Westminster Faith Debate: What Limits to Religious Freedom?

Regular contributor to this site Graham Goldsmith attended last month’s penultimate Westminster Faith Debate hosted by Christian think tank, Theos in association with the Religion and Society Research Programme.  The title of the debate was, ‘What Limits to Religious Freedom?’  This is his report:

The debate was chaired jointly by Rt Hon Charles Clarke M.P. and Professor Linda Woodhead of Theos and centred on the presentation of two academic papers.  Professor Peter Jones addressed the idea of freedom to manifest religion in expression (speech) and Professor Melelia Malik freedom to manifest religion in conduct.

Professor Jones’ base question aside from incitement to violence was, “Should people be free to say whatever they like about the religious beliefs and practices of others?”

There has been a presumption that people with secular thinking are champions of the right to free expression including the right to mock and offend as opposed to people of religion who want to curb expression.  Yet historically religious people have been supporters of free expression because it is seen as essential to religious liberty.

In recent years there have been occasions where religious people have vehemently complained of something they have been greatly offended by.  One thinks of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed, Jerry Springer the Opera, the play Behzti, and the film The Last Temptation of Christ.  Extreme responses to the offence some of these have caused have sometimes been expressed through violence and death threats.

The philosopher J.S. Mill suggested that free expression was an essential vehicle for the pursuit of truth and knowledge, but this leads to the question of whether we should uphold this right if comment is nothing to do with seeking truth or knowledge but rather simply intended to insult.  Offence too is often easily claimed because somebody may not like a particular viewpoint. Claiming offence in this way can be used to stifle debate.  So who then decides what is reasonable or not in matters of offence?  A feeling of injustice and wrongness is understandable when what is held sacred is mocked but should an extreme response such as rioting, banning, burning, Fatwas or killing elicit speech curtailment, censoring, or any other special sensitivity?  Would ”The Last Temptation of Christ” have been banned were it to have been aimed at Mohammed instead of Christ?  If offence does not provide a reason for restraint what does?

Professor Jones suggested the answer could be found in the respect we owe one another as human beings, that people should be able to embrace whatever views they find compelling without ridicule or vilification though subjecting that belief to critical attention should not constitute disrespect.  It could be argued however that some views are so absurd and outrageous that we should not respect them.

He concluded by advocating a cultural rather than legal solution, that the media, politicians and satirists should consider more seriously the effect on what their views mean to the holders.

Professor Malik followed on by discussing three well known cases of Christians who had recently lost in the U.K. courts on matters of conduct and conscience.

Two cases centred on a clash of rights with regard to sexuality, the other on Christian expression in the workplace. A Christian registrar had asked colleagues to officiate same-sex civil partnership ceremonies, when denied this accommodation argued it was a breach of her religious rights and amounted to discrimination.  Two hotel owners who had a policy of letting double rooms to married couples only in line with their Christian beliefs, had refused a same-sex couple such a room and were found to be discriminating against them.  And a Christian employee of British Airways claimed that her works dress code discriminated against her because it did not allow her to display a cross at work.

Professor Malik made a clear distinction between speech and conduct, that we should state more vigorously the right to hold a strong view but that race, religion sexuality and gender should be irrelevant when providing a service or respecting basic rights.  She was against the principle of ”reasonable accommodation” arguing that its application could not be compared to other rights e.g. disability, because a person could not help being disabled and that accommodation for a disabled person did not entail denying the rights of another. There should be no renegotiation of gay rights, we should be sensitive to gay people and consider not just the effect it had on those individuals but the gay community as a whole.  She was in favour of arbitration and mediation as a way of reducing acrimony and felt more constructive dialogue needed to take place between the religious and gay communities.  She added that wearing a cross in the workplace should be allowed because it infringed no other person’s rights and could be reasonably negotiated.

Responding Lisa Appignanes a writer formerly of the PEN organisation for literary freedom argued for the right to free expression including satire and ridicule but in a way of civility rather than respect, because not all religious systems of belief should be worthy of special sensitivity or treatment. She felt that in the public sphere some groups were playing politics often through the courts and the motive was more about religious power as opposed to rights. She felt that religion often oppressed women and she had been shocked at the treatment of her fellow author Salman Rushdie.

Former Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali appealed to the right for religious conscience as has been enshrined in law (e.g. in the 1967 Abortion act) and asked why this had not been considered in more recent equality legislation. Why does the law intervene when employers and employees have already made reasonable accommodation and why are some faiths accommodated and others not?

He held that religious and sexuality rights were not properly balanced and that the equality of persons should not be confused with equality of behaviour; that morality transcends the law and that we need to revisit law on a regular basis to reflect this.  He advocated the American system of ‘reasonable accommodation’ and felt that if such a system had existed in the UK most of the high profile legal cases would not have taken place and much conflict would have been avoided. We need to pursue truth with a passion and avoid gratuitous offence but agreed that no person should be denied a service to which they were entitled. The principle should be respect for diversity.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger whilst not wishing to wear religious dress herself could see no reason to restrict it, nor the wearing of a cross at work. Some states including France and Germany had declared the ideal of a multi cultural society to be unachievable. France had abolished the public wearing of certain religious dress in an effort to attain instead a secular national identity.  In Britain certain practices such as forced marriages, honour killings, female genital mutilation were rightly condemned and whilst religious people should be free to proselytize and be moderately offensive, we should not override basic individual rights. In discourse we should above all else desire courtesy and value politeness in civilised debate, exercise self-restraint and remain within the law.

Comments and questions to and from the floor pointed out that:

1) Non-religious conscientious objection was commonly allowed in the corporate commercial sectors.  2) Are we are in danger of allowing Christianity and morality to be manipulated by the state?  3) Far right groups in the USA were supporting toxic homophobic and Islamaphobic Christian groups in the UK  4) Multi-Culturalism was working better in the UK than most other countries  5) Who is to be the arbiter of absurd views? Some mainstream religious views such as creationism, the virgin birth, life after death etc are deemed outrageous by many.  6) Political litigation should not be used in discrimination law.  7) We should not sacrifice moral choices for the law because the law may not be moral.  8) We should not be using phobic brushes but look to the substance of arguments instead.  9) Conscientious objectors should bear the consequences of their objection.  10) Employers should have more discretion without resorting to the law.  11) Law can drive social change as it has done in race and gender equality legislation and change the acceptability of what can and cannot be expressed.  12) In the same way that moderate Muslims were urged to speak out against terrorism should Christians now speak out against some groups who claim to represent them?  13) Is there a clear enough distinction between social and civil rights?  14) We must remember that the police are in a difficult position on the front line in interpreting where free expression is causing offence and act accordingly and that sometimes freedoms have to be curbed for public order and safety reasons.  15) Why had no British newspaper published the Danish cartoons?  16) We should not give in to the loudest, most threatening or paranoid voices or react unwisely to the serially provocative nor deem them as representative of certain groups.  17) We should value our plural heritage so that people of religion and none can feel valued.

I have developed a great interest in this subject over these past months and many thoughts crossed my mind during the course of the debate, I had some very mixed emotions but I would be most interested in any comments people may wish to make.  So much ground was covered that needs to be responded to .  The debate threw up many questions.  The challenge for us is to work towards finding answers we can agree on.  Over to you.

Categories: Faith in society

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2 replies

  1. If we are unable to deal with criticism of our beliefs or faith then there is something seriously wrong with our mindset. If you look at Jesus and the early church they received constant persecution and opposition, but never resorted to retaliation.

    I am very pleased to see that the Christian Institute is joining with the National Secular Society, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and others to call for reform of free speech laws.

    The new campaign group – Reform Section 5 – wants the word “insulting” to be stripped out of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Have we become so fragile as a society that we dare not let anyone feel insulted? I hope the Government will listen to this.

    Here’s some more information: http://www.christian.org.uk/news/pressure-on-home-secretary-to-improve-free-speech-law/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+christianinstitute+(The+Christian+Institute)

  2. Christianity needs to stand on its own merits of which there are many. Jesus Christ transforms lives for the better and this is why it is so important to create as much space as possible for people to express it. Listening to others is very important even when it is uninformed or insulting. Much work is to be done to keep a Christian presence in our society and we should be Rabbis wherever possible.

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