From the editor’s desk
Human rights, common sense
19 January 2013
David Cameron has a responsibility to make the fears of a thousand Catholic priests look far-fetched. He has to ensure that any law recognising gay marriage will not, as these priests complained in a letter to The Daily Telegraph last week, leave them open to persecution redolent of the anti-Catholic penal laws levied after the Reformation. Government spokesmen have already stated that no Catholic priest or teacher will face legal consequences if they teach the Catholic doctrine that marriage should be reserved for the union between one man and one woman. It is an indication of the somewhat fevered atmosphere surrounding this issue that government assurances to the contrary are not trusted.
In truth, given that any aggrieved person may complain to the authorities if they feel their rights have in any way been slighted, and given that employers, the police and the courts have not always shown good sense in the way they have responded, nobody can be quite certain what will happen if and when gay marriage becomes law. The jails may yet be filled with protesting priests, though that, it has to be said, is pretty unlikely.
A new benchmark for the interpretation of human-rights law as it affects a conflict of rights between religious believers and other sections of society has just this week been handed down by the European Court of Human Rights. Where conditions of employment require an individual not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and the individual nevertheless insists on doing so because of religious beliefs, the court found that dismissal would be lawful. So the law does not recognise a general right of conscientious objection. On the other hand, if an individual insists on displaying a sign of religious faith on their clothing, such as a small cross, his or her dismissal on such grounds would indeed be unlawful unless there were overriding reasons – such as in one case before the court involving a nurse in a hospital, where jewellery of any kind was forbidden on grounds of hygiene.
These conclusions were reasonable and proportionate, and do not prove that religion in general is under attack by aggressive secularists using human rights as their weapon. Rights do sometimes conflict, and as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference sensibly said in a statement afterwards, “The Church would strongly encourage disputes of this kind to be settled without recourse to the courts. In many cases, applying common sense would enable a reasonable accommodation between competing rights to be found.” But an atmosphere of paranoia would make such accommodation more difficult, and that is the danger of the priests’ letter to the Telegraph. Nor is it right to regard human rights as somehow a secular challenge to religious freedoms. Their origins are the same – in respect due to everyone for their God-given personal dignity, regardless of race, creed, orientation or any other factor. The European Convention on Human Rights was largely drafted by English lawyers, and the origins of the common law are deeply embedded in Christian thinking, including medieval canon law. Over 60 years, the human-rights convention has made Europe a far better place. In 1963 John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, incorporated human rights fully into the teaching of the Magisterium, where they remain. Christians should fight in favour of human rights, not against them.
It is refreshing to see a Roman Catholic newspaper in England – The Tablet – championing the need for upholding the cause of human rights in the Church and in Society. Fears of R.C. or any other clergy being disenfranchised by the British Government move to allow for Same-Sex Marriage are here accounted to be completely groundless. For the Church to protest against this option to establish a sound basis for Gay relationships – on the grounds of the Church being forced to comply with the need to marry Gay people – has no basis in fact, and should not be used as a lever to deny Gay people the opportunity to enter into a monogamous, stable relationship, which has as much chance of surviving as that of the heterosexual community.
Prejudice has no right to take the place of a genuine desire for stability and justice for ALL.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand