Brown, Bishops, Bigots, Justice, Laws

After the last case of nature imitating art, Gordon Brown’s gaffe reminded me of that moment on Yes, Prime Minister when Sir Humphrey learns an important lesson: the microphone is always live, just as the gun is always loaded.

I don’t know whether Mrs Duffy is a bigot. As Bernard Woolley might say, that’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I engage in open discussion on immigration; you are a bigot; he’s being charged under Section 19 of the Public Order Act. Andrew Rilstone says she’s read too much of the Nasty Press, and that Brown is himself too used to pandering to them, in public at least, both sentiments which seem fair enough, to me.

Justice and Laws

There’s a lot of blogging going on about the failure of yet another legal case where a Christian claimed they’d been discriminated against when they were sacked for discriminating against gays. Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor, was sacked by Relate for refusing to give therapy to homosexual couples. Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, intervened in the case. He submitted a witness statement in which he called for special, religiously sensitive, courts to hear cases like McFarlane’s; said that Christians were being equated with bigots (that word again); and warned of “civil unrest” if things carried on (for an example of civil unrest organised by the Church of England, see Eddie Izzard’s Cake or death sketch).

It’s worth reading the full text of the judgement by the excellently named Lord Justice Laws. After giving his legal opinion, the judge addresses Lord Carey’s statement. He rejects Carey’s claim that the law says Christians are bigots, distinguishing discriminatory outcomes from malevolent intentions. He goes on:

The general law may of course protect a particular social or moral position which is espoused by Christianity, not because of its religious imprimatur, but on the footing that in reason its merits commend themselves. So it is with core provisions of the criminal law: the prohibition of violence and dishonesty. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, stretching over many centuries, has no doubt exerted a profound influence upon the judgment of lawmakers as to the objective merits of this or that social policy. And the liturgy and practice of the established Church are to some extent prescribed by law. But the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

This debate is usually framed as Christians vs atheists and secularists. Indeed, Carey is still fulminating, fellow bishop Cranmer rumbles about establishment, and the Christian Legal Centre appears to think it’s a good idea for the courts to take a position on the veracity of the Bible (let me know how that one works out for you, guys). But not all Christians are with Carey and the CLC: some Christians call out Carey for bringing Christianity into disrepute, and some recognise that claiming persecution has become a cottage industry for Christians in the UK. See also How to spot a fundamentalist Christian lobby group in your news, where you’re encouraged to spot a pattern developing.

The Evangelical Alliance would like these cases to stay out of the courts. A common response to this sort of case is to ask whether some accommodation could be made to the discriminatory Christians: perhaps those who objected to dealing with gay couples could be excused such duties? That seems reasonable to an extent, but Lord Justice Laws makes it clear that there is no legal obligation on employers here. It would be churlish to object to employers freely choosing to make such arrangements, so long as they do not inconvenience co-workers who do not discriminate in this way, but it seems hard to argue that employers have a moral obligation to do so, either: co-workers would probably feel a bit like the elder brother in Prodigal Son parable, and might ask why should someone behaving badly get equal pay and more flexibility about their work then someone willing to do the entire job. More generally, if society has decided that such discrimination is wrong, why should those doing wrong get special treatment? What do you think, readers?

Edited to add: some more discussion of the McFarlane case is happening over on andrewducker‘s post about it.

20 thoughts on “Brown, Bishops, Bigots, Justice, Laws”

  1. He did not refuse to counsel gay couples absolutely, but only gay couples where issues of sexual compatibility or quality of sex were an issue. Which suggests to me less a principled compromise but an irrational squickiness about the thought of men shagging.

    1. GPs can’t refuse to refer someone for an abortion even if they personally believe abortion is wrong. Doctors can of course choose a career in which they will never be required to perform an abortion.

  2. But there is no such thing as ‘the general good on objective grounds’, because there are no objective (in the sense he means) grounds which can possibly give an answer as to the question of what actually is generally ‘good’. It is entirely a matter of competing claims to knowledge of the ‘good’: there’s no inherent reason to prefer the secular idea of ‘good’ to the the Christian one (or vice-versa), beyond the fact that at this moment in time more people happen to hold the secular one (and wish to force the Christian one out of public discourse by insisting that the secular one is the only allowable basis for not just making but even only discussing laws).


    1. I doubt Laws is making an argument about meta-ethics. Rather, he sounds like Rawls on public reason: “objective” in this sense does not imply moral realism, but merely what most people can agree on.

      1. That’s a very misleading (at the very least — I’d say it was simply wrong) use of the word ‘objective’, then, and also I rather doubt that’s what he means — do you really think that he would say that if most people agreed that it was fine to discriminate against same-sex couples, that would be the objective general good?

        I rather suspect that in that case he would instead argue that the point of the law was to protect even whose minorities against whom the majority would happily discriminate from the consequences of ‘what most peopel can agree on’.

        Do you really think he’s basing his idea of the objective general good on sands as shifting as ‘what most people agree on’?


        1. If he thinking of a Rawlsian argument, then what he’s saying is that legal arguments should rely on public reason, which does not include on stuff derived only from particular holy books. I think that’s more sophisticated than just accepting the tyranny of the majority, so I agree that this is not what he is saying, and my “what most people can agree on” was an inadequate paraphrase.

          1. But what is included in ‘public reason’, from which can possibly be derived a definition of ‘good’?

            Your link says: ‘His view was that public reason included common sense, the noncontroversial results of science, and public political values’.

            Well, ‘common sense’ is very debatable; I’m sure some people would have and maybe would still argue that it’s ‘common sense’ that homosexuality is out of order. So either we need a refined definition of common sense that tells us whose common sense to rely on, or we have to look elsewhere.

            The ‘noncontroversial results of science’ are entirely factual statements about the physical universe, and so simply cannot be used to derive any moral conclusions (Hume et al).

            So we’re left with ‘public political values’, which is looking to me very much like exactly the shifting sand of ‘what most people currently think’ that you claim he’s not standing on.

            Moreover, if ‘public reason’ does not involve stuff derived from ‘particular holy books’, why should it include stuff derived from a particular person’s moral intuition, or even from the moral intuition of citizens in aggregate? Why privilege one over the other, by claiming that arguments based on personal moral intuition re allowable in the public sphere but only if they do not proceed form religious conviction? Surely if he are to exclude from public discourse arguments of the form ‘I think that X is right/wrong because of the way God made the world’, we ought also to exclude arguments of the form ‘I think that X is right/wrong because it goes against the principle that everybody is entitled to live their life the way they think will make them happy’ — there being no more objective basis for holding to that principle than for holding a religious belief, notwithstanding that these days, in this country, that principle is more popular (in other times and other places, the popularity was reversed)?

            Have I missed something? I did only skim the article. What is there in ‘public reason’ that can be used to derive a definition of ‘the good’?


  3. (Oh, and it’s a bit disingenuous to use a think-tank that seems to have been explicitly set up for the purpose of being the secular establishment and press’s fifth column, to give a barometer on the opinions of ‘some Christians’).


    1. Actually, it’s only disingenuous if I know Ekklesia was set up for that purpose, otherwise, it’s just ingenuous (assuming your characterisation of them is correct). Ekklesia is, as far as I know, run by Christians.

        1. (It’s fairly obvious.)

          Is it? Evidence, please, then. Since it was “explicitly set up” for that, presumably there’s something where they say “Bwahaha! We’re lying dirt false Christian scum who are fifth columnists for the evil secularists”. Is that on their web site, or anything?

          1. They’d be very bad fifth columnists if they admitted it like that, too.

            They’re the Guardian’s rent-a-quote for when they want to rubbish Christians but still appear even-handed — ‘look, these Christians think everybody should be liberal secular humanists too!’.


            1. While your conspiracy theory is amusing (do you ever feel Ekklesia are following you, or saying things about you behind your back?), I’m still not quite seeing your objection to characterising Ekkelsia as “some Christians”. I don’t know how representative they are, to be sure, but my point is that there are some Christians who reject the CLC’s framing of the debate as evil secularists vs put-upon Christians.

              1. There’s no conspiracy: there’s just a bunch of people who may call themselves ‘Christians’ but who are really liberal secular humanists, who wish everybody else were liberal secular humanists, and so set themselves up to attack Christians who aren’t liberal secular humanists in the hopes of blurring the line between Christianity and liberal secular humanism.

                It’s not surprising that they reject the framing of the debate as Christians vs secularists, as they themselves are secularists. Again, this isn’t a conspiracy: they’re not working with some secret network of secularists. They just have secularist sensibilities, and so they instinctively take the secularist side against the Christian one.


                1. there’s just a bunch of people who may call themselves ‘Christians’ but who are really liberal secular humanists

                  Do they also put salt in their porridge?

                  they’re not working with some secret network of secularists.

                  Then the phrase fifth column doesn’t apply to them, yes? Perhaps something like “they’re a group of Christians I disagree with” would be more accurate.

                  1. I have no idea about their breakfast habits.

                    As I understand the phrase, ‘fifth columnists’ refers to any of those within a group who sympathise with the enemy and so hamper the group. There doesn’t have to be any direct contact between the enemy and the fifth column, or any coherent plan beyond general sabotage and the sowing of discord.

                    I do disagree with them, but there are other Christians I disagree with who do not devote their working lives to attacking Christians in the most public way they can (it’s not hugely public, but that’s not for want of trying). If you have a look t their website, you’ll find that a good proportion of their articles are directly laying into some group of Christians for something-or-other, and mot of those which aren’t are making indirect swipes.


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