding of religious issues” to hear the case. He said recent court decisions had used “dangerous” reasoning and could lead to civil unrest.
However, Laws said: “We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.
“The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the state, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.”
He added: “In a free constitution such as ours there is an important distinction to be drawn between the law’s protection of the right to hold and express a belief and the law’s protection of that belief’s substance or content.”
Inimical to public interest
He said of Carey’s plea for a special court: “I am sorry that he finds it possible to suggest a procedure that would, in my judgment, be deeply inimical to the public interest.”
Carey said the courts were attempting to downgrade the rights of religious believers to express their faith. “It heralded a ‘secular’ state rather than a ‘neutral’ one. And while with one hand the ruling seeks to protect the right of religious believers to hold and express their faith, with the other it takes away those same rights,” he said.
“It says that the sacking of religious believers in recent cases was not a denial of their rights even though religious belief cannot be divided from its expression in every area of the believer’s life.
“Oddly the judge doesn’t address the argument that rights have to be held in balance and he is apparently indifferent to the fact that religious believers are adversely affected by this judgment and others.”
The judgment was welcomed by Derek Munn, of the gay lobbying group Stonewall. He said: “You cannot refuse a service to a person based on their gender, race or disability, and you can’t on the basis of their sexual orientation either. People delivering public services mustn’t be able to pick and choose who they will serve on the basis of personal prejudice.”
The president of Britain’s National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, said: “The fundamentalists who keep bringing these cases had clearly hoped that the courts would write their beliefs into law. They must be sorely disappointed by now – as well as considerably out of pocket. Justice Law’s judgment is an extraordinary rebuke to those who would try to introduce a particular religious view into the decisions of courts. Lord Carey must be feeling very foolish as his proposals were described by the judge as ‘deeply inimical to the public interest.’ Maybe now he will think more carefully before he speaks. We sincerely hope that this will put an end to the procession of trumped-up claims of discrimination by Christian activists which are time-wasting and expensive for the public purse.”
Lord Laws’s entire judgment can be read here.