I was invited to St James’ Church, Muswell Hill, to talk to a new group that has formed to engage in a variety of topics – this one being about politics generally – and politics and religion.
In our modern world – new challenges arise as we battle with where the right place is to draw the line between legislating to prevent discrimination – and the freedoms we treasure to believe and practise whichever faith we may follow.
An example would be the relatively recent case of a registrar whose religious beliefs led to her refusing to perform a civil partnership ceremony for a gay couple in Islington. In our modern world – there is no place any longer for conscience or belief (just as with likes or dislikes) for an individual to refuse equal access to public services.
So – when I say the ‘modern world’ throws up new challenges – years ago this dilemma would not have existed because being openly gay itself was illegal. It is a measure of how far we have travelled that to not register a civil partnership is now illegal. I know I came in for a fair amount of chatter on the Internet amongst religious sites for saying, during the committee stage of the Equality Bill, that given these new challenges people would have to basically go into a different job – meaning that if your religious belief is going to make it impossible to carry out your work in the public sector – then that job is not going to be the right one. For those in the job as the world changes – of course – this is a very difficult circle to square – but in the end (and I believe quite rightly) access to public services cannot be anything other than free of religious belief.
So – that bit is relatively simple – perhaps more complex is how far and in what circumstances can or should the state expand beyond where pubic money is spent.
I spoke a bit about politics generally – but also in particular some of the issues that had arisen thus far on the Equality Bill where there is undoubtedly a clash between religious freedoms and state requirements in the dispensing of public services.
One particularly interesting part of the discussion, I thought, was in the Bill there is a part that says of say a Christian Church in terms of employment – it’s OK to discriminate in employing the Vicar and only Christians need apply (pretty obvious) but that employing a youth leader or indeed caretaker that protection would not exist and that employment must be open to all.
The caretaker scenario no-one seemed to mind being a non-discriminatory position but the Youth Leader – people thought should be able to teach and lead in a Christian way – given it was a youth group belonging to the Church. So – I want to throw that over to comment as there is a clash between State and Church on this issue – where principles clash and both have right on their side.