"Doctors and nurses can't choose who they treat and nor should a registrar be allowed to discriminate."
So asserted the chief executive of the gay rights group Stonewall in yesterday's Times, concerning the civil registrar who is facing dismissal after refusing to undertake civil partnership duties. His argument is, however, fundamentally and factually flawed. Doctors are able to choose against performing an abortion on the basis of their religious convictions and this is in fact causing an increasing problem for the NHS: More than three-quarters of abortions carried out after 17 weeks of pregnancy have to be performed privately owing to a "marked reluctance" among NHS staff to carry out late abortions.
Lillian Ladele has worked in the Registration Service for 15 years and alerted Islington Council over a year before the Civil Partnership Act came into force that the legislation would cause a conflict with her Christian beliefs if she were required to perform same sex unions. Although her stance did not prevent the local authority from providing its full range of services, a complaint was made against her and an employment tribunal is now deciding whether the council can compel her to perform civil partnerships against her conscience. Giving evidence, she maintained, “I hold the orthodox Christian view that marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all others and that this is the God-ordained place for sexual relations. It creates a problem for any Christian if they are expected to do or condone something that they see as sinful. I feel unable to facilitate directly the formation of a union that I sincerely believe is contrary to God’s law.”
In a similar case, the rights of a Christian social worker involved in adoption were recently upheld after she refused to place children with homosexual couples. That such cases should keep surfacing should come as no surprise. For, the tension between the apparently conflicting rights of two groups evident in both these cases is enshrined at the heart of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 9 reads:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Thus, in both the cases above, homosexuals claim their rights must be protected by limiting the expression of the freedom of conscience of Christians. Christians, however, maintain that their freedoms must be protected by not requiring them to share in the manifestation of the beliefs of homosexuals. In this we are reminded of the principle that the Catholic Church attempted to highlight at the time that the Act was debated by Parliament. Namely, that equal access to services by all individuals should not require that all service providers give equal service. Surely there is room for such diversity in our pluralistic society? Our rights-obsessed culture will have reached a sorry state if employers are permitted to force people to act against their consciences when they simply hold to the mainstream beliefs that represent the bedrock of our nation's heritage.