OPINION: Christians are being told to leave faith at the door every morning

Former Presbyterian moderator Rev Dr Norman Hamilton
Former Presbyterian moderator Rev Dr Norman Hamilton

Since the appeal processes have just begun in the Ashers bakery case, it will be some considerable time before there are final judgments on the range of issues involved.

Whatever your reaction to the initial court ruling, there is little doubt that it has caused further division and tensions within an already very fractured society.

In recent years much effort has been made to try to heal the deep divisions coming out of conflict.

I suggest that a great deal of effort and wisdom will also be needed if this new division is not going to embed itself deeply amongst us.

At the heart of the problem is that the space for genuine faith in the public square has been steadily getting smaller.

Last week’s court judgment appears to have confirmed this trend. Increasingly we are being told to leave ‘religion’ at the front door of our homes when we set out on our day’s business.

There is, of course, a profound flaw in this assertion.

Nobody else is being asked to leave what matters to them at their front door.

The person with the secularist world view, or the humanist one, or who is an atheist, is free to bring that perspective to their workplace or into the political arena.

Lest I be misunderstood, I absolutely defend their right so to do.

Every person, every part of every society and every community adheres to some values that are important to them.

In a healthy democracy the wide variety of such values and principles provides the necessary framework of checks and balances, so that no one perspective dominates or oppresses.

So there is every reason, including that of equity and equality, for those who have a reasonable and genuine faith position to bring that with them wherever they go, whether it be into politics, public service, or business.

Was William Wilberforce wrong to bring his faith into politics, and campaign against slavery because of his Christian convictions?

Is Her Majesty the Queen culpable for referring to her own deep faith when making her Christmas address to the Commonwealth, given its religious, cultural and ethnic diversity?

Is Christian integrity unacceptable when running a business in 2015? Surely not?

That is why the Presbyterian Church has been promoting the idea that the concept of ‘reasonable accommodation’ should be incorporated into our law.

By this we mean that competing world views and perspectives should be held in creative tension for the benefit of everyone.

We are not seeking either an exemption or an exception from the law for people of faith or anyone else.

We do not want whims of conscience to be allowed free rein, nor freedom of conscience to be a let-out option for any and every preference.

And most certainly we do not want a return to discriminatory attitudes or behaviour.

We are simply arguing that people who have reasonable and deeply held convictions be allowed to express them in a reasonable way in every sphere of life, and that, if necessary, the courts can determine what is and what is not reasonable.

Not to be able to do so inevitably causes resentment, and undermines the credibility of those agencies of government which protect against discrimination.

To argue that conscience does not really matter in a modern pluralist and diverse democracy is to demean the thousands of citizens for whom it does matter, and to undermine the very principle of warm tolerance to which we aspire.

This society knows all too well the pain caused by intolerance and division.

The law should be shaped to ensure that it is reduced, not heightened.

• The Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is former moderator of the Presbyterian Church