The most surprising aspect of Paul Givan’s ‘conscience clause’ is that not one single DUP MLA, MP, MEP or councillor seems to oppose it. In other words, not one single elected representative of our largest political party seems to have any particular difficulty with a proposed change to the law which would allow them to treat members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender community differently.
None of these people are doing anything which is criminal and yet the DUP wants the right – and it is a right they are talking about – to treat them as though they were base, immoral, unnatural or obnoxious.
Speaking on BBC’s The View on Thursday evening Givan also supported the position – although it doesn’t form part of his conscience clause proposals – that Christian owners of a bed and breakfast guesthouse should be able to refuse accommodation to unmarried heterosexual couples as well as gay couples. That’s people like me he’s talking about: I’m one half of a heterosexual unmarried couple (neither of us is religious, either) and if Givan owned a guesthouse he would clearly like the option of being able to turn me away. And since I’m not hearing any objections from anyone in the DUP I can only presume that they all believe that I’m ‘practising a lifestyle’ which they find both objectionable and inferior to their own.
Let’s, for the sake of argument, accept that the conscience clause became law here (which I happen to think is very unlikely, by the way). How would those who want to use it let the rest of us know? Would businesses have to put notices on their windows and front doors informing potential customers “we reserve the right to refuse to provide some services because our religious beliefs prevent us from doing anything which we think endorses beliefs and lifestyles which we view as objectionable and opposed to the teachings of our God”?
How would we even know what they were likely to regard as objectionable? I know many Christians who have no difficulties whatsoever with homosexuality; whose own heterosexual children are in long term and very stable co-habiting relationships; who don’t subscribe to young earth creationism; and who take a fairly relaxed approach to what are often described as “the difficult bits of the bible”.
Some congregations are welcoming to Christian homosexuals (far more than you would imagine), while others aren’t.
Since the conscience clause became a matter of public debate I have heard pro and anti arguments from people who describe themselves as Christians: leaving me with the very clear impression that this isn’t so much about protecting the rights of all Christians as protecting the particular and narrow rights of those who could be described as ‘fundamentalists’.
No Christian should be asked to do anything that would be considered – even by atheists like me – to be grossly offensive to their core beliefs. In fact no one should ever be asked to do that.
But nor should some Christians (and it is important to remember that many Christians don’t support a conscience clause) be afforded the legal right to discriminate against someone or refuse them particular services because of passages in the bible which they believe to be the ‘word of God’. Homosexuality is not illegal. Living together as an unmarried couple is not illegal. Many of the lifestyles that some Christians regard as objectionable or ungodly are not illegal.
I don’t believe that Christians anywhere in the United Kingdom are, as some of them argue, being ‘persecuted’ for their beliefs. They can go to church as and when they choose to. They can pray every day. They can lead open and public lives. Their ministers and leaders still have enormous influence at national and local level. They have no fear of arrest or imprisonment for their beliefs. What they don’t have, though, is the right to insist that they are so special that their objections to the lifestyles of others should be given some sort of legal protections.
That Christianity is now a minority interest in the United Kingdom has nothing to do with homosexuals, unmarried couples or even atheists. Life has changed. Beliefs have changed. Knowledge has expanded. Science provides answers. People are less willing to be corralled and instructed. The church (in the broadest sense of the term) itself has also changed and adapted down the centuries.
I’m a secularist and generally speaking I’m happy to live and let live. There are lots of things I hear and read every day that I regard as either nonsensical or offensive – and most of which I’ve addressed in columns and commentary down the years.
I don’t believe in God, but nor do I attack those who do. Putting up with what you find offensive is part and parcel of living in a democracy and I’d much rather live in a democracy than a dictatorship or a theocracy.
Christians are just one of the many groups that make up our increasingly multi-cultural, multi-belief, multi-identity society. That’s a fact of life they will have to get used to. If they have difficulty rendering unto Caesar or accepting how the state recognises and accommodates ‘difference’ then that is something they will have to sort out for themselves.
Seeking refuge in the right to ignore reality and the additional right to impose their ‘conscience’ on others is probably the very worst thing they could do.