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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bishop: Gay Rights Trample Religious Liberties

Michael Scott-Joynt
   Michael Scott-Joynt
By Kilian Melloy -

Some religious believers condemn gays on the basis of Scriptural writings; sexual minorities, on the other hand, say that they need legal protections to safeguard their civil rights. The two come into conflict when the anti-gay religious believers see anti-discrimination laws as eroding their rights in the course of protecting those of gays.

In some cases, anti-gay people of faith claim that laws banning hate speech will prevent them from preaching what they say are Biblical injunctions against gays. In other instances, health care providers and other professionals have run afoul of anti-discrimination laws for seeking to deny service to gays due to their religious convictions.

In a few instances, overt displays of Christian iconography in public spaces or in work environments have led to legal wrangles. In all cases, the anti-gay Christians assert that they are victims of "persecution" by laws hostile to people of faith.

Though such imbroglios have been relatively unheard of in the United States, they have been increasingly common in Britain, where a comprehensive human rights law has led to legal clashes in recent years. Prior to his state visit to the U.K. earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI generated sparks when he criticized the British human rights law.

In a Feb. 1 address, Benedict XVI told Catholic bishops of England and Wales that British law had inflicted "unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs." Benedict also claimed that such laws ran counter to "the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed." Anti-gay religious conservatives often cite "natural law" when condemning homosexuals or homosexual relationships, which the Catholic Church views as "intrinsically dissolute."

The Pope’s comments came in the wake of an attempt by a British politician, Harriet Harman, to sharpen the language of existing law that provides for anti-discrimination protections for GLBT British workers, but offers certain exemptions for churches, such as not requiring religious denominations to extend equitable employment practices to gays when appointing priests.

Now a British cleric has spoken out against what he says in "an imbalance" in the application of the human rights law, such that Christians are unfairly burdened and their beliefs set aside by the courts. Bishop of Winchester Michael Scott-Joynt said that although the Human Rights Act is something that he "generally welcomed," he had reservations about the way the law was being enforced, reported on Dec. 27.

"There is growing up something of an imbalance in the legal position with regard to the freedom of Christians and people of other faiths to pursue the calling of their faith in public life, in public service," said Scott-Joynt. "One major context is obviously the Human Rights Act."

One case in point noted by the bishop was that of sex therapist and couples counselor Gary McFarlane, who refused to provide counseling services to a gay couple because of his Christian views of homosexuality. "We have had a statement from a senior judge this year that matters of Christian belief were only matters of opinion and the law couldn’t possibly take countenance of them in coming to decisions about the rights and wrongs of particular behavior in the workplace," Scott-Joynt said.

A retired top jurist offered similar views, saying that the courts had taken things "too far" in interpreting the law, and offering the opinion that it is "about time the tide turned," the article said. "The law must be above any sectional interest even if it is an interest of a faith," said former Chief Justice Lord Woolf, "but at the same time it must be aware of the proper concerns of that faith."

Scott-Joynt also cited a legal decision that required religious charities to hire gays and non-believers, saying, "Anybody who is part of the religious community believes that you don’t just hold views, you live them. Manifesting your faith is part of having it and not part of some optional bolt-on," reported British newspaper the Daily Mail on Dec. 26.

Scrapping ’Human Rights’ for a ’Bill of Rights?’

The Mail recounted that while still a candidate, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to oversee repeal of the Human Rights Act. In its stead, Cameron promised to install a Bill of Rights that would safeguard the rights and interests of all. The last election resulted in a coalition government, however, which has meant that no one political party controls the legislative process. A commission to study the creation of such a Bill of Rights is expected to be formed, the Mail said.

In dismissing McFarlane’s appeal, a judge said that enshrining religious belief in law would open the way to transforming Britain into a "theocracy," another UK newspaper, the Telegraph, reported on Dec. 27.

The Telegraph also cited the case Susanne Wilkinson, a Christian bed and breakfast proprietor who turned a gay couple away despite anti-discrimination laws that forbid denying accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, among other factors. Wilkinson, owner of the Swiss B&B, reportedly told Michael Black and his partner John Morgan last March 19 that it was "against her convictions" to allow the men to share a room and refused them accommodations--even though Britain’s anti-discrimination laws forbid denial of goods and services based on sexual orientation.

The men protested being turned away and cited the anti-discrimination law, but Wilkinson responded that the house was private property. "She said she was sorry and she was polite in a cold way and she was not abusive," said Black, "so we asked our money back and she gave it to us."

"They gave me no prior warning and I couldn’t offer them another room as I was fully booked," Wilkinson told the press. "I don’t see why I should change my mind and my beliefs I’ve held for years just because the Government should force it on me."

The Telegraph also cited the case of Dr. Sheila Matthews, a British pediatrician based in Kettering, England, who been on the Northamptonshire County Council adoption panel, Matthews objected to same-sex families being allowed to adopt, and claimed that it was because of her faith-based objection that she was dropped from the panel after requesting that she be excused from voting on adoption cases that involved gay and lesbian families.

After a two-day hearing, employment tribunal judge John MacMillan announced his finding, saying that the matter "transcends the boundaries of all religion" and that Matthews would have met with the same result regardless of her religion. "The complaints of religious discrimination fail and are dismissed," MacMillan said. "This case fails fairly and squarely on its facts."

Added MacMillan, "In our judgment, at least from the time of the pre-hearing review, the continuation of these proceedings was plainly misconceived... they were doomed to fail. There is simply no factual basis for the claims."

Matthews had testified during the hearing that she believed children were better served "with two parents of different gender who are in a long-term committed relationship," the article reported.

Former council head of services for children Martin Pratt testified that he had asked Matthews "whether she could consider applicants on their merits... and she said she could not."

The Telegraph also recounted the story of nurse Shirley Chaplin, who was taken off the floor and given a desk job for wearing a crucifix. An employment tribunal sided with the hospital, noting that wearing the crucifix while on the job raised issues about safety. The tribunal also said that wearing such icons was not "mandatory" in the Christian faith.

Though such friction makes headlines when it occurs in the States and abroad, other developments suggest that people of faith and gays can live together harmoniously. Indeed, many gays are also people of faith, such as Stan Kimer--who generated headlines of his own when he was elected to the presidency of the N.C. Council of Churches, an organization comprised of 17 denominations of the Christian faith and a number of individual churches. Local newspaper the Charlotte Observer reported on Kimer’s election on Dec. 27.

The Council includes Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians, some of which faiths have, in recent years, struggled with the question of acknowledging gay parishioners and their families. Noted the organization’s executive director, Rev. George Reed, "A lot of our member denominations have internal battles about this. But the governing board felt the fact that he is a gay man was not a disqualifying factor." One denomination that does not struggle with the issue of gays, but rather simply accepts them, is Metropolitan Community Churches, which joined the Council in 1993.

"I have a strong belief that as a Christian I’m called to make the world a better place," Kimer told "I like to spend my time with groups where I can see an impact." Noting that the state legislature of North Carolina was about to be controlled by Republicans, Kimer told the newspaper, "Instead of helping pass good legislation, we’ll be helping prevent bad legislation. Probably a lot of our efforts will be on defense."

On other fronts, religious leaders have opted to stay out of the fray and let politicians do their jobs. Cardinal Donald Wuerl told Fox News over the weekend that the Catholic Church has no official position on the issue of openly gay and lesbian patriots serving in uniform, the Associated Press reported on Dec. 26. "That’s a question that has to be worked out politically," said Wuerl.

Though last year’s passage of a GLBT-inclusive federal hate crimes prevention law prompted religious leaders to declare that Christians were under attack, anti-gay rhetoric continues to be a staple from the religious right. Last month, Southern Baptists in South Carolina, gathered at a convention, passed a resolution that Baptist clergy should preach against gays from the pulpit. The same resolution called on members of the faith to regard gays with "compassion," the Associated Press reported on Nov. 18.

Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.


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