Freedom of Religion

It would take the imagination of a Hans Christian Andersen, or a Stephen King, to describe me as an ardent royalist. Nevertheless, I feel constrained to call for three cheers for the monarch.

Recently, at the first public event to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee, Betty Windsor emphasised the importance of Christianity for the fabric of our nations.

The Church has “created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely”

Unlike France and the USA, in none of the nations which make up the United Kingdom do we have a written constitution, especially not one which demands the separation of church and state. Nevertheless, in a case of judicial activism a single High Court judge in England has recently effectively banned the centuries old tradition of beginning Council meetings with prayer.

The Queen was arguing in favour of preserving the foundational basis of our value system, whether we acknowledge God or not. In arguing for the retention of the place of Christianity in British public life the Queen was arguing for more than a privileged place for the Church of England. She was arguing for the retention of a coherent value system in the face of fashionable morality and subjective ethics.

When we reject this biblically based value system we take a huge step towards rejection of freedom of conscience. This is clearly seen in the latest pronouncements of Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Religious rules should stop “at the door of the temple."

Mr Phillips has argued that religious rules should stop “at the door of the temple” and give way to the “public law” as enacted by parliament. He cited the example of Roman Catholic adoption agencies which argued that they should not be forced to facilitate adoptions by homosexual couples. Phillips insists that religious groups offering public services have to chose between their faith and the law whenever their beliefs conflict with the expressed will of the state.

Referring to the closure of Roman Catholic adoption agencies which closed rather than be forced to go against their conscience and facilitate homosexual adoption the Thomas Moore Legal Centre said that the Equality and Human rights Commission “would prefer people not to do good, rather than do good on their own terms.”

Phillips said, “To me there’s nothing different in principle with a Catholic adoption agency, or indeed Methodist adoption agency, saying the rules in our community are different and therefore the law shouldn’t apply to us. Why not then say sharia can be applied to different parts of the country? It doesn’t work.”

There are two differing ideas behind what has been propounded by Trevor Phillips which should cause even the most rabid secularist to pause.

Despite arguing previously that Christian conscience should be respected in the public square, in his latest pronouncement Phillips appears to be arguing that the state is a totalitarian authority before which a believer’s conscience must always bow. As with Obama, Phillips appears to want the Christian faith to be something which takes place only behind closed doors, in the public square conscience must kneel before the state. Like many progressives Phillips confuses freedom to worship with freedom of religion.

In his deeply illiberal remarks Phillips has lost sight of freedom of conscience. Already there are issues where the believer has to pay the price for following his or her conscience when it conflicts with the will of the state. Conscientious Roman Catholics will find themselves excluded from employment in health specialities which demand they perform or facilitate abortions. Evangelical Christians will be excluded from employment which requires them to perform or facilitate homosexual civil partnerships.

Phillips has also rejected the notion that the legal  and moral culture of our countries are built on Christian principles. There is a world of difference between Christian morality and sharia law. The basic principles of sharia law contradict Western Christian based public law. Between sharia and Western public law there is and always will be inevitable conflict, they are eventually incompatible as they are founded on vastly differing premises.

Christians are not asking that the state bow before the church. We ask for our voice to be heard in the social argument and that our consciences be respected.

It is very doubtful that Britain’s secularists will recognise how dangerous Phillip’s position is for them. We Christians shouldn’t be surprised by this. Wasn’t it a Christian, Pastor Martin Niemoller who wrote, “First they came for the communists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for…”

This isn’t only a religious issue, it is a freedom issue.


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