Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has written an open letter to The Telegraph in response to its leader article which declared: “It is obvious that there is a growing conflict between religious freedoms and equalities legislation, and that a new balance has to be struck”.
The Telegraph itself was responding to a recent speech given by Baroness Hale, the UK’s most senior female judge, who suggested that the law may be discriminatory against Christians.
Speaking before the Law Society of Ireland in Dublin, Hale highlighted the case of Christian hoteliers Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who were found guilty of discrimination against a gay couple after upholding a policy that only married couples were allowed to stay in their double bedrooms.
Baroness Hale herself ruled on this case, but last week pondered whether a “more nuanced approach” might be necessary when dealing with issues of religious liberty in UK courts in the future.
“I am not sure our law has found a reasonable accommodation of all these different strands,” she said. “An example of treatment which Christians may feel to be unfair is the recent case of Bull v Hall. Should we be developing an explicit requirement upon providers of employment, goods and services to make reasonable accommodation for the manifestation of religious beliefs?
“If the law is going to protect freedom of religion and belief it has to accept that all religions and beliefs and none are equal. It cannot realistically inquire into the validity or importance of those beliefs, or any particular manifestation of them, as long as they are genuinely held,” she added.
Hale also suggested that a “conscience clause” allowing exemption on the grounds of religious beliefs may go some way to ensure full freedom of religion in the UK.
The Telegraph has labelled Hale’s comments “refreshing”, underlining her courage in “bravely enter[ing] the debate,” which is fraught with contention.
“Of course, there are arguments for and against such a clause,” the article continues.
“Christian campaigners would doubtless say that it is necessary to protect employers, employees and providers of services who find that something they have been doing their whole life has been rendered illegal by the introduction of equalities legislation…Opponents of a conscience clause might counter that it is perverse to give a privileged status to certain religious groups, allowing them to opt out of laws that they happen to disagree with.
“Could freedom of conscience not just as easily be cited by the governors and teachers in Birmingham schools who are accused of promoting their own brand of conservative Islam?
“Nevertheless, Britain does need to have a conversation about this subject and it is not something that we should shy away from – especially not for fear of falling foul of the unwritten laws of political correctness,” it concludes.
“A Britain that is comfortably modern and diverse has to ensure that there is both equality and a respectful tolerance for differences of opinion. Otherwise, those differences could be twisted into bitter resentments.”
Cardinal Cormac has expressed that he “warmly welcome[s]” these comments from The Telegraph, insisting that “The law in these past years has done too little to protect the beliefs of Christians and the legitimate freedoms of Christian organisations”.
He goes on to mention the myriad Catholic adoption agencies which were forced to close when the law changed to insist that all such organisations must accept same-sex couples as prospective adoptive parents.
“Because of our conviction that children are better placed in a home with a man and a woman, a father and mother, the agencies were unable to offer a service to same-sex couples. Providing an exception to allow these few small religious voluntary agencies to continue would not in any way have denied gay couples access to mainstream providers of adoption services,” the cardinal writes.
“It would in fact have been a sensible and proportionate accommodation, recognising that religious organisations have a distinct identity and ethos that very often brings a valuable contribution to the wider common good of society.”
The forced closure of such Catholic adoption agencies has been “a sad loss for the Church and society,” the former Archbishop continues, echoing Baroness Hale who has previously branded it “fascinating that a country with an established Church can be less respectful of religious feelings than one without”.
“How extraordinary that a law, in the name of tolerance, should become so intolerant to a charity that aims only to do good and foster the most vulnerable children,” Cardinal Cormac concludes his letter.
“We do indeed need in our pluralist society to strike a much fairer balance which recognises the importance of religion and belief and allows a more open and mature accommodation of differences while ensuring that the law protects everyone equally and prevents harm.”