Tag Archives: law

B&B case: thoughts on the bigger things

The commentary on the gay/christian thing has been done elsewhere. Instead, here are some thoughts on the bigger issues over at my other blog

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The Equality Bill: mountain or molehill?

The Equality Bill 2009 aims to simplify and modernise UK anti – discrimination legislation. If passed, it will roll up the rules on a broad range of circumstances, currently covered by diverse legislation, into one Act. If it’s done well (which these exercises often aren’t), it’ll be handy for us lawyers.

Over the last month or so there’s been a renewed rumble of concern from within the faith community. What’s the problem? Well, bluntly, it looks like folks are worried that if the Bill is passed as it stands it will undermine the rights of Christian (and other faith) organisations to require that employees share their religious convictions.

The move has been described as a “bid from the marching band of parliamentary secularists to drive religion from the public sphere” by some, whilst one minister in the Equalities Office has admitted churches should be “lining up their lawyers”. So much for balanced discussion.

Much of the media hype around the Equality Bill focuses on concern about restrictions over  the selection criteria religious bodies can impose when recruiting employees. It seems to be being suggested that this will be the first time significant constraints will have been introduced. In fact, however, for the most part the Bill restates principles already in operation in the UK allowing religious organisations to place restrictions on those whom they employ or desist from employing, on grounds of religious conviction.

Under the The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, an employer can restrict applications for a job if they can show that a religious belief is a “genuine occupational requirement” of a role – i.e. that one needs to be of that faith to carry out the actual duties required by the individual position. They must also have regard to  “proportionality” – i.e. the extent to which that is the case. The effect is that for a job to be protected, faith must be central to the particular duties required for its fulfillment. It’s easy to ensure the job description of a minister is safeguarded, but harder to justify the position for, for example, a church office administrator.

Under the proposed legislation, it would remain the case that organisations could, on grounds of religion, continue to impose restrictions, for example on employing those who don’t share their faith, or on employing women.

So what’s the problem? The Christian Institute in one of a number of concerned bodies. It has (to its credit) taken advice from a QC. The matter of greatest concern relates to the wording of the part of the Bill intended to protect individuals against discrimination based on sexual orientation. It is feared that in proposing new, enhanced protection for individuals against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the Bill may erode a church’s freedom not to employ someone on those grounds.

Under the proposed wording of paragraph 2(8) of Schedule 9, the Bill, if passed, will prevent churches from refusing to employ someone on grounds of sexual orientation unless the job in question “wholly or mainly” involves leading worship or teaching doctrine. Churches fear that, for example, were a minister to be asked to leave their post because they were in a gay sexual relationship, then unless the church could show that at least 51% of their time was spent in conducting worship or teaching doctrine, they would be prevented from dismissing him, or from refusing to hire him in the first place.

However, what most people seem to miss is that because religious employers already benefit from protection similar to that under the 2003 Regulations, this would only ever arise in a very small subset of situations. The nub of the issue is a very short point indeed: that a religious body might be prevented from refusing employment to a professing member of their religion solely on the basis of sexual orientation or conduct, unless that person’s main job was to lead worship or teach doctrine.

Viewed in that light, perhaps the sting is taken out of the religious campaigners’ tail?

What I will say is this. Having spent hours getting my head around a long and very complicated Bill, I can vouch for one thing: it is not straight forward. Therefore it is understandable that there are misleading rumours making the rounds. In my view, those on all sides would be well advised to be rather cautious about jumping in at the deep end before ensuring they understand the nature and extent of the issues involved. Maybe I’m dismissing the rumpus too hastily…perhaps this is all, indeed, all very worrying and I have myself misunderstood the legislation – in which case I hope you’ll correct me. As an evangelical christian I am, as you might expect, interested to preserve my freedom to exercise my faith, and my church’s freedom to employ only those who share it. That said, I remain unconvinced that this Act is a serious threat to that. If you think differently, I’d be interested to read why. Comments welcome.

The Death Penalty: Just Deserts or Justice Deserted?

barsIn Texas yesterday another life ended in the USA’s most-used death chamber.

Khristian Oliver was 32 years old. He was declared dead 8 minutes after administration of a lethal injection.

In 1999 Oliver had been convicted of  a murder carried out in the course of a burglary. His victim was shot and beaten to death with the butt of a rifle. He accepted he carried out the shooting.

Texas is one of several US States to retain the death penalty for such cases. However, the decision to impose it on Oliver courted controversy. It was reported that during deliberations on sentencing, the jury brought biblical rather than purely state law into consideration. A juror allegedly read this aloud:

And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.” (Numbers 35:16)

Another juror later reported that about 80% of the jurors had brought scripture into their considerations, considering that if civil law and biblical law were at odds, biblical law should prevail. He’s reported to have said that if he had been told he could not consult the bible, “I would have left the courtroom.” Another said jurors looked to and took comfort from the bible in making their decision.

Oliver’s lawyers appealed on the basis that the Jury ought exclusively to have considered state law in reaching their decision, and that accordingly there had not been a fair trial. They were unsuccessful because although it was established that impermissible information (biblical law) had been taken into consideration, no prejudice had resulted given it had been established that a murder, for which the death penalty was open to the Jury under state law, had been committed.

The death penalty is something that seems to escape our attention much of the time in the UK. It’s not something we think about very much. According to Washington’s Death Penalty Information Centre, there were 3297 convicts on Death Row in January 2009. Between January and October, 42 people were executed. Forty two human lives ended at the hand of the state.

Reflecting on Oliver’s death I’m troubled. I have questions.

How does a “Christian” state justify the death penalty? Can it?

Anyone can pick and verse from the Old Testament to justify a position, but what does Jesus have to say about this situation? What’s the effect of the new covenant on this Old Testament teaching? And what of Jesus teaching here:

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. (Matt 5:38-42)

Where is the interface of justice and mercy here? We’re exhorted “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God“. Is this the face of doing so?