There is a proper boundary between religious freedom and state power. It is defined in the dictum ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. If you do something harmful, like killing unbelievers, breaking up meetings of people you disagree with, or directly impeding good government, the state is entitled to punish you even if you acted in the name of religion.
This is what Tiberius Caesar was entitled to in 25 AD, together with his taxes, and it is what the state is entitled to today. By contrast, if all you do is pray and say what you think to all and sundry, the state should leave you alone, even if others don’t like what you are doing.
There are disturbing signs that the boundary is being moved, and not to religion’s advantage. Last week the High Court upheld an order by a local authority in Ealing creating a 100-metre ‘no protest zone’ outside a Marie Stopes abortion clinic under legislation aimed mainly at suppressing mindless gangs of bored or rowdy teenagers.
The order banned ‘engaging in any act of approval/disapproval ... with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means’, including ‘graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling’, and ‘displaying any text or images relating directly or indirectly to the termination of pregnancy’.
There is something seriously wrong with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The order was particularly aimed at members of the Catholic Good Counsel Network, who had non-violently communicated their views to clients and had organised prayer vigils with the aim of persuading the clients to keep their babies.
The judge gave short shrift to an argument that this incredibly wide prohibition infringed either the right to speech or expression of religion. Stating opposition to abortion, even for religious reasons, was not an expression of belief, and in any case both it and any right to free expression were trumped by the right of the clients to privacy (i.e. to not having to experience protests which singled them out), he also pooh-poohed the idea of lesser interferences, such as limiting intervention to cases where the protesters committed a criminal offence.
It was important to preserve the power of Jack or Jill in office to tell people what to do if they thought they were a nuisance, even if they couldn’t point to anything specifically wrong with their conduct. Mr Justice Turner said the council was ‘entitled’ to conclude it was a ‘necessary step in a democratic society’.
In terms of strict human rights law this may be correct. If so, it merely shows what readers of Rebel Priest have known for some time: there’s something seriously wrong with the European Convention on Human Rights. The fact remains that a person’s desire not to hear what someone else is saying about religion in public has been solemnly upheld to justify suppressing the latter’s right to say it, and relegating the latter to making their statement a safe distance away where it will have little effect at all.
And now they’ve managed it in Ealing, you can be sure that a lot of discreet phone calls will have been made by local British Pregnancy Advisory Service or Marie Stopes managers to councillors up and down the country reminding them of the number of annoyable constituents they might have who happen to live in shouting distance of the clinic they run.
Two other straws have appeared in the wind. One has come from John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, always a good indicator of dirigiste values lurking behind a mask of faux conservatism. Having received applause at June’s National Prayer Breakfast in Parliament for supporting freedom of religion, last week’s address to the Pink News summer reception at Westminster showed the real Bercow.
‘We shouldn’t allow people to peddle anti-trans messages,’ he said, in a dig at, among others, religious protesters. He added that for him LGBT rights were human rights, and continued: ‘I respect people’s rights to adhere to and profess their faith, but for me, where there is a clash between somebody’s adherence to faith on the one hand and the acknowledgement of and demonstration of respect for human rights, the latter has to trump the former.’
So now you know. The name of the game is identity politics and human rights; religion is all right in its place, but must not be allowed to get in the way of these great secular projects.
Don’t be surprised if we soon see attempts to criminalise churchmen who try to persuade their flock not to give way to desires they see as perverted.
And, of course, there is the recent LGBT Action Plan from Penny Mordaunt, Minister for Women and Equalities, with its high-sounding pledge to remove gay conversion therapy from the face of Britain. Now it may be argued that much of conversion therapy is snake oil: but just note the statement of intent to ban it ‘in a medical, commercial or faith-based context’.
Despite the honeyed assurance that the government ‘are not trying to prevent LGBT people from seeking legitimate medical support or spiritual support from their faith leader in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity’, don’t be surprised if we soon see attempts to criminalise churchmen who try to persuade their flock not to give way to desires they see as perverted, or to make it clear that Richard’s deep-seated belief that he is really a girl called Amanda is contrary to the natural order of things.
In other words, there’s an increasing message from the great and the good that religious speech and the freedom that lies behind it are – well – an embarrassment. Even if the speakers have to be humoured, they’re an inconvenience and need to be carefully put where it can’t do any harm, and certainly never allowed to get in the way of equality, or caring, or our right not to be made uncomfortable.
Like Victorian children, they are increasingly told to run away, leave the grown-ups to get on with the important things in life, and not to offend anyone – or else.
(Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as UKIP’s candidate in Bath).