Does the customer have all the rights?

Business Cartoon“I want a wet cappuccino” declares the customer, “so you want a latte?” I reply. “No” they restate, “a wet cappuccino”. So I give them a wet cappuccino – which is really just a latte.

Burger King have long marketed their burgers with the tag line “Have it your way”, a riposte to the supposed inflexibility of McDonald’s. The customer can choose what they want and how they want it, within reason and usually at extra cost. Recently they changed the slogan to ‘Be your way’, and the shift marks not only a development of their advertising but the further incorporation of individualism into everyday life.

It’s not so much ‘I think therefore I am’, but ‘I choose therefore I am’. The liberty to decide what to do, how to do it, or whether to do it – whatever it may be – has become society’s fundamental and inalienable right. Not just the customer is always right, but the customer has all the rights.

Cases on both sides of the Atlantic have brought the question of religious liberty to the fore in recent weeks. There was the case in America of a dog walker ‘firing’ a customer because they supported the legalisation of marijuana. Also in the States was the related issue of whether an employer should cover medical insurance for treatments which they had religious objections to. And in Northern Ireland a bakery is being taken to court by the Equality Commission for refusing to back a cake decorated to advocate for the legalisation of same sex marriage. Continue reading

The Daily Mail: What an insult to Christians

Jan Feb 2012 008The Daily Mail splashed their front page this morning with “An Insult to Christians”. No, that’s not how I’m describing it, that is their actual headline.

They might think it is a descriptor of the dreadful events they outline in their story, but it is a far closer label for their own treatment of Christians. And in particular in thinking that the situation they discuss is an insult to anyone.

The “insult” is that followers of other religious belief systems including paganism and non religious deeply held belief systems such as vegetarianism will receive the same protections as Christians. Firstly, this is not news. Secondly, it is not controversial (although a little tricky to implement). Thirdly, this is not an insult.

The law has for a while placed all religious and non religious beliefs on a par with regards to their protection under the law. Although only in the last decade has it been codified into statute through regulations following the 2003 Equality Act, and then drawn together in the 2010 Act, court precedence has provided strong protection for non-Christian beliefs in a similar manner (although due to differences in beliefs never quite the same).

The dreadful situation before us today has occurred because the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued guidance last month on how employers should handle religious beliefs and their manifestation. This in the wake of Nadia Eweida’s successful claim in the European Court of Human Rights that her employer had failed to protect her freedom of religious expression when they said wearing a visible cross was against their uniform policy. Legal precedence on religious belief protection is often carried across from one belief to another so there was absolutely nothing of controversy or even interest in the EHRC saying the judgement would affect employers responsibilities towards those with other beliefs.

The controversy has been whipped up because a gaggle of Tory MPs on the right of their party were baited into giving a critical judgement of the EHRC. This is hardly a difficult topic to exploit for that effect, it is high on the list of bodies those of their ilk would prefer were scrapped. What is most controversial about the guidelines is that they had to be written at all, because one would have thought it was common sense. But apparently this morning has demonstrated just why it is necessary.

The requirement to protect non-religious beliefs is also not a new one. A key legal case in 1978 Arrowsmith v United Kingdom found that the applicant’s beliefs in pacifism were deeply held and sufficient to warrant protection under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The court found against the claimant for wider reasons but importantly held her beliefs were worthy of protection. The ECtHR judgement in the case of Eweida et al also found that the actions of all four claimants were borne out of religious beliefs and therefore worthy of protection. The Court also went further and said that it was not up to them or any other applicable body to decide what was or was not of sufficient centrality in a belief system to merit protection, or what actions arising from those beliefs should be counted as a manifestation of belief. What the court held to matter was that the belief and action was of importance to the applicant.

Therefore, while this eases the difficulty of deciding when a belief or action becomes sufficiently meritorious for protection, it opens up a whole other can of worms in potentially allowing any belief or opinion protection on these ground. While this is a tricky situation for courts to adjudicate it is not a particularly controversial one. While the beliefs and actions may come under Article 9 jurisdiction it does not mean an employer is forced to allow them. In the case of Eweida the court found that the uniform policy was insufficient grounds to restrict the wearing of a cross, but in Chaplin found the health and safety concerns in a hospital, coupled with the proposal of alternative ways of wearing the cross, were sufficient grounds and found against the claimant. The court also found in Ladele and McFarlane that the equality and anti-discrimination policies of their employers also provided the latitude for their requests to be denied. (This is a more controversial decision and what is at the heart of an emerging hierarchy of rights among equality strands.)

Therefore I doubt that a vegetarian employed in a kitchen role would be granted a request not to handle meat. If it is a central part of the job which would put an unreasonable burden on the company and other staff I suspect the request could be legitimately denied. If however, the staff member is employed in another role but is asked on occasion to assist in the kitchen the request may well be expected to be granted. If we expect a common sense type of accommodation of reasonable requests we also have to understand situations where without any hint of an attack on Christian belief they might not be accommodated.

Finally, this is not an insult. An insult would be to suggest that Christian beliefs alone are worthy of protection. Or moreover that Christian beliefs and practices need more protection than other beliefs. I want the freedom to practice and promote my beliefs and I think the surest way of ensuring that is to fight for others to have the same rights that I do. I may think they are wacky, I may find them absurd. I may even find them offensive. But I want to fight for their freedom of belief: I want them to be as free to promote their beliefs as I want to be to promote mine.

Freedom of belief means freedom of belief for everyone. And at the heart of the Christian message is a voice of freedom that calls into the wilderness. That releases slaves from their captors. It is freedom to choose to worship a God who chose to send his Son so that we could have life and life in all its fullness.

It is the freedom not to worship that makes the choice to worship such a precious gift we have to offer.

To suggest that Christians would rather others were not free to follow their beliefs is an insult.

What might Lincoln and Euclid have to say about same-sex marriage?

Last night I heard Bible verses quoted with abandon.

I heard God’s will invoked in defence of the cause.

I heard that some things are against how God created nature.

I also heard a man quote Euclid, “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other”. I saw a man who for the greater good denied the strength of his commitment to racial equality: to free the slaves he was prepared to limit his conviction that all men are equal.

Last night I went to watch Lincoln after watching the parliamentary debate on the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill. And I’m well aware that Jennie Pollock has already made precisely this comparison, perhaps it was why my ears pricked up at the relevant moment.

tommy-lee-jones-linconln-thaddeus-stevens EJFAdvocates of same-sex marriage argue that this is an issue of equality on a par with the struggle for racial equality which won a huge leap through Abraham Lincoln and then lurched on in fits and starts for the following century. I do not, however, think this is an appropriate comparison, and maybe Euclid can help us out. Man, both black and white, equal a human, they are therefore equal to each other.

To achieve the same result with same-sex marriage and heterosexual marriage requires some linguistic gymnastics. It involves emptying marriage of much of its meaning and then refilling the shell which is left with what ever we choose, only then can we suggest that the two are equal. If marriage was only about love and commitment between two people, then Euclid’s notion might provide some comfort, but to achieve that you have to remove much of what makes up marriage and turn it into little more than a contractual agreement. This is why I agree with those who say you can only achieve marriage equality by changing what it fundamentally is. For marriage to be extended beyond it’s heterosexual bounds it requires first turning it into something which it currently is not.

I would have a great deal more respect for the government if they were honest about this, what bothers me is the insistence that this is no great change, just the extension of something to a previously excluded group. But no one is excluded from marriage, people only become excluded from marriage when it is first changed into something different, something that is defined solely by love and commitment and not also by male and female, and conjugation and the potential for children. Only once you have changed this definition can the institution of marriage be considered to be restricted. But the government jump to the end and use their own definition of marriage to pretend their plans are no big deal, moreover that they are a vital step towards equality..

But as Philip Blond and Roger Scruton put it: “The pressure for gay marriage is therefore in a certain measure self-defeating: in seeking equality with something unlike yourself, the thing that you join to is no longer what you joined.”

* * *

Maybe it was the experience of following the debate that made watching Lincoln immediately after a slightly strange experience. But I couldn’t help but watch the many scenes of the House of Representatives debating the thirteenth amendment and wonder whether future generations might look back at yesterday’s debate in the same light. I wondered whether those who oppose same-sex marriage would be viewed in coming years as behind the times, stuck in the mud, on the wrong side of history – as some observers have suggested this week.

I also wondered what I would have said and done had I been in either of those chambers. Whether I would have stood and spoke of the equality of man, or sought to protect my prejudice or financial interest. I wonder whether I would have compromised my beliefs in order to see a greater wrong righted. I wondered what constituted a greater wrong.

I wondered if I would have said what I believed despite the critics howling at the door, I wondered if I would have had the courage to make my own mind up and not hear threats of no promotion, or being ousted by the voters at the next election. I wondered if I would have taken the calls from the media, stood outside the steps of parliament and found the words of grace that did not deny what I believed to be true.

And I saw the hostility of the 1860s and the legacy it left in its wake stretching nearly a century until the 1964 Civil Rights Act achieved much and left much more to do. I saw the bitter wrangling over reconstruction as the Confederate leaders sued for peace.

If I was in that chamber in Washington DC 150 years ago I would hope to have been like Thaddeus Stevens. Many others thought peace was more important that equality but he stood for freedom and justice. But if I was in the House of Commons yesterday, I don’t think I would have been so strident. I wanted understanding, and I wanted peace. I wanted space for different views. And I wanted some understanding that just because something is claimed in the name of equality, that doesn’t automatically make it a good thing.

I didn’t pray enough for peace during the debate yesterday, but I will in the coming weeks. I know not what the weeks and months to come hold but I hope for a future where we can have civility and peace even if we think fundamentally different things. Perhaps I hope that those with the strongest of views can find a way that is better for all of us. Perhaps.