Churches bringing warmth to the public square & Attorney General John Larkin taking exception to Supreme Court judgement against Christian B&B owners

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland organised a conference yesterday looking at the Church in the Public Square. [Ed – not a new idea.] Two to three hundred people attended: ministers (both clerical and political), laity, as well as representatives from many organisations and faiths. Audio of the three keynote speakers is now available on the PCI website, and I’ll follow-up with a post over on Alan in Belfast in a day or two. In the meantime some snippets that might delight or frustrate Slugger readers.

Donald MacleodThe former principal of Free Church of Scotland College Rev Prof Donald Macleod – who hails from the Isle of Lewis – argued that the church should be in the centre of the public square and not lurking in the corner. He finished his talk by picking up on a definition of democracy and argued that if “the people are now the ruling class” then they need to be politically educated, and churches owe this education to their members.

The ballot box provides political power. Donald Macleod asked:

But how will they cast their vote? Will they cast it for the benefit of the educated, the successful, the affluent? Or cast it for those in the basement and for the submerged poor?

Do we ask not what can this government do for me, but what can it do for – generically – the poor? Harold Wilson said famously that elections are won or lost by the pound in your pocket. Is that a Christian’s vote? The people are now the ruling class. Your congregations belong to that ruling class.

Having worked to eliminate pauperism in Glasgow’s east end, Thomas Chalmers’ legacy in the city was summed up as: “He warmed it”.

And that perhaps is our calling as Christians, as the church, in the public square, to bring warmth into civic life. Not higher standards first and foremost, not law and order, not discipline, but warmth. Individuals and formal governance which are compassionate, which bring hope which bring love, which bring affirmation. You bear God’s image, you matter to God and you matter to us.

John Larkin QCAt the other end of the conference, Attorney General John Larkin QC delivered an address on the topic of rights. Having examined the ways in which rights are conveyed on people, and quoted widely from Aristotle, Aquinas, Isaiah, and European legislation, he turned his gaze to the recent British Supreme Court ruling which upheld a judgement against Christian guesthouse owners Mr & Mrs Bull who refused to provide accommodation to a gay couple.

Describing it as “a recent concrete example of where conflicting models of rights have been publicly examined in court”, Northern Ireland’s Attorney took exception to Baroness Hale’s judgement and launched a judicial broadside from the podium. It was a very deliberate section in his forty minute address – the Irish Times and News Letter picked up on it this morning – and I quote what he said at length.

Christians – and I think particularly in the period after Christmas – are, or should be, sensitive to the plight of persons who cannot find accommodation. It is one thing, I suppose, to find that there is no room at the inn. But disappointing as that may be, it is another to find that there is no room at the inn for you because of some characteristic that you possess.

In November of last year the UK Supreme Court held that Mr & Mrs Bull, a Christian couple who ran a small hotel, unlawfully discriminated against Mr Preddy and Mr Hall – a homosexual couple who’d booked overnight accommodation in the hotel – on the grounds of the sexual orientation of Mr Preddy and Mr Hall. It was held by the Supreme Court that the right of Mr & Mrs Bull to practice their Christian faith did not permit them to reserve double-bedded accommodation to married couples.

Bull & Hall is an immensely important case, and it is a very strong example of the clash of rights. The claim on one hand by Mr Preddy and Mr Hall founded in domestic law not to be discriminated against on the ground of their sexual orientation and on the other hand the right of Mr & Mrs Bull under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Section 6 of The Human Rights Act to manifest their religious beliefs in practice and observance …

For the purposes of this talk I want to focus on a single paragraph in the opinion of Baroness Hale. In paragraph 54 of her opinion in Bull against Hall Baroness Hail says this:

“There is no question of replacing “legal oppression of one community (homosexual couples) with legal oppression of another (those sharing the defendants’ beliefs). If Mr Preddy and Mr Hall ran a hotel which denied a double room to Mr & Mrs Bull, whether on the ground of their Christian beliefs or on the ground of their sexual orientation, they would find themselves in the same situation that Mr and Mrs Bull find themselves today.”

If these words are intended by Baroness Hale to be reassuring to Christians I do not think their intended outcome is likely to be achieved. What is striking in the passage I’ve just quoted is, it seems to me, the extent of the failure to understand the orthodox Christian position.

I don’t know if Mr & Mrs Bull serve meals in their establishment. But if they did so, and if they were to refuse to serve food for example to Mr Preddy and Mr [Hall] on the grounds of their sexual orientation that would be not only unlawful I think – it’s a matter of domestic law – but also incapable I think of moral justification.

On the other hand, a Christian who wishes to adhere to traditional Christian moral principles cannot without committing serious sin make available premises to facilitate a purpose which that Christian believes to be gravely sinful. To do so, a Christian believes, is to be complicit in the sin that one thereby facilitates.

[This argument of course assumes that hotel owners believe that every couple occupying a hotel room with a double bed – no matter their sexuality – will definitely have sex in it rather than just fall soundly asleep. How gravely sinful is it to suspect something might happen some of the time but not to be sure how often? Perhaps it just is …]

In the passage that I’ve just quoted from Baroness Hale she offers in fact a false equivalence. And she does not appear to appreciate the nature of the Christian objection.

A homosexual couple who ran a hotel would not be troubled on some philosophical ground connected with their homosexuality at the thought of a Christian married couple occupying a room in their hotel. A homosexual couple who ran a hotel would endanger neither their orientation nor any belief connected to it by having a Christian couple occupying a room in their hotel.

On the other hand, for a Christian couple to make accommodation which they consider ought to be reserved for married couples available to unmarried couples does violence to their beliefs and makes them complicit in what they regard as deeply sinful.

Taking the matter outside the fraught area of sexual orientation the question might simply be asked: if a Christian couple who refuse to let the boyfriend or girlfriend of one of their children share a room with them in the family home or – taking it further – a holiday home, including perhaps a holiday home available for commercial letting, should they be permitted to do so …

It strikes me that in a society such as ours in which there are many beliefs and interests that we ought to be capable of having a better go at reconciling them. For myself I see no reason why some boor for his won obscure reasons doesn’t like homosexual people should be able to deny services to them as an expression of his own dislike. The law prohibits such a denial of services and in my view, rightly so.

On the other hand I do believe that a Christian in business should not be placed in a position – a position in which he is now it seems placed – by the Supreme Court decision in Bull & Hall in which she or he must choose between either withdrawing from business or becoming complicit in what a Christian must regard as deeply sinful.

In my view, if the legislature were following due reflection to give weight to the right of Christians and other persons of faith to manifest their beliefs in their businesses and professions subject to a general public order limitation – I don’t for example think that followers of Mithra should be able to slaughter bulls publicly in the high street then that is likely in my view to be entirely consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights.

John Larkin went on to suggest that the delegates “see courts as part of government and not as some collective of saintly NGOs”!

The Attorney General steered his speech in the Presbyterian Assembly Hall around the final corner with the words:

Let me commend to you the following as a statement of correct principle.

“Individual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild leading to an escalation of demands which is effectively unlimited and indiscriminate. An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties.”

That came from Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter Charity and Truth I don’t of course commend it to this body as Papal teaching, but as reasonable and I suggest readily confirmable by our own daily experience.

As a lawyer and not a theologian John Larkin finished his speech with a quote from Ulpian about the central precepts of law:

To Live honestly. To harm no one. And to give each person what is due to him.

Human rights from the second century.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.