This was the question posed in a Radio 4 Today programme interview recently (http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9420000/9420781.stm)
The debate was between barrister Paul Diamond and former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer. Diamond had represented the foster parents – caring, loving and black (which is relevant because black foster parents, like Asian and other ethnic minorities are in short supply) – who had (apparently) been barred from fostering because of their Christian beliefs. Specifically, their belief that homosexuality was a sin.
I’d admittedly felt some sympathy with the foster parents. Given the shortage of such people willing to give a loving home to children who’d otherwise be condemned to a life in care homes, was the gay issue really such an important one? Didn’t we all have views that might mitigate against us in some circumstances, and would they really be any less loving because of their stance?
I haven’t read the full judgement, but first of all Lord Falconer explained that, as a matter of fact, they hadn’t been barred from fostering: the judges had ruled, rather, that each case would need to be judged on its individual merits. They might be barred from fostering in some instances. So, all was not how it had been portrayed at the the time.
The argument on Today, however, went beyond this particular case, to the more general one of whether Christians (it seems to be Christians who make the most noise about this, believing as some do that they are uniquely discriminated against) are being treated unfairly by the law. To put it another way, if the law is at odds with your Christian beliefs, should you be free to disregard it? And if you’re not, isn’t this a denial of your human rights?
More often than not, it’s the so-called Christian belief that homosexuality is sinful, and an aberration that warrants ‘correction,’ that is at the root of many of these arguments. It was what hit the headlines when the people running the B and B refused to allow a gay couple to share a room, on the grounds that they (the owners) had a right to decide what was and what was not acceptable in their own homes. The court ruled against them – rightly in my view – on the grounds that they were running a business, and so the ‘privacy of their own home argument’ did not wash.
What is infuriating about all these cases is the too often unspoken assumption that to be Christian is to be anti-gay: that a belief that homosexuality is wrong, or against nature, is a basic tenet of Christianity. Alongside this assumption, is another: that those Christians who are homophobic, are that way because they are Christians. It’s a subtle but important distinction: there will be those who genuinely believe that because of some few and obscure verses in the Bible (which of course, they would argue, has to be taken literally) it is impossible to accept gay relationships as ‘normal.’ But, without being able to measure it precisely, I’m pretty sure that there are many thousands who use their Christian belief to justify their homophobic attitudes.
But in the great debate about whether religious beliefs should trump the law – and the answer from Lord Falconer was, as you might expect, that they shouldn’t – there is the glaring anomaly that is rarely mentioned: namely, that the church remains above the law in this and other discriminatory practices (against women, for example, which is another story altogether).
While the C of E declares that lay people who have entered a civil partnership will not be questioned about the nature of their relationship (ie whether it’s sexual or not) before being admitted to baptism, confirmation or communion, the church will not allow the blessing of such partnerships. And while it will not exclude gay and lesbian lay people from the worshipping community, it won’t ordain practising homosexuals.
Apart from in the Christian organisations and groups (Inclusive Church, Modern Church, Affirming Liberalism, among others) who’re dedicated to a scholarly and considered approach to these and other issues of morality and discrimination, it’s rare to hear from the mainstream churches an objection to the almost casual definition of all Christians as anti-gay. Maybe they’re afraid of upsetting the faithful in the pews. But if there’s a single church member who doesn’t have a gay relative or friend within their circle of acquaintances, I’d be more than a bit surprised. And I’d be even more surprised if they didn’t welcome the opportunity to discuss it, with an open mind and a readiness to share their own experiences.