The American writer Ralph Emerson once said of an acquaintance that “the louder he talked of his honesty, the faster we counted our spoons”. I have the same instinct when I hear conservative commentators pontificate on human rights.
Writing on the Huffington Post site on 16 January, Mike Judge (Head of Communications at the Christian Institute), claimed that while Christians are “free to wear a cross at work, they are not necessarily free to believe in marriage”.
He was commenting on the cases taken by four British Christians to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) claiming that they had been the victims of religious discrimination. While one claimant, Nadia Eweida, had her claim (that it was unfair and unreasonable for her employer, BA, to ban her from wearing a crucifix at work) upheld, all of the other claims were rejected.
The decision by the NHS to require nurse Shirley Chaplin to remove her cross while working with patients was upheld, as were decisions that a marriage counsellor and a registrar could not refuse to offer services to members of the public who were gay.
If the job of the ECHR is to balance the rights of religious believers against the competing rights of others, including the right to be safe at work, then it seems to me to have done a reasonable job.
There seemed to be no particular risk or discrimination suffered by anyone, directly or indirectly, by Mrs Eweida wearing her cross. The other three cases involved choices between the rights of Christians to express their beliefs and the rights of others.
For a host of right-wing pundits, though, the failure to uphold all three appeals was further evidence of a campaign of victimisation of Christians. Mike Judge has, as he admits, a vested interest. He was a legal adviser to one of the unsuccessful claimants, Lillian Ladele, a registrar with Islington Council who refused to deal with same-sex civil partnerships.
He describes her as “horribly bullied” and considers it a decisive argument that Islington had plenty of other registrars who were prepared to carry out the ceremonies Ladele refused. All conservative commentary on these cases fails completely to understand the basics of equality. The simple replacement of the words “black” or “disabled” for the recent term “same-sex” illustrates clearly the problem with an employee who will marry or counsel some clients but not others on the basis of some aspect of their identity.
Peter Hitchins in the Mail on Sunday (20 January) seizes on the four legal cases as evidence that “our nation is on its knees to the church of Human Rights”.
For Hitchens the rejection of three of the cases is part of a decades-long war against Christianity. In this particular case his argument is incoherent and riddled with contradiction. He can’t decide who exactly is conducting this war though on balance there is no doubt the main culprit is “Europe” which he describes as “the unpleasant new country in which we are now trapped”.
He brushes over the fact that all four original decisions were made in Britain and upheld in British courts or tribunals. In fact, the only reason any of these persecuted Christians had anywhere else to go with their complaints was that there is a European Convention on Human Rights with a Court to enforce it.
He writes not a word about Nadia Eweida, who has established the right to wear Christian symbols only because the European Court, which Hitchens despises, ruled in her favour. He deals with this by claiming that we only have equality laws because Europe forces us to, supporting this claim with a vague reference to “several EU directives”. Three Race Relations Acts, a range of Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts and the establishment of the Equal Opportunities Commission by UK governments may as well not have happened.
It’s amusing watching proper right-wingers respond to these issues. They have consistently attacked the whole idea of equality and human rights and, for the most part, despise the bourgeois project to unite European states.
And yet they seek to defend the declining privileges and status of established and hitherto mainstream religions by appealing to precisely those same institutions and concepts.
It’s too much for them to accept that Christianity, or religious belief in general, has declined because it is less relevant to modern society.
Instead they must explain it by reference to an absurd claim of persecution. It would, they seem to say, be as strong and popular as ever if it weren’t for those pesky EU bureaucrats and human rights lawyers.
As with any self-pitying solipsistic narrative, you have to ignore the wider real-world picture if you want to hold on to it.
Reading Hitchens and Judge, you simply wouldn’t believe that we lived in a society which has an established church to which the Head of State must belong. Or that the Church of England is guaranteed seats in Parliament as a right. Or that the national broadcasting company is required to transmit over 100 hours of religious material every year including a guaranteed peak time radio spot for proselytisers every morning.
In this “unpleasant new country in which we are now trapped” over one third of state-funded schools are controlled by religious organisations (overwhelmingly Christian) and the present government are encouraging the establishment of hundreds more under the academies and free schools programme.
If only the ideas of socialism could have “persecution” like this.