Tag Archives: politics

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.

Dying to be dignified?

MSP Margo MacDonald suffers from Parkinson’s disease. She would like to be allowed, legally, to end her life if her condition deteriorates.

Yesterday, she introduced to the Scottish Parliament a Bill proposing the legalisation of assisted suicide. She said that its intention was to allow those who suffer from terminal and degenerative conditions “to bring their life to an end before nature would decree”. Speaking, she said, from a personal perspective, this was “the point at which public policy meets personal morality”; that dying is part of living, and that the end of a person’s life should not be something over which they are refused the right to choose.

Assisted suicide is of course a hotly debated subject both in the UK and elsewhere. Although it’s legal in Switzerland, assisted suicide is illegal in the UK. Possible legalisation continues to be discussed, however, and In September 09 England’s Department for Public Prosecutions published interim guidance on the circumstances to be taken into account in determining whether prosecutions are likely to be pursued. The Lord Advocate, who has equivalent responsibilities for criminal prosecutions in Scotland, resisted calls to follow suit.

The Bill now before the Scottish Parliament will force the state to address an issue that is bound to be divisive. Whatever the outcome, large proportions of the electorate will be consider that the legislature has failed. However, speaking in December 2008 MacDonald argued, convincingly, for the need for public debate: suicide is no longer a crime, and in the Catholic church it is no longer a cardinal sin. Why then, one might ask, should it be illegal to assist someone in doing something that isn’t a crime? The need for public discussion is clear, and she is to be thanked for raising the profile so that there can be a mature conversation in Scotland.

As part of a Panorama documentary in 2008, MacDonald is filmed investigating how others have identified the means to commit suicide. Watch the clip here. I couldn’t help but share her sense of horror at the desperation that someone must be feeling to get to the point where an “exit hood”  might seem to be a viable, or the only, option.

If I am honest, it seemed sordid. But would making the process more “humane”, more “clinical” be more dignified? And are dignity and choice the major criteria we should be adopting? Or is our view too narrow? Is the issue perhaps also about our attitude to death itself, and about where that attitude comes from? Perhaps, in fact, it goes to the very core of who we understand ourselves to be.

We should consider carefully the extent to which parliament should intervene here.

Margo MacDonald is right that this issue rests at the interface of public policy and morality. But it also asks us to address whether morality extends beyond the personal realm. If there is a God, what would his view be?

Biblical references on state-issued weapons

The BBC News website reported last night that the military in the US and the UK have purchased and are using in active combat weapons whose sights contain biblical references. 

The references apparently read “2Cor4:6” and “Jn8:12”, which are to the following verses:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

I’m all for opportunities for people to hear and respond to the gospel. But can it really be appropriate to reference the “tools of the trade” (if you will) of an employee (here,  a soldier) of our armed forces with biblical material? And if the message in these references was taken to heart, would our soldiers be at arms in the first place?

The US manufacturer of the sights, Trijicon, is run by Christians.  Trijicon says of itself:

“We believe that America is great when its people are good. This goodness has been based on biblical standards throughout our history and we will strive to follow those morals”

What about Exodus 20:13?

(thanks to Lauren)

Jesus killed my political apathy

Politics. The mere presence of the header was enough. My right forefinger twitched: “click”. Previous page, please. I don’t want to read political garbage. Life’s too short. I’m not interested in stupid games.

That’s how I used to approach things: apathetic.

It’s not that I didn’t care about the world: homelessness, poverty, famine, the environment, war. But  these are huge, complex problems, aren’t they? I doubted they could be solved. I doubted that politicians could see beyond their personal career aspirations to want to solve them. Therefore engaging with politics seemed pointless. I was busy enough, after all, taking care of my own happiness: building a career, financial security and success. Other people and “bigger” issues came second.

Perhaps that sounds callous. Or maybe you and I have a common thread of experience.

Now fast forward 3 years. It’s 2010.

Things have changed – or at least have started changing. Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t excitedly leap out of bed each morning to scour the headlines for the latest political heist, and I don’t much care about whether Gordon Brown or David Cameron is having the better week. Nevertheless, issues that politicians get involved in catch my attention now. Why?

My faith has started to have an impact on this part, as on other parts, of my life. There are over 8000 verses in the New Testament. At least 718 of them deal with issues of poverty and justice. That’s nearly 10% of the whole thing, and the proportion is similar when you include Old Testament references. Jesus is recorded as talking about these issues at on at least 290 different occasions (The Poverty and Justice Bible). Perhaps, then, it’s unsurprising that as I read more about God’s plan for the world, what he’s doing in it, I find myself challenged to get involved.

Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

That’s what Jesus did – not by becoming an MP or a high flying executive, but instead by understanding the political world around him and then engaging it in God’s way, on God’s terms. His actions were both profoundly political and profoundly simple. He got stuck right in, loving people without compromise and refusing to allow love’s expression to be limited by state politics. It was a love so radical as to see him tortured and killed.

As I look at pictures of the injured and bereaved of Haiti, I don’t know what to do to help.  I’m disappointed with myself for my lack of knowledge of these peoples’ plight; with my lack of concern about how they might be helped; for my lack of knowledge about the political system of which I’m a part. I’m frustrated: as I read of responses by governments and charities, the power of nations like the USA and the UK over Haiti is obvious, and though there’s huge potential to help, there are even bigger questions about how best to do so, and a huge risk of entrapment for the Haitians of the future if the wrong approach is adopted.

Do we really know the best ways to go about helping Haiti in the long term? Of seeing the Haitians liberated?  And do we honestly desire to identify them? Naomi Klein spells out the dangers. Bill Quigley suggests positive actions.

I have no idea exactly how the biblical principles I believe should be worked out in the world in this instance. Politics are so complicated. Thank God for the aid agencies working round the clock to bring relief, for the people who have chosen to give sacrificially of themselves to help.

Even while I’m so aware of my inadequacy, though, I see that something has changed in me. I thank God that he gives me a desire, nowadays, to love others: that I am affected by these events in a way I never was “before”, so that thoughts translate into action. I thank him that he loves the people of Haiti as he loves me, and that we have an opportunity to see positive change start as the Hatian people, over the enxt months and years, begin to rebuild.

So here’s my resolve: to get informed, at least a little, and take an interest, armed with what little knowledge I glean, in the actions of my state and of NGO’s. Which means that even I, the most apathetic non-politician I ever knew, am going to have to engage.

How about you?

Wise words for Spin Doctors?

Alastair Campbell doesn’t “do” God. However, Blogging about his appearance yesterday at the Iraq Inquiry, he says:

Among the private messages I got in advance were some from former Iraqi exiles I mentioned in my evidence, some of whom are now back in Iraq and say despite all the problems their country without Saddam is a better place and one where democracy is beginning alongside, by their standards, normal life.

I am amazed too how many people, though they know I don’t do God, sent me passages from the Bible. As I walked through the media scrum on the way in, and on the way out, and listened to some of the overblown and agenda driven commentary, I was glad to have read in the morning an email with Psalm 56 attached … ‘What can mortal man do to me?’ it asks ‘All day long they twist my words, they are always plotting to harm me. They conspire, they lurk, they watch my steps, eager to take my life…’ I never detected a death plot among the British media, but the rest of it sums up the Westminster lobby to a tee.

And no, I’m still not doing God, but as Neil Kinnock once said to me, I sometimes think it’s a shame we’re atheists, because some of the best lines are in the good book.

It seems even spin doctors find comfort in the Bible. Campbell might not believe in God, but it seems maybe God still believes in him…

hat tip: Church Mouse

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?

God is back.

51mgL9sKssL._SL500_AA240_God thrives in the midst of healthy competition.  Arguments and stances against God can turn out to be some of the best adverts for him. In the UK, you only have to look at the media coverage generated by arguments by people like Dawkins and the London Buses campaign against God’s existence to see people who might never otherwise have stopped to think about it pause to consider what they really believe.  Meanwhile, in countries like as China, where Christianity is outlawed, despite persecution of Jesus’ followers there’s evidence of some of the most remarkable church growth seen anywhere.

In an article published in The Scotsman today John Micklethwait says that when the Economist, of which he’s the Editor, published God’s Obituary in its Millenium issue, its prediction of faith’s demise was misguided.  Now, he says, the message is that God is Back. He’s written a book explaining why.

Not only is God back, but he suggests that the more modern our society gets (and Economist-style, he harks back to arguments between David Hume and Adam Smith to substantiate his position), the more evident it becomes that as humans we are fundamentally theocentric. Rather than killing religion, democracy and markets, technology and reason are combining to make it stronger. The crux of the argument is this: modernity provides choice; choice gives rise not to increasing secularism but to pluralism; and where there’s pluralism we’re forced to make decisions. That goes for making decisions about our belief in God as much as anything else. There’s no such thing as not making a decision about it – arguably, a failure to decide for God implicity results in a decision against him. 

The good news for God, argues Micklethwait, is that we want to believe in him. Given a chance to believe, we’ll do so.  The election of President Obama, he suggests, will be a great sales appointment for God:

“Imagine you are a young accountant in Edinburgh or a young financier in Glasgow; the picture of Obama as a young, liberally minded metrosexual walking into a church in Chicago and finding some kind of meaning in his life is … powerful…

[Religion] is something that’s going to be around and is spreading and will affect politics and public life.”

I hope so.