Discriminating for religious reasons

Here is my ha'porth, for the record.  

It is no excuse to say that your religion requires you to discriminate against gays.  We would not tolerate the same argument to justify discrimination against people on grounds of race.  

Nor is it a defence for the churches to say that it is OK for them to discriminate because there is another agency that does not.  As somebody said, it is like telling Rosa Parks that she should get off the seats-for-whites-only bus and wait for the fully integrated bus coming along behind.   

This is not mainly a point about public services and public funding. As Evan Harris MP points out, there is a problem with contracting public services out to "third sector" organisations if they then expect to be able to impose their prejudices on how those services are delivered.  But even if the churches were delivering these services at their own expense, they should not be allowed to discriminate against blacks, gays or anybody else.

Frankly, I'm amazed that this is even a matter of public debate. 

6 thoughts on “Discriminating for religious reasons”

  1. Hmmm.

    I think it’s a matter for public debate because it is more complicated than that. It’s interesting that the key leaders against the SORS legislation have been black. This is important because race and sexuality are not the same. Christians and Muslims do not see sexual activity as an issue of human identity but of lifestyle choice.  The idea of homosexual identity as opposed to practice is a relatively new idea (20th century) whereas homosexual practise was widely accepted in Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisation as a lifestyle choice.  There is a genetic and scientific debate about this today – with many on all sides calling into question the deterministic argument.  Key gay rights activists want to be very careful about the genetic argument; Christians and Muslims agree with them on this.


    The key question here is identity vs activity.  Something like smoking is an activity and lifestyle choice which may or may not be immoral or enjoyable depending on your viewpoint.  Your ethnicity or gender is undeniably an issue of identity and it is sloppy thinking when we conflate these.  The original Human Rights legislation was designed to protect people on identity issues which is why the debate about sexuality has raged since then.  The key issue is identity.


    From my perspective freedom means that those who want to are free to engage in private sexual activity, but those who believe that this activity is not right for them on the grounds of religious beliefs should also be free to hold that view and live it out.  The strange irony of the legislation is that the right to hold this kind of religious belief is now discriminated against on the grounds of getting rid of discrimination.


    In terms of providing services, one of the things envisaged is a Christian or Muslim owner of a B&B who might only want to allow married couples to sleep together under their roof.  This is their home and their belief system.  If they want to maintain autonomy in their home they will now have to give up their business.  You might be able to see why some people feel that their rights are dramatically undermined by this. 


    Law involves balancing of rights, and in practise it is the right to religious freedom which is now starts to look pretty fragile.


  2. Ruth

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.  I don’t accept your argument that (I paraphrase) it is OK to discriminate against gays some of the time because they have chosen to be gay, but not OK to discriminate against blacks because they have no choice.  I don’t accept the idea that there is a hierarchy of protection against discrimination: people have the right not to be discriminated against irrespective of whether they have control over the characteristic in question.

    Your argument that it is OK to discriminate against gays because they have made a lifestyle choice would apply equally to religions (at least as much a matter of personal choice as sexuality).  I would not accept my local pub having the right to have a sign saying "no catholics" or "no muslims" any more than it should say "no blacks" or "no gays".  If the landlord doesn’t want to serve catholics or gays, then he or she should not run a pub.  And if somebody doesn’t want to have gay people staying in their B&B, they should not run a B&B.

    That is not an attack on religious freedom.  People can believe whatever superstitious rubbish they like.  But they cannot use their beliefs to justify discrimination against their fellow citizens.

  3. those who want to are free to engage in private sexual activity, but those who believe that this activity is not right for them on the grounds of religious beliefs should also be free to hold that view and live it out

    That’s the key question – what it means to "live out" your beliefs, when those beliefs include prohibition of activities that other people find normal. I don’t think imposing that prohibition on other adults can be justified. Ultimately all the law is saying here is that your freedom to swing your fists ends where my nose begins.

  4. Frankly amazed this is a matter of public debate.

    Yes, I totally agree – just like racism on celebrity big brother – I am amazed other isms and discriminations are a matter of public debate. It seems the public need a lot more citizenship education than UK our foreign friends do.

    Protection for gay people shouldn’t be any different from protection for other minorities. My take on this is that as soon as one minority starts to lose its rights, others follow. Its a slippery way down for all of us who care for the protection of rights.

    To insist on protection for one group but not another is unwittingly discriminatory – I think if there is one thing the raft of debates since Stephen Lawrence has shown is this: it’s very easy to fall foul of ‘unwitting’ institutional racism – and by extension, other isms. We  should be learning from this.

  5. Does this mean that, by the same token, the Catholic church should be compelled to conduct same-sex civil unions, or at least drop their restrictions on divorcees and remarriage? It is a reasonably similar issue to adoption – it regards a function or service carried out by a private organisation that is recognised by the state. Just asking….

  6. Alan

    Your question highlights the reason why there should be a clear distinction between religious ceremonies (eg baptism, marriage, bahmitzvah, etc) and ceremonies with secular legal significance.  If we are to have state recognition of relationships (which seems strange to me, but I seem to be in a minority on this) then there should be a civil process – which we could call civil partnership – which is available to everybody of any sexuality, religion etc and which has the same implications for everyone’s legal status on issues such as tax, custody of children, medical consent etc.   And if individuals also want to undertake a religious ritual at around the same time as they enter into the civil agreement, then that is between them and the religious body in question.  So Catholics should be allowed to conduct or withhold religious ceremonies; but these should have no legal or other state significance.  What they should NOT be allowed to do is be responsible for conducting state ceremonies, and be allowed to discriminate according to their prejudices.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *