A “conscience clause” would negate equality under the law

The suggestion of a “conscience clause” opt-out from equality legislation has been floated by no less a person than Lady Hale, Deputy President of Britain’s Supreme Court, and the most senior female judge in the land. The idea is that if treating people equally goes against your conscience then you get to play the “conscience” trump card entitling you to treat people unequally.

Unsurprisingly, some Christians have welcomed the suggestion, which they see as preserving their “religious freedom” against what they see as the encroachment of equality legislation.

“It is obvious that there is a growing conflict between religious freedoms and equalities legislation, and that a new balance has to be struck” opines The Telegraph. So, for example, the Christian hoteliers who famously turned away a same-sex couple, and lost the resulting court case, could in future be indulged by a clause that makes “special provisions or exceptions for particular beliefs”.

In this way some Christians want their religious beliefs to trump the rules that everyone else is expected to obey. The opinions and consciences of the religious are held to matter more than those of other people. You or I might be constrained by the law of the land when providing a public service, but a religious person’s conscience is more important than ours, and thus they get to over-rule the law if they feel strongly about something.

To be fair, Lady Hale said that the same opt-out rules would have to apply to “any beliefs and none”, but how on earth could this clause be made workable? You can bet that Christians would be the first to howl if people were allowed to cite “conscience” as an excuse for discriminating against Christians, so they are presumably hoping for a clause that can only be used in their favour.

Do we really want courts ruling on what is and is not part of someone’s conscience? How strongly held does a belief have to be to qualify? Would we have judges asking: “How strongly to you feel this?”, and after the reply: “A lot”, saying: “Ok then, that counts”? Would we take piety displays such as special clothing or facial hair as a sign of sincerity, which then privileges those religions that demand them?

The proper path is clear: equality laws need to apply to everyone equally, religious or not, conscience or not. If we think that a rule would be too burdensome if applied to all, then we should not impose the rule at all. There is an entirely valid debate about which rules to make, but equality under the law requires the same for everyone.

The flaw in The Telegraph’s reasoning is the idea that “religious freedom” is an extra that confers bonus rights upon the religious, rights that the rest of us do not have. That is wrong: religious freedom is part of a general right to freedom of thought and speech, but is not an opt-out from rules that apply to society as a whole for entirely valid secular reasons.

Thus there is no “conflict between religious freedoms and equalities legislation”. There is indeed a conflict between equalities legislation and an individual’s freedom to indulge their preferences, and society should indeed debate the proper scope of such legislation; but framing it as a religious issue — as though individual preference only matters to the religious — is misguided. The truth is that Christians in the UK are used to special treatment and automatic privilege, and are resentful that nowadays they are expected to be no more than equal members of an equal society.

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5 thoughts on “A “conscience clause” would negate equality under the law

  1. John O'Connor

    Here is more on the story:

    Lady Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, said that despite a series of prominent cases involving wearing crosses and sexuality issues, she is not convinced the law has yet found a way to strike a “reasonable” balance.
    It still has to “work out” how best to accommodate people’s right to follow their beliefs while protecting others from discrimination, she said.
    “I am not sure that our law has yet found a reasonable accommodation of all these different strands,” she said.
    Delivering a lecture on human rights during a visit to the Law Society of Ireland, in Dublin, She highlighted claims by two European judges last year that British Christians are being denied the right to follow their conscience because of “obsessive political correctness”.
    She also said the requirement to treat all religions and belief systems as equal, without judging whether they are “forces for good” or not, had created a “problem” for judges.
    Lady Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, said the law needs to work out “how far it should allow for a ‘conscience clause’” for service providers or employees.

    Do you get that? She was talking mainly about a conscience clause for SERVICE PROVIDERS AND EMPLOYEES, not necessarily for just anyone.

    No-one is arguing that Christians generally ought to get preferential treatment. Yet Christian hotel owners, for example, ought to be free to decide, on the basis of conscience, whether or not to allow gay couples to sleep together in their own bed-and-breakfast hotel (which, in case of Mr & Mrs Bull, also happened to be their own family home).

    Reply
  2. Coel Post author

    Hi John,

    No-one is arguing that Christians generally ought to get preferential treatment. Yet Christian hotel owners, for example, ought to be free to decide, on the basis of conscience, whether or not to allow gay couples to sleep together in their own bed-and-breakfast hotel (which, in case of Mr & Mrs Bull, also happened to be their own family home).

    How about hotel owners deciding, “on the basis of conscience” whether to allow mixed-race couples? How about restaurant owners deciding whether to serve Pakistanis? How about an employer deciding, “on the basis of conscience”, to turn down a job applicant because they are wearing a crucifix? How much do you allow individual preference to over-ride the rules about equal treatment that people generally are expected to obey?

    In my opinion we need the same rules or all, and if we have rules about treating people equally when providing a public service then we should not allow opt-outs based on individual preference or “on the basis of conscience” or whatever you want to call it.

    Reply
    1. John O'Connor

      Thanks for your reply Coel,

      I think you are confusing “on the basis of conscience” with “on the basis of some mere whim (or prejudice, or whatever).” As Lady Hale said: insisting on equality of beliefs without first judging whether they are “forces for good” or not, has led to “problems” in the past. That, I think, is the litmus test. I doubt whether any genuine Christian would judge someone purely on the basis of race (which is fortunate since I happen to be the only white member in my church). Bible-believing Christians take the Word of God as their absolute moral standard. The scriptures are very clear on moral matters. There is no room for unscriptural lifestyle ‘choices’, only for obedience to the Word of God. It is in this latter area that the Christians’ conscience may, at times, be brought into conflict. Christians are taught to ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’. It’s the sinner’s Salvation that matters most to a loving Christian, and it’s certainly not about condemning, or being judgmental towards, the sinner. Yet by the same token, a Christian cannot condone or simply turn a blind eye to a person’s sin either, because that’s a sin in itself! (This is no doubt the dilemma Mr&Mrs Bull found themselves in.) I accept that most non-Christians might find this entire concept hard to fully understand.

      If someone turned down a job applicant for wearing a crucifix then on who’s authority would the interviewer be acting? What would be his ultimate yardstick or moral Standard? Would his action be a ‘force for good’, or just personal prejudice (or would he be blindly following yet another man-made rule)? You see, there is a big difference between God’s authority and some anonymous Directive from Brussels. By the way Coel, did you know that Her Majesty’s Government has passed legislation opposing EVERY SINGLE ONE of the Ten Commandments? When a country acts in defiance of the Laws of God nothing good ever comes of it. Small wonder people are asking, ‘What’s happened to this once-great country of ours?’ Thanks for the chance to air my views, Coel.

    2. Coel Post author

      Hi John,

      I think you are confusing “on the basis of conscience” with “on the basis of some mere whim (or prejudice, or whatever).”

      This is the whole dispute. I don’t regard your religious doctrines as anything special, they are just the preferences and prejudices of those who created and influenced the religion, and as such deserve no more weight in society’s rules than anyone else’s preferences and prejudices.

      Coding the preferences into books and calling them “religious” doesn’t change what they are and shouldn’t grant them greater status.

      You may regard your Christian beliefs as a “force for the good”, but I don’t, and for example would regard the idea of a gay couple being “sinful” as simple prejudice and a force for the bad.

      By the way Coel, did you know that Her Majesty’s Government has passed legislation opposing EVERY SINGLE ONE of the Ten Commandments?

      Good, so can you persuade David Cameron that we stopped being a “Christian nation” long ago?

      Small wonder people are asking, ‘What’s happened to this once-great country of ours?’

      I regard this country as the best it has ever been. Certainly there is no past time that I’d prefer to be living in than here and now. The fact that the country is much less religious today is to me a good thing.

  3. John O'Connor

    Hi Coel,

    Yes, there’s one point we CAN agree on, and I am glad we have found common ground at last. This country stopped being a Christian nation long ago, and I would love to have the opportunity to persuade David Cameron of his error. I have enjoyed discussing these issues with you because you are clearly passionate in your beliefs, and your debating skills are excellent (no match for me I’m afraid, I’m just a humble church-goer!). I will continue to visit your site from time to time because it is a good one by any standard. Even though you do not believe in God I will pray that He will bless you, and all the good work you do. The Bible says that, ‘I would rather you be hot, or even cold, rather than lukewarm.’ There is nothing lukewarm about you Coel, you are a real firebrand, and I only wish we had you in “our” camp! May the Lord be with you and watch over you in all you do. God bless, John.

    Reply

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