Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Pope, Equality Laws and Secularism

The Pope, in preparation for his planned forthcoming visit to the UK, expected later this year, recently launched a swinging attack on the proposed Equality Bill currently being considered by Parliament. The Bill included provisions suggesting that Church employment of people not engaged in doctrinal duties should be governed by the same non-discrimination rules as affect other areas of employment. This would ensure that there would be no legal basis for religious bodies failing to employ homosexual people in such capacities as that of being gardeners or even youth leaders (where such roles did not involve direct transmission of religious teaching).

In response the Pope made clear his view that such rules violate what he termed "natural law" and that they imposed "unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs". When faced with the accusation that such comments amounted to interference in politics the most senior member of the Catholic Church hierarchy in the UK, Archbishop Vincent Nicols stated that the words of the Pope would find an echo amongst those uneasy that the "unintended consequences of recent legislation" would be to "drive religious belief and practice into the sphere of the private only".

When faced with this attack from the Catholic Church the government of the United Kingdom has responded by capitulation. The clause in question had recently been struck out in the House of Lords but it was expected the government would reintroduce it but, in the wake of the Pope's attack on the Bill, it appears to have decided to drop its commitment to equality before the law in employment matters. This situation calls for a number of comments.

Firstly, the suggestion that there is a body of "natural law" that the Catholic Church has access to has, unfortunately, undergone serious revival in recent years, not least in the area of jurisprudence, due to the influence of John Finnis. The suggestion that statute law should be grounded on this view is, to say the least about it, dubious. The view itself was, rightly, cast into oblivion in the post-medieval world where the status of law came instead to be seen as grounded on quite different notions including those of universal rights. To say that the Catholic Church has generally been backward in recognising such a notion would be an understatement and its opposition to the earlier UK legislation requiring adoption agencies that take state money to cater equally to all potential adoptees (including gay people) is well known. The Catholic Church was also one of the leaders in the campaign to prevent the abolition of the notorious Section 28 provision that disallowed "promotion" of homosexuality. So its record has been consistent, consistent that is, with opposition to equal rights provisions.

Secondly, it was certainly not an "unintended" consequence of the Equality Bill to suggest that the right place for religion was a private one. In fact such a general view should be at the basis of all modern states. It is what is generally known as the principle of secularism. Such a principle does not involve the state adopting a view with regard to religion, including one of denying some specific religion. What it does involve is a response to all religions that views them in line with general principles of policy and applies to them the same principles that apply to anything else. This should certainly include the provision of equality rights in the area of employment. The Pope's intervention on this matter was predictable and shows some good reasons for not wishing him to visit the UK at all. A religious leader who consistently makes clear his opposition to the secularist principle in law is not one for whom there is a real home in a modern state. At least this should be the case. The fact the Labour government has capitulated to his intervention demonstrates that they are spineless and incapable of defending the basic principles of liberal democracy. In response to the continuing outbursts of this most illiberal religious leader the National Secular Society of the UK has organised a petition requesting that the cost of the Pope's visit be paid for exclusively by the Catholic Church itself, a cause worthy of support.

For further comment on this matter see the posting over on Pea Soup.

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