Attorney General questions Supreme Court ruling in Bull B&B case

photo-13The 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…”

False Equivalence

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.

Unaccountable Courts

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.

John Larkin appeared to challenge the very nature of the Supreme Court and the impact of European legislation on the UK.

Rights

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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.”

Conclusions

The AG was challenging, interesting and in my opinion largely right. Here’s my take-aways:

  1. A hierarchy of rights is developing and freedom of religion and conscience is being relegated through misunderstanding.
  2. Behaviour is inextricably linked to belief.
  3. Courts are unaccountable and this is dangerous for society.
  4. Rights are often used to dress up desires and aspirations.
  5. An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties.
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4 thoughts on “Attorney General questions Supreme Court ruling in Bull B&B case

  1. Beliefs and behaviours are absolutely linked, but just because you have a belief does not automatically entitle you to act on that in any manner you choose. In this case, it seems fairly clear cut to me. When they opened the B&B, they made the business subject to the law of the land. That law states you cannot discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. The B&B owners did and were punished in accordance with that law. Religious freedom is not about being able to discriminate but is about not being discriminated against, which is why the statement you put “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.” is a very important point.

    Having said that, and just to muddy the waters a bit, there are many Christians who will argue that homosexuality is in fact not a sin. Who’s correct? Scholars and theologians are still debating that today (as they were debating the biblical stance on inter-racial marriages decades ago; seems there is nothing new going on). Each believe their interpretation is correct. I would actually go further and say the B&B couple are not even following the teachings of Jesus by refusing the couple a bed for the night which is a whole other discussion. So can the law make a ruling based on one sections interpretation of a religious book? I would argue no.

    • Graham,
      thanks for the comments. The case is interesting and the AG’s comments have certainly made me think. He went on to say that if Mr & Mrs Bull “were to refuse to serve food 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.” And one more quote, “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.”
      You said the B&B owners were punished in accordance with the law. But there were conflicting rights here and the fact that the case went to the Supreme Court shows the law was, at the very least, uncertain. The AG made the point that freedom of conscience is usually listed as the first or primary right. In his view a more reasonable accommodation should have been sought respecting this.
      On your biblical interpretation point, the rightness or wrongness isn’t actually relevant to the AG’s point especially as the majority of Christians understand the text to say homosexual behaviour is wrong. Though the text is surprisingly clear on this issue and only a small minority challenge the orthodox interpretation and rarely on textual grounds, its usually a cultural/pastoral argument.

      • Thank you for your response. I agree that by it going to Supreme Court shows the law seems to be uncertain regarding conflict of rights, it’s just that this particular case it seems clear cut to me; but I freely admit I’m not a lawyer and the law never seems to be clear cut. “Freedom of conscience” is probably a good example; what exactly does that mean? What does that look like in practice? Without careful and robust meanings it seems just an excuse to do whatever I want and get away with it.

        Re: contextual understanding of homosexuality, I think it is relevant to a degree. If the B&B owners are going to say “it’s against my religion”, but then someone comes along and says “hang on a minute, I’m of that religion and no it isn’t”; how does the law proceed? We’re back to this freedom of conscience, but is that then a separate argument to freedom of religion? One is individual the other is a group. You can quote numbers but numbers change as time goes on; there are many passages that we interpret very differently now to the past and those previous interpretations are now held only by a minority; all of which I think should be irrelevant to the law or all held equally.

  2. Pingback: Judge wrong to condemn Christian B&B owners | public theology

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