The Times, Legal Editor
Christianity deserves no protection in law above other faiths and to do so would be ‘irrational, divisive, capricious and arbitrary’, a senior judge said yesterday.
In the latest clash between the judiciary and Christian believers Lord Justice Laws said that laws could not be used to protect one religion above another.
He also delivered a robust dismissal to Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who had warned that a series of recent court rulings against Christians could lead to civil unrest. He called his idea for a specialist panel of judges to hear cases involving the practice of religious beliefs ‘deeply inimical to the public interest’.
To give one religion legal protection over any other, ‘however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled’, the judge said. It would give legal force to a subjective opinion and would lead to a ‘theocracy’.
Lord Justice Laws’s comments came in the High Court as he rejected a marriage guidance counsellor’s attempt to challenge his sacking for refusing to provide sex therapy to gay couples.
Lord Carey had given a witness statement in support of Gary McFarlane, 48, from Bristol, a member of a Pentecostal church. Mr McFarlane was seeking permission to appeal against an Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling that supported his dismissal by Relate Avon in 2008.
Rejecting Mr McFarlane’s application, Lord Justice Laws said: ‘We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion — any belief system — cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.’
The judge said it was right that he should address what the former Archbishop had said because of his seniority in the Church ‘and the extent to which others may agree with his views, and because of the misunderstanding of the law which his statement reveals’.
Lord Carey and other Christian leaders had expressed concerns after Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury and two other appeal judges ruled last December that Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar, was breaking discrimination laws by refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.
In his witness statement Lord Carey said: ‘It is, of course, but a short step from the dismissal of a sincere Christian from employment to a religious bar to any employment by Christians. I believe that further judicial decisions are likely to end up at this point and this is why I believe it is necessary to intervene now.’
The fact that senior clerics of the Church of England and other religions felt compelled to intervene directly in judicial decisions was ‘illuminative of a future civil unrest’.
Lord Justice Laws said that Lord Carey appeared to be arguing that the courts ought to be ready to uphold and defend Christian beliefs. But the judge drew a distinction ‘between the law’s protection of the right to hold and express a belief and the law’s protection of that belief’s substance or content’.
The Judaeo-Christian tradition had exerted a profound influence on the judgment of legislators but to confer on it preferential legal protection was deeply unprincipled, he said. It would mean laws being imposed ‘not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion since faith, other than to the believer, was subjective’.
Andrea Williams, the director of the Christian Legal Centre, warned that the judgment would deny Christians a range of jobs because of their beliefs.
‘The judge’s comments could lead in effect to a religious bar to employment, in which Christians could be prevented from being registrars, counsellors, teachers, social workers or work on adoption panels,’ she said.
‘We never attempted to argue that we could impose a Christian law, which the judge seems to suggest. We are simply talking about the principle of marriage, between a man and a woman, which has undergirded society for hundreds of years.’