Comment: The boundaries of tolerance

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Don’t be fooled by the victim narrative of religious lobby groups, writes Adrian Tippetts for PinkNews. In a society of competing ideas, cultures and aspirations, individual liberty is sacrosanct.

The verdict from the European Court of Human Rights, in deciding against the Lilian Ladele, the Islington marriage registrar and Gary McFarlane the relationship therapist, who both refused to offer services to same-sex couples, is a landmark in the history of LGBT equality. The highest legal authority has finally ruled that withholding services against anyone on basis of sexual orientation is unlawful.

As predicted, not all are happy about this. The Telegraph claims in its leader comment  that the verdict marginalises Christians: ‘gay rights trump religious rights’. Its leader article says that the verdict reflects a secular society that is intolerant because it misses toleration – tolerating those beliefs of which we do not approve.

But tolerance cannot be a free for all, and the Christians in question do have certain liberties guaranteed. We have to determine the boundaries of tolerance, and for the consequences that acting on those beliefs has for others. As philosopher AC Grayling noted in his treatise on the defence of Enlightenment values, Liberty in the Age of Terror, toleration only works if is reciprocated. A tolerant society must not tolerate intolerance if it is to protect itself. That does not make tolerance in breach of itself: at its heart is an ethical demand that everyone should respect everyone else’s rights and liberties. The Strasbourg ruling works for both a devout Christian’s right of conscience and the gay couple’s right to equal treatment under the law: in performing their duties, the Christian employees are not forced to change their beliefs, about either homosexuality or the morality of their gay customers.

They have the freedom and full protection of the law to express and promote that belief, as many street preachers do on high-streets at weekends to bewildered passers-by. They have freedom to associate with others with similar beliefs in any mega-church of their choosing. Ms Ladele, a civil marriage registrar has the additional satisfaction of knowing the couple is not married in the eyes of god, let alone her God – a deliverance for the couple in question too, no doubt. Ladele and McFarlane  choose their professions and were under contractual obligations to offer their services to the general public. They have the liberty, like anyone else,  to say ‘no’ to the job if the terms and conditions do not meet their liking.

In a tolerant society, though, there is no free licence of behaviour that threatens the rights of others. Individual liberty remains sacrosanct. The limit of tolerance, then, is tolerance of anything that causes harm.

Ms Ladele’s defence claims that because other registrars are able and willing to officiate for gay couples, no harm is done. But her unwillingness to fulfil her obligations costs her council and her colleagues extra time and money, the bill for which is passed ultimately to the taxpayer. It means inconvenience in scheduling and holiday arrangements. Suppose there were not just one registrar wishing to object, but all? In the Netherlands until recently, that has been exactly the scenario. In the country’s Calvinist bible belt, some local municipalities had to go to great efforts to ensure a single registrar willing to marry gay couples, years after the enactment of equal marriage legislation.

A verdict in favour of Ladele would have been disastrous for the dignity of the LGBT community. It would have enshrined second-class status uniquely in the case of gay people in society. It is naive to think this would only concern marriages and hotels. A furniture shop could on the same grounds refuse to sell a double bed; a bank manager might refuse to sell a mortgage or life insurance or open a joint account for the same reasons. One would then go a step further and ask, why is it necessary to sincerely object to gay couples on religious grounds? The Family Education Trust, whose senior personnel are co-founders  of the ‘Coalition for Marriage’, says anyone, whether they are religious or not, should be able to deny services to LGBT people if they oppose homosexuality.  It would have created a society in which the humiliation of rejection in almost all areas of life would be the lot of gay people.

A manifestly anti-gay victim narrative?

The Christian Legal Centre, active in many of these cases, play the victim narrative, pleading for sympathy because of their clients’ ‘sincerely held beliefs’. The sincerity of the belief is in no doubt; but questions remain about the sincerity of the motivation.

Why would a civil marriage registrar single out homosexuality, when there are  a whole galaxy of biblical transgressions of which virtually everyone will have committed at least a handful? In the last six years, there have been several such ‘conscience’ cases involving gay couples. This is curious, because the same hardline lobby groups who have been championing these cases, despite all all their finances and connections, have never publicised the case of a devout Christian refusing to marry or offer relationship advice to an unmarried cohabiting couple, a divorcee, or a couple who had had sex before marriage. Yet the vast majority of couples in this country must fit into at least one of these categories, while gay couples make up only a few percent of the population. The odds are, then, hundreds to one that the cases are chosen because of who they are against. There wouldn’t be much PR mileage out of a civil registrar pushing a victimisation narrative for refusing to marry a couple who weren’t virgins on the big day.  If they were to abide by their faith consistently with respect to the Christian view of marriage and discriminate in these cases too, they would be derided even by the Daily Mail, whose popularity is largely driven by kiss and tell stories. They can get away with it for now in the case of gay couples because homophobic prejudice is still with us.

The slippery slope of intolerance

It might sound cynical for a gay rights activist to rush for Prof. Grayling’s definition of a tolerant society rather than, say, Dr. George Carey’s one where Christian judges would be appointed to deal with cases like these. But just imagine the chaos that would have been caused in all areas of society if the European Court rulings found in the favour of McFarlane and Ladele, and an exception were granted. All faiths have among their followers a small minority of loud lobbyists equally determined to eke out privileges in law. A torrent of requests would flow to be exempted from handling, serving, selling or even promoting alcohol. Conscientious objections may arise to serving or handling pork, shrimp or beef, or working on any number of holy days. Life would be pretty unpleasant for all.The same applies to the bed and breakfast hotelier, who would might refuse services to guests who prayed to other gods or none during their stay, to prevent blasphemy from occurring under his or her roof.

This is not just an alarmist hunch. In 2005, after the Labour government passed the Equality Act, one Home Office official noted that the scores of indignant correspondents writing to protest at the matter, had more than sexual orientation on their minds:

‘We’ve had a lot of correspondence from Christian B&B operators who don’t want to be forced to accept Satanists, Muslims, gays and even unmarried couples as guests… Protestants have been writing in saying they shouldn’t have to admit Catholics because they have an issue with their religion, Catholics saying they didn’t want Jews under their roof and objections from followers of other types of faith.’

Tolerance is a two-way street

The toleration requested by the Christian lobbyists in these cases only works one way. I can think of no reason why a gay-run bed and breakfast house would bar someone purely on account of their beliefs. Religious lobbyists should realise the boundary between their freedoms of  belief and association; and to respect the freedom of others to enjoy equal treatment under the law.  This approach to tolerance is the best we have for getting on together and cooperating in a society of widely differing interests, tastes, cultures, aspirations and ideas. The emphasis, then, falls on protecting people, rather than beliefs. Even here, the fundamentalist Christian can take consolation from the fact that her beliefs are subject to the same standards of testing as any other. If they are found wanting, in terms of logic, evidence, or likelihood to do harm, then there can be no business for the state to privilege or protect them.

In fact, most Christians are astonished that such cases have come so far in the first place. But they were driven on by extreme religious groups, who attempt to carve out exceptions from the law to become, as it were, a law unto themselves, and the right-wing press that print their news releases verbatim, without considering the true extremist ambitions harboured by those very groups. PS: Maybe the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail at least should think twice about championing such conscience causes and think how they could have affected them, in time? Newspaper printing operations are slick affairs; only a couple of people are needed to watch over multi-million pound machines the size of battleships working at over 80,000 copies an hour. It could be a very expensive affair if, say, a press operator refused to handle the plate for the page on the alcoholic drinks promotion, or any number of pages sensationalising sexual immodesty, promiscuity and even, some argue, prostitution in all but name? In view of such double standards, the thought of the resulting disruption to producing all this guff makes such a conscience clause almost worthwhile.

Adrian Tippetts is a freelance journalist, human rights campaigner and PR consultant specialising in the graphics industry.

The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of