European Court Upholds British Law Against Employees’ Freedom of Conscience

The European Court of Human Rights has rejected appeals by British Christians in two cases in which the individuals were fired by their employers for refusing to perform services for homosexuals that violated their conscience. One of the cases involves a local government employee who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies. The other involves a charity employee who indicated he could not in good conscience assist homosexual couples with their sex lives.

As the Telegraph reports:

Marriage registrar Miss Ladele was disciplined by Islington [a London borough] council for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies when they were legalised in 2004 … Mr McFarlane was dismissed as a relationship counsellor at charity Relate after he said he was prepared to counsel same sex couples but not to discuss sexual issues.

Peter Saunders worries that these cases set an obvious precedent: gay rights trump conscience rights.

The two rulings demonstrate that under British law gay rights now trump conscience rights and that reasonable accommodation need not be made for employees. At a stroke this puts at risk the job of any employee objecting to helping gay couples in activities they believe to be wrong (eg. Celebrating a civil partnership, adopting a baby, having sexual counselling etc).

Saunders does see a silver lining in the court’s logic.

The European Court decided that decisions of the UK Courts were within the ‘margin of appreciation’ (discretion) that it allows to national Courts – but in so doing it challenged many of the principles adopted by UK Courts and asserted by the British government. 

So for example, the UK Courts had held that beliefs about marriage as between a man and a woman was not a core component of Christian belief and so not protected. The European Court said that these beliefs were part of Gary and Lillian’s Christian identity and so were in principle protected!

The British Government also suggested that because the individuals were free to resign and find other jobs, there had been no infringement of their freedom of religion – in other words, ‘your freedom to resign secures your freedom of religion’.  But the European Court ruled that ‘freedom to resign and find another job’ is not sufficient to guarantee religious freedom.

These are significant breakthroughs and will be a great help in contending for Christian freedoms in the UK Courts in the future. 

Cases like these will be important to follow moving forward. Liberal democracies are committed to protecting minority rights. The problems arise because often these rights conflict. Still, it is worth noting that what is at issue here is not the right of gay couples to enter into civil partnerships or receive sex counseling. What is at issue is whether a particular individual can be required to perform such services as a condition of maintaining her employment. The real issue is therefore not about gay rights vs conscience rights, but about duties vs rights. Simply put, do the British really think that the duty to offer particular services to homosexual couples trump freedom of conscience?


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 31, 2013, in Homosexuality, Religious Liberty, Rights and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on European Court Upholds British Law Against Employees’ Freedom of Conscience.

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