Competing religious liberties

This is further to a post from a few weeks back about a petition to expand religious freedom regarding civil partnerships.

Civil partnerships are the closest thing same-sex couples in the UK have to marriage. Religious organizations are not allowed to perform civil partnerships in the UK. Several religious communities, including the Unitarians that I heard it through, would like to perform these ceremonies, and feel that it is an arbitrary restriction on their freedom of conscience not to allow them to do so. I completely agree, and support them in their effort to reform the law.

Some weeks later, I was chatting with a conservative Christian friend of mine, and this topic came up. I thought this was a straightforward issue – nobody could reasonably oppose the petition, even if they didn’t want to support it.

My friend put an interesting argument for the other side, though. She said that, if religious groups are allowed to perform these ceremonies, equality legislation regarding the provision of services to people regardless of sexual orientation might lead to churches being forced to perform civil partnership ceremonies. Otherwise, they’d be up for human-rights violations for unfairly discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. This, she said, would unfairly impose on their freedom of conscience.

I actually agree – such an eventuality would be unjust in much the same way that the current situation is unjust: it would prevent people from exercising their freedom of conscience.

Now, the obvious (not just to me) solution to the whole mess is to separate state marriage from church marriage entirely. If you want government recognition of your marriage, you would register it at a government office. No church ceremony would have any legal weight, and therefore churches could be put under no obligation to perform services that their consciences object to. Her church would be safe from discrimination. The Unitarians and other liberal churches would be free to treat same-sex unions the same as opposite-sex unions. Everybody would be happy.

But of course, the complete disentangling of church and state, especially in Britain, especially for marriage, would be a difficult task. (A worthy task, I think, but a difficult one.)

So we seem to be left with the choice about whose freedom of conscience to protect – the liberals’ or the conservatives’? (Put more personally, is it my freedom of conscience, or my friend’s, that gets violated?)

But that’s not really the choice before us. It’s a choice between a real and present restriction on the liberal churches’ freedom on the one hand, and a hypothetical and avoidable restriction on the conservative churches’ freedom on the other. The liberal churches are currently currently unable to treat same-sex couples as equal to opposite-sex couples, and this deeply offends their moral sensibilities. The conservative churches are not forced to do anything. The only way they would be is if legislators made the law more equal without including protection for freedom of conscience. I seriously doubt that they would overlook such a detail, given the undeniably strong political force wielded by the religious lobby. Not only that, but many others (such as me) would object to conservative churches being forced to marry couples they don’t want to – be they of the same-sex, of different religions, of different races – whatever.

So again, I’m back to my original position. The ideal solution would be to keep church ceremonies completely separate from state-recognized marriage. This isn’t a radical idea – even Mexico, with a largely religious population, does it. In Britain, the solution more likely to be worked out in the short term is to remove the prohibition on churches performing same-sex marriages, while maintaining the important freedom of conscience that would allow conservative churches to continue discriminating in this area.

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One Response to “Competing religious liberties”

  1. Clare Says:

    The view that equality legislation in the UK would force religious groups to carry out same sex marriages is incorrect. The state already provides the means to obtain same sex civil partnerships. Currently, religious groups are exempted from equality law to a certain degree. This is why the Equality Bill currently working its way through parliament is particularly important. The current Government has expressed a wish to see community groups, including religious ones, carry out some public services. The danger here is that the exemption from equality law for religious groups could still apply. It would be possible for there to be cases where there is conflict between the views of the organisation and the services required. For example, a religious group providing sexual health care may not wish to treat homosexual patients (discrimination against the user) or to provide information about abortion or to perform the procedure (discrimination in services). This would contradict the Government's equality duties and commitments to human rights in public services.Currently, religious groups already have exemption from equality law in certain areas. The law needs to state clearly where the exemptions apply (e.g. no same sex marriage) and where they do not (e.g. public sevices).

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