Last Thursday, a leading UK judge, Lord Justice Laws, ruled that religious belief was “irrational”, had “no basis in fact” and that laws protecting freedom of conscience and religion were bound to lead to theocracy.
His comments came as he ruled against Gary McParlane, a Christian sex therapist who refused to work with homosexuals because of his religious convictions.
Lord Justice Laws opined that, while people had the right to hold religious beliefs, those beliefs had no right to special legal treatment. Religious faith, he said was “necessarily subjective” and therefore laws protecting religion in the workplace couldn’t be justified.
However, the UK courts have recently awarded Mr Tim Nicholson £42,200 for his wrongful dismissal by a property firm, after he argued that he was sacked over his environmental beliefs.
This follows a ruling by Mr Justice Burton last year, which held that Mr Nicholson’s “philosophical belief” in man-made global warming was on a par with religious belief and must therefore be given legal protection under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, issued under the 1972 European Communities Act to implement EC directive 2000/78.
Mr Justice Michael Burton said that “a belief in man-made climate change … is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations”.
In other words, a law designed to bar religious discrimination can now be used to allow discrimination against someone’s beliefs so long as these are based on religion, despite the fact that the law specifically mentions religion as a ground under which people cannot be discriminated.
On the other hand, as Christopher Booker put it in the Telegraph at the weekend, “the same law must protect someone’s belief so long as it is not based on religion – eg a devout faith in man-made global warming”.
The difference in treatment raises a question in our own domestic arena. Green Party junior minister Ciaran Cuffe has stubbornly refused to allow religious believers an amendment protecting their conscience in the context of the Government’s Civil Partnership bill.
Mr Cuffe, and his Government colleague Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern, have insisted that such an amendment would give rise to baleful “unintended consequences”.
The question is this: In the UK, the courts have acknowledged that the sincerely held beliefs of a climate change campaigner give rise to certain conscience rights. As a fellow environmentalist, does Mr Cuffe believe this is a positive thing?
And if he does, does he believe that this species of rights only belongs to environmentalists, or others with whom he agrees? Or should this standard be applicable across the board?
If he believes that religion ought to be excluded from such protection, is there a first principles reason that he can advance, or is it simply that he doesn’t like or agree with religion?