Does Northern Ireland need a Bill of Rights? Is Equality a Biblical value? Are human rights all about me?
These were some of the questions addressed at today’s The Church in the Public Square conference organised by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Focussing on the topics of Equality, Freedom and Religion it it was perhaps appropriate that as delegates arrived the music wafting up from the Spires shopping arcade underneath the conference venue was “I can’t get no satisfaction”!
Chief Equality Commissioner Michael Wardlow addressed the not-exclusively Presbyterian audience as a practicing Christian. Some in the audience would be critical of his participation in the Equality Commission, never mind its policies and pronouncements. Time doesn’t allow me to transcribe Michael’s every word, but you can pick up the gist of his fast-paced talk by flicking through the slides.
What we have from the Bible is not a bland, levelling equality: rather we have an equality that is the by-product of love – the seeking of an imbalance in favour of the other according to his or her needs. [emphasis added]
Reminding the audience that discrimination is not necessarily unlawful, Michael highlighted examples of mass discrimination throughout history and explained the Equality Commission’s scope and framework.
Legislation is like scaffolding built up around a building until it becomes stable.
Two case studies looked at religion and gender, with legislation assisting a big improvement in the Catholic workforce, though a more patchy increase in female representation in different jobs.
Michael finished his prepared address with a call for a generosity:
If we’re people enthused with grace, our grace needs to be imbued with generosity.
Responding to questions after his talk, Michael rejected the suggestion that the Equality Commission was targeting Christians. Due to the stage in the process that has been reached, he was limited in what he could say about the Ashers Bakery “cake” complaint, but he explained the process that the Equality Commission follows and the questions that are asked:
- Is there a point of law that hasn’t been tested?
- Is it an unrepresented group?
- The commission doesn’t go out looking for complaints: they wait for people to get in touch.
- Their legal funding committee considers applications.
- Every year ECNI supports about 80 cases of which about 10 end up in court.
While numbers were down on the first Public Square conference earlier this year, there was representation in the room from many political parties and public bodies like the PSNI.
Two other speakers addressed the delegates.
Roger Trigg (the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Warwick) who spoke about “Religious Freedom in a Secular Society”, taking a reasonably defensive approach to the conflict he saw between religion and an emerging egalitarian orthodoxy. His comments about the need for “conscience clauses” in legislation triggered a reaction from the National Secular Society!
Colin Harvey (Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen’s University of Belfast) who spoke on “Faith in Human Rights and Equality”, encouraging the church to re-engage with the language of and discourse in human rights, conduct “healing conversations” round complicated and difficult issues .
“Human rights are intrinsically relational and social … If I engage in the public square and I argue for human rights, surely I am not in the public square simply arguing that only Colin Harvey has human rights. At the core of the argument for human rights is that all human persons should have these rights as well. It’s an awful tragedy in much of the modern portrayal of human rights that that social and relational, understanding of human rights belonging to all human beings universally is neglected and underplayed in favour of a more individualistic discourse of human rights.”
Colin felt that a Bill of Rights would be for the benefit of everyone rather than any particular group or section of society promoting its introduction. Arguing for the right of religious expression and the right not to be discriminated against would by its very nature also support religious pluralism.
If the only time I hear my voice out loud in the public square is talking about me, I worry about that. I think human rights for me starts with the human rights of the other, how we can better serve the other and a recognition of the humanity of the other … a recognition of who is my neighbour.
Widened the scope, Colin asked delegates to stand up for the rights and welfare of refugees, asylum seekers and the millions forcibly displaced across the world. He dared the delegates (and implicitly the church) to go beyond food banks and to find out how human rights could challenge the economic structures that make foodbanks a reality today.