Recently there were two court cases which further established the secularism of the British state, despite its nominal Christian character: one involved an atheist councillor in Bideford, Devon, who resigned from a council after they refused to end their Christian prayers before each meeting, and the other involved a Christian couple who owned a guest-house in Cornwall, and refused to rent a double room to a gay male couple. In the first, brought by the National Secular Society, the court found that the inclusion of prayers on the agendas of such meetings was unlawful because of what the Daily Mail called “a technicality in the Local Government Act 1972”; as Ouseley said, quoted in the Guardian:
A local authority has no powers under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda.
The saying of prayers in a local authority chamber before a formal meeting of such a body is lawful provided councillors are not formally summoned to attend.
In the second, the court of appeal ruled that the couple had acted unlawfully in refusing to allow the couple, who were in a civil partnership, to occupy a double room (they were prepared to rent them two singles) and refused to overturn a 3,600 fine. The couple had argued that they have the same policy regarding unmarried heterosexual couples, but the judge ruled:
Whilst the appellants’ beliefs about sexual practice may not find the acceptance that once they did, nevertheless a democratic society must ensure that their espousal and expression remain open to those who hold them.
It would be unfortunate to replace legal oppression of one community (homosexual couples) with legal oppression of another (those sharing the appellants’ beliefs).
However, in a pluralist society it is inevitable that from time to time, as here, views, beliefs and rights of some are not compatible with those of others. As I have made plain, I do not consider that the appellants face any difficulty in manifesting their religious beliefs. They are merely prohibited from so doing in the commercial context they have chosen.
From a Muslim perspective, I entirely sympathise with the position of this couple. For one thing, the prohibition on homosexuality is well-established in almost every major religion, including mine, the Jewish religion and every branch of Christianity which is the long-established religion of this country. There is a major difference between tolerance for people who identify as gay and facilitating behaviour of any sort that one’s religion clearly disapproves of. For example, Muslim restaurant-owners often refuse to sell alcohol, and many of those refuse to even tolerate the consumption of alcohol on the premises, because they do not wish to be facilitating the consumption of alcohol because it is against their religion (others operate a “bring your own” policy). A few years ago, I asked a well-known religious scholar if it would be acceptable to run a cafe which sourced its coffee from a company which had been owned by a brewery company, and was told that I should not even be considering that line of business because I would be hosting people who were not appropriately dressed, men who were gazing at women, and people who were gossiping. If religious people are not required to tolerate the consumption of pork or alcohol or other prohibited foodstuffs on their premises, it follows that private owners of hostelries should not be required to facilitate sexual acts that are prohibited in their religion on their property.
The secularist attitude to religion at the moment seems to consist of the position that people are free to believe in whatever fairy tales they like, as long as they do not “try to impose it on anyone else” (to the extent that some of them even dispute the right of parents to bring up their children in their own religion, insisting on referring to “children of Muslims” rather than Muslim children). They are entitled to believe that our beliefs are mere fairy tales, but they are not entitled to expect us to behave as if that’s what our beliefs are. They also blur important distinctions and make false moral equivalences: they treat race, sex and sexual preference as if they were equivalent (simply because the law regards them as protected categories), proper religions with sects and cults, what religions say with what religious people do, laws which are constant over millennia with customs that are prevalent at one time. One article, published in the New Statesman last November, makes the following comparison:
The law says this is wrong. That “the God worshipped by the Bulls does not” is, though unfortunate, irrelevant. Discrimination is discrimination, whether it stems from the playground or a Holy Book.
It is only her belief that God is equal to a common playground bully, yet this is something her ilk expect those of us with a religious belief to just accept, and behave as if it were true. The same article argues that refusing a room to a gay male couple is like refusing one to a mixed-race couple, because you might disapprove of sex between people of different races, as many people did in the American South in the 1920s. Well, we are not in the American South, this is not the 1920s, the Southern Baptist church are not very prominent here and even they have moved on from the opinions of their leaders then: that was just an opinion that was widely held then and had nothing to do with religious belief. There is no religious prohibition on interracial marriage, and never was. The prohibition on sexual acts between members of the same sex (and, indeed, unmarried couples) has been a constant; the notion of people being expected to facilitate it, regardless of religious belief, is an aberration of the last generation, and a humiliation I do not doubt the enemies of religion enjoy.
George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, wrote an article that was published in yesterday’s Daily Mail, and consisted of one of the usual rambles about the de-Christianisation of Britain that are so beloved of that paper. (He earlier published a complaint about the BBC abandoning the use of the BC/AD dating convention and this is the same man who claimed that the “greatest moral scandal” facing Britain today was the scale of public debt — that is not online, for some reason.) He moans:
Weve become enslaved to multiculturalism, political correctness and so-called equal rights, so obsessed with the idea of minimising any possible offence to any minority group that we dont seem to have realised that one of the great British human qualities tolerance has now been replaced by intolerance.
Indeed, in the name of so-called tolerance, Christians are not being tolerated. Increasingly, politicians tell us that the justification for all this is that we now live in a secular democracy. But we dont. Nor do we live in the theocracy that so many of them seem to believe is the alternative.
… Since the September 11 attacks, we seem to have become obsessed with not upsetting British Muslims, while successive pieces of legislation means the rights of homosexuals now seem to trump those of everyone else.
Including the rights of some Christians to express or act on views that, although at odds with mainstream thinking, are sincerely held and have been a part of Christian teaching for centuries. Im not saying these views are right, but I am saying that in Britain, of all places, they should be tolerated, understood and accommodated.
I didn’t notice the tabloids who ran a diatribe against the Muslim community lasting several years, attacking Muslim women’s choices of dress and any concession to Muslim sensitivities (even though many of them were demonstrably false and others having been paid for), making any effort to avoid offending Muslims. This has been linked to physical attacks on Muslims which, in one case, led to a London imam losing his sight. More upmarket right-wing papers, including the Evening Standard, which was then under the same ownership as the Mail, also ran articles of a more “scholarly” nature that attacked Muslims on dubious or outright false grounds and accused us of “sacralising” public spaces. The vilification increased, as might be expected, with each major terrorist incident, so it is not true that “they” had become “obsessed with not upsetting British Muslims” since September 2001.
As he rightly says, Muslims generally do not want non-Muslims to tone down their religious celebrations to please us (as long as we are not expected to join in, particularly in the religious aspects of the celebrations or in parties where non-halaal food or alcohol is served), but most of the occasions where it has been alleged to have happened are media exaggerations or fabrications (like the perennial “Winterval” urban myth which was repeated in the Daily Mail numerous times until they saw fit to publish a correction a few months ago). More to the point, Muslims hold most of the same values he is defending in this article, yet he seizes the opportunty to get a dig in at Muslims who would do the same as that couple — that is, if they suspected that the same organisations that pay for legal actions and get quoted in the media when Christians do it would help them. However, I suspect they wouldn’t.
Carey is simply defending an “old England” in which his church was powerful, where most people went to church (which they had largely stopped doing long before he became an archbishop), in which Anglican worship preceded official business in both local and national government, in which minorities knew their place and the mainstream (white, Anglican) culture could tread without having to consider where others’ toes were. Those days are gone, as second and third generation members of originally immigrant religious minorities exist who no longer feel the need to act like they are foreign guests when they know no other country. He is not really interested in those values, otherwise he would not pepper a purported defence of them with attacks on those who share them. Much of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities take an even stronger line on homosexuality than he does, but would rather live in a country where there is room for us and the gays than in the world of Carey and the Daily Mail, where there is room for neither.
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