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Archbishop's speech on sexual orientation regulations

Wednesday 21st March 2007

In a speech in the House of Lords during the debate on the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has spoken out against proposed legislation saying that the Government was seeking to have "consciences surgically removed" and to introduce a "new hierarchy of rights" where people of faith had become a "new sub-category".

In a wide ranging speech the Archbishop suggested the government had given in to "the emergence of a new kind of secular dogmatism, which seeks to limit the proper sphere of religion to the internal activities of religious organisations".

Quoting William Wilberforce, the Archbishop said that he feared:

"The time is fast approaching when Christianity will be openly disavowed, in language as in fact it is already supposed to have disappeared from the conduct of men: when to believe will be deemed the indication of a feeble mind and contracted understanding."

The Archbishop also suggested that the legislation created a new category of people of faith against whom it would now be legal to discriminate: "Through the most laudable aims of removing discrimination against those who rightly deserve protection, the Government will in effect enshrine in legislation a new sub-category of those whom it will be legal to discriminate against.

"Rather than levelling the playing field for those who suffer discrimination, an aim we fully support, this legislation effects a rearrangement of discriminatory attitudes and bias, so as to overcompensate and to skew the field the other way."


In his speech the Archbishop also argued that the legislation over-reached the proper role of Government in interfering in the content of an individual's religious belief:

"It now seems to me that a legal sausage machine is being created by these regulations, requiring many of us to go through it and come out at the other end, sanitized, and with our consciences surgically removed. The freedom of a good and magnanimous conscience and the voluntary association for the common good cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning."

Dr Sentamu also questioned why the Government had not followed other European Countries, in adopting the legislation in acknowledging the rights of people of faith, whilst the British Government had chosen not to: "The Employment Equality (Religion and Beliefs) Regulations (2003) do in fact provide an opt-out in relation to religious beliefs, and a similar opt-out was granted in the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations issued in 2003. In each of these cases it was recognised that religious organisations, as well as their individual members, were entitled to protection for their individual and collective conscience, recognising that a civilized society should make room for dissenters. Why, in the present regulations, has a similar opt-out not been granted ?"

The Archbishop's full text follows:

My Lords, the German poet Goethe wrote:

"What you have inherited from your forefathers, you must first win for yourself if you are to possess it".

I fear that we are in danger of losing the formative Christian inheritance and foundation of this great nation, a foundation upon which our laws, society and culture have been built, but which is in danger of being undermined—a foundation of meeting the other person halfway.

I, like William Wilberforce, fear that:
"The time is fast approaching when Christianity will be almost as openly disavowed in the language as in fact it is already supposed to have disappeared from the conduct of men . and to believe will be deemed the indication of a feeble mind and a contracted understanding".

In the legislation before us, the Government are venturing down an unconsidered path through the establishment of a new hierarchy of rights.

Through the most laudable aims, which I want to support, of removing discrimination against those who rightly deserve protection, the Government will in effect enshrine in legislation a new sub-category of those whom it will be legal to discriminate against. Rather than levelling the playing field for those who suffer discrimination, an aim I fully support, this legislation effects a rearrangement of discriminatory attitudes and bias to overcompensate and skew the field the other way.

In my maiden speech in this House I expressed the fear that we run the danger of spinning a legal spider's web from which institutions, groups of civil society and members of local communities stood little chance of escaping. It now seems that a legal sausage machine is being creating by the regulations, requiring all of us to go through it and come out the other end, sanitised and with our consciences surgically removed. The freedom of a good and magnanimous conscience and the voluntary association for the common good cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning—a point the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and I raised in our letter to the Prime Minister. Incidentally, the Archbishop unavoidably could not be here, and he sends his apologies.

I have previously referred in this House to Bracton's point that the King or Queen,

"must not be under man but under God and the law, for the law makes the king".

The civil freedom we enjoy in Britain stems from his words, which have regulated all our public servants. That principle meant that it was no longer the case that what pleased the King had the force of law. However, it seems increasingly that we are in danger of reaching the situation that what pleases the Government has the force of law.

The Government have proposed to carry out a discrimination law review in relation to previous equality regulations. Those regulations, like the Northern Ireland regulations, seem to have anticipated the outcome of that review.

As your Lordships know, the sexual orientation regulations arose from a European directive calling for a framework of equal treatment in employment and occupation and outlawing discrimination based on religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. I say amen to that.

The directive also states that the EU,
"respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations". The proposed legislation from our Government has included the work of adoption agencies, which was not specified in other EU countries. In doing so, it has breached the conscience provision already established in law through which, for example, doctors on grounds of conscience may opt not to perform abortions. The right of a woman to an abortion does not give her the right to choose a particular doctor to carry it out. That doctor can opt out.

The Employment Equality (Religion and Beliefs) Regulations 2003 provide an opt-out to religious beliefs and a similar opt-out was also granted inthe Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations in 2003. In each of these cases it was recognised that religious organisations, as well as their individual members, were entitled to protection for their individual and collective conscience, recognising that a civilized society should make room for dissenters. Why, in the present regulations, has a similar balanced approach not been taken as in those previous two sets of regulations? Should we not all learn to live magnanimously with difference and learn attentively to listen?

Other speakers have made the point that we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of secular dogmatism which seeks to limit the proper sphere of religion to the internal activities of religious organisations We must remember that Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights protects not only the holding of beliefs, but also the manifestation of those beliefs in worship, in teaching, in practice and in observance. But we must be clear that "practice and observance" does not mean simply the narrow context of corporate worship.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nicholls, noted in the recent decision of the House of Lords in Regina v Secretary of State for Education and Employment and others ex parte Williamson,

"the tenets of a religion may affect the entirety of a believer's way of life".

He said there were perceived obligations to act in a certain way arising from that belief and that doing so was itself a manifestation of that belief in practice.

In the same case, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Walker, said that,

"the state should, wherever reasonably possible, seek to avoid putting believers to extremely painful and intensely burdensome choices of either being true to their faith or respectful of the law . In matters of human rights the court should not show liberal tolerance only to tolerant liberals".

We must keep in mind the epigram of Montesquieu, that great, great jurist, who said that if mankind was of one mind, and only one man was of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified to silence him than he, if he had the power, to silence mankind.

But how are we to approach the question of conflicting human rights? Professor Raphael Loewe says in his essay Imitatio and Ethics in Judaism and Christianity:

"The whole concept of human rights is one that is alien to rabbinic jurisprudence . All humankind are the reciprocal beneficiaries of the duties which each individual owes to God. It is mercy, loving kindness and reciprocal solidarity which binds together, at the level of both individual and group, superior to inferior, advantaged to disadvantaged, man to God and God to man. It prevents either self-discipline or social responsibility from being ignored. It is walking in all God's ways, deeds of mutual charity. It is the cultivation of submissiveness to the divine will, and praying:

"Subdue thou our self-assertive drive to enslave itself to thee." For the Torah is a golfing umbrella, not an infinitely extensible bus shelter".

This freedom of thought may help us to get out of the quagmire of the human rights debate. These arethe core values of true citizenship, values which were the building blocks that gave nationhood to this nation through the medicine of the Gospel.

Reinventing the wheel is not the problem; it is reinventing the flat tyre that is the killer.

Will the Minister give us some assurance on how Regulation 7 will be handled if it proves problematic in relation to the school curriculum and collective worship? It may prove problematic.

Secondly, I see drafting difficulties in the otherwise very helpful Regulation 14 in relation to religious organisations. How does the Minister intend to iron out these apparent drafting difficulties problems that could have been sorted out had these regulations been subjected to normal parliamentary scrutiny?

That is really my point: if they are not subject to that, it is possible that we will have anomalies throughout the regulations. Time does not allow me to quote any further from my notes. I shall send the Minister a copy of them if she wants me to.

Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that the regulations should be sent back to the drafting board to enable Her Majesty's Government to carry out the necessary balancing of competing rights, as foundin the 2003 regulations. There they succeeded in balancing them out; here I do not think they have succeeded. For that reason I shall be voting with those who are not content with the regulations.

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