The Attorney General appeared to challenge the correctness of the Supreme Court ruling in the case of the Bulls who refused a gay couple a double bed in their B&B. My final post on ‘The Church in the Public Square?’ event will look at some of the comments made by John Larkin. He is the Attorney General for Northern Ireland and a man I have had the privilege of having had lead me in a case in my previous life as a barrister. Alan in Belfast and others have helpfully made available more of John Larkin’s speech on the topic of ‘Do Christians have rights?’ for those who want the detail. His comments have since been described as ‘not very seemly’ by Joshua Rosenberg on Sunday Sequence (about 59 minutes in). Rosenberg seemed to misunderstand Larkin’s key point that belief and behaviour are inextricably linked.
Larkin commented that the Bull case was immensely important and is a very strong example of the clash of rights – between the right against discrimination and the right to manifest religious beliefs in practice and observance. Baroness Hale bore the brunt of his attacked. She had said, “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 and 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.”
Larkin rightly noted that these words were unlikely to reassure Christians, mainly because of “extent of the failure to understand the orthodox Christian position.” He observed that, “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, the Christian believes, is to be complicit in the sin…”
In his opinion Baroness Hale had offered ‘a false equivalence’ and he continued, “she doesn’t appear to appreciate the nature of Christian objection”. His summary was clear, “I do think that a Christian in business should not be placed in a position in which he now seems placed by the Supreme Court decision in Bull and Hall where she or he must choose between withdrawing from business or being complicit in what the Christian must regard as deeply sinful.”
In Mr Larkin’s view it would entirely consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights to allow Christians and other persons of faith to manifest their beliefs in their businesses and professions subject to a general public order limitation.
Many recent decisions have tried to draw a distinction between belief and behaviour – it is OK for Christians to believe something, but it is a problem if they act on that belief. Joshua Rosenberg seemed to endorse this idea during his Sunday Sequence interview. But this is a false dichotomy – belief changes behaviour. Mr Larkin gets this and further understands that it does ‘violence’ to people’s beliefs if they are complicit in an act which is deeply sinful. He also seems aware that if the court continues on its current trajectory, Christians will find themselves excluded from areas of work or business.
Mr Larkin continued by challenging the unaccountable nature of judges and courts. He believes it is important to see courts as part of government. Is it possible for courts to act oppressively and if so what safeguard do we have? We can change our MPs – the executive branch – on election day. What about judges? They are all too often appointed by other judges, with little input from the public.
He referred to a 1844 House of Lords decision in R v Millis which has since been considered laughably wrong by legal scholars . At the time Parliament passed legislation including interim legislation to remedy the wrong. Larkin suspected if a comparable decision in terms of social offence were to emerge from the ECJ, Parliament’s ability to redress the situation would be much more limited today.
In passing John Larkin had noted that Amnesty’s slogan ‘love is a human right’ might be good for campaigning, but it is legally meaningless.
He concluded by returning to the issue of rights, noting that the law shouldn’t try to do to much. He quoted Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter Charity and Truth.
“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.”
The AG was challenging, interesting and in my opinion largely right. Here’s my take-aways:
- A hierarchy of rights is developing and freedom of religion and conscience is being relegated through misunderstanding.
- Behaviour is inextricably linked to belief.
- Courts are unaccountable and this is dangerous for society.
- Rights are often used to dress up desires and aspirations.
- An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties.