Religious Oppression and the Freedom to Discriminate

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Artwork by Rowan Abbott

In December 2011, the culture secretary Maria Miller announced plans to allow some groups to perform same sex marriages by 2014. This like this for many reasons. I think it is great news for same sex couples who wish to enter into these kind of ceremonies. It’s also a win for gay rights, and equal rights in general (although, I am sympathetic to the view that it misses a larger problem). Finally, it’s a win for religious freedom as some religious groups who want to perform same sex marriages will now be able to do so.

This is only a partial victory though. In one way, a great blow has actually been dealt to religious freedom. This is because Miller also announced that she would actually legally prohibit the Church of England from offering same sex marriages until further legislation was passed. Miller also appeared on Radio 4’s ‘PM’ show along with Peter Smith the Archbishop of Southwark. The Archbishop offered the same old arguments by essentially banging his head repeatedly, against the hard surfaced definition of marriage as ‘between one man and one woman’. You can read my response to this kind of thinking here, but today I’d like to focus on Miller who said “What I’m not about is telling churches or any other religious groups what to do. We believe in religious freedom in this country, and indeed so does the European Court.”.

I do feel for Miller (in spite of her dubious voting record) because I think that she is caught between a rock and a hard place. She is attempting to redress a serious inequality from within a political party of which 40% disagree with her. However, it still remains ludicrous to refer to legislation that would ban Church of England clergy from performing same-sex marriages, as pertaining to ‘religious freedom’.

Comments like these get me wondering about the concept of religious freedom. I am a supporter of religious freedom, but what I cannot stand is when morally reprehensible actions are brought into acceptability under its guise. I think that Maria Miller’s comment is absurd because it suggests that discrimination shouldn’t matter as long as it is in the name of ‘religious freedom’. Furthermore, it puts religious freedoms on a moral pedestal where they are exempt from considerations that apply to all other types of freedoms. Finally, it is hypocritical because this ‘religious freedom’ is actually tantamount to religious oppression for the pro-gay and gay members of the Church of England who would be legally bound not to perform or enter into such unions. The Church of England’s exemption from same sex marriage is unwarranted religious privilege for some and religious oppression for others. It religious freedom for no one.

It’s at times like this that I like to introduce what I call the ‘Racist Freedom Test’. It’s quite a simple but effective test for telling whether a particular religious freedom is actually an inexcusable act of discrimination. Below, I present a three step instruction kit so you can carry out your very own Racist Freedom Test at home:

The Racist Freedom Test.

Step 1:

Take one dubious religious freedom which secures a group’s ability to discriminate against another group of people. It is crucial that this ‘freedom’ is being vehemently defended in spite of common sense and the general public’s opinion. Today I’ll be using the ‘Freedom to Deny Same Sex Couples Marriage Ceremonies’ as this fits the criteria perfectly.

Step 2:

Replace the group which gets discriminated against with an ethnic group. Which ethnic group you pick is up to you, there are many to choose from. Today I’ll be using African Americans as they’ve been a popular choice in the past. As such, the freedom from Step 1 is transformed into the ‘Freedom to deny African Americans Marriage Ceremonies’, or in other words ‘Being Racist’. This is a freedom afforded to, and defended by racists. It’s their racist given right to practice racism freely and it’s racist oppression to deny them of this.

Step 3:

Well done, you’ve created your very own racist freedom. Step back and marvel at it. Now all you have to do is decide whether it’s a freedom worth defending. So: is the ‘Freedom to Deny African Americans Marriage Ceremonies’ a freedom worth defending? No, it is not. In that case you are now in a position to tell the group defending their ‘Freedom to Deny Same Sex Couples Marriage Ceremonies‘ that they are talking bollocks. A big, old pile of hairy bollocks.

Sarcasm momentarily aside, the point is that whilst religious freedom is certainly something worth defending, it’s not always worth defending if it’s the freedom to do something nasty. Not to conflate racism and same-sex discrimination, but if we wouldn’t defend the religious freedom to be racist, why should we defend the religious freedom to discriminate against same sex couples? Those wishing to defend this religious freedom have to explain why it would be so wrong to turn away a black couple who wanted to get married, but fine to shut the door on a same sex couple. Essentially they have the task of denouncing racism, and espousing homophobia. And all in the name of ‘religious freedom’.

It’s unfortunate, but my Racist Freedom Test doesn’t convince everyone. If it’s not for you, then not to worry though! You might find this website interesting. In any case, I have another test up my sleeve which is sure to tickle your fancy! It’s my ‘Non-Religious Freedom Test’. In this test, the freedom to discriminate stays the same, only this time you get to change the group that’s doing the discriminating! Specifically, you change it to a non-religious group. This test is really good for telling whether a group should be allowed to practice discrimination on a religious basis. If you’re still a bit confused, then why not take a look at my easy-to-follow three step instruction kit:

The Non-Religious Freedom Test.

Step 1:

Take one religious group which champions the freedom to discriminate against a particular type of person. It is crucial that this group vehemently defends their right to behave in this way (preferably on a moral basis), despite everyone else in society being bound by law not to do the same. Today I’ll be using the ‘Church of England’ and their ‘Freedom to Deny Same Sex Couples Marriage Ceremonies’ as this fits the criteria perfectly.

Step 2:

Replace the religious group from Step 1 with a non-religious group. All you have to do is imagine that this non-religious group also enjoys to discriminate against a particular type of person, but this time on a non-religious basis! Which non-religious group will you pick? I’ve gone for the British Humanist Association (BHA). Et voila! We are now entertaining the idea of the BHA championing their very own ‘Freedom to Deny Same Sex Couples Marriage Ceremonies’.

Step 3:

Take a deep breath and gaze at your homophobic non-religious group. Marvel at them as they discriminate against innocent people on a non-religious basis. Isn’t it wonderful? Now it’s time to decide whether this group should be allowed to discriminate in virtue of not believing in god. No, that’s silly. That’s a bad reason to be homophobic. In fact, any reason to be homophobic is a bad reason. There’s a law against that. You are now in a position to tell the religious group defending their ‘Freedom to Deny Same Sex Couples Marriage Ceremonies’ that they are talking bollocks. A big, old pile of hairy bollocks.

I’m aware that like my Racist Freedom Test, the Non-Religious Freedom Test isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Alas, you can’t convince all of the bigots all of the time. If you have found either of these tests useful though, then you’ll be pleased to hear that they work equally as well on sexism in the church. Go on, why not give it a go?

Endless and unceasing sarcasm aside, the point here is that if any other group is deemed wrong to defend their own freedom to be homophobic, why should a religious group be an exception? No group should be persecuted on the basis of their identity or practice of peaceful customs- religious and non-religious alike. As such, all groups should be afforded the freedom to retain their identity and to practice these peaceful customs. But there are limits to these freedoms, and these limits apply to everyone. If it is wrong for a non-religious group to act homophobically then it is wrong for a religious group to act homophobically. To deny this on the basis of religious freedom, is to demand special treatment for religious groups over non-religious groups. Unfair religious privilege is not the same as religious freedom.

 At the end of the day, the plans revealed in Parliament are a step forward. But it’s only a step forward for some. It is extremely important that the exemptions made for groups like the Church of England are not heralded as a mark of religious freedom. I am not arguing that the government should force all of the Church’s clergy to offer same sex marriages (that is a larger and more complex debate). What I am insisting, is that the government should at least make it possible for those members of the clergy who want to, to do so. Anything short of this cannot seriously be called ‘religious freedom’.

N.B This entry has been reposted from my old blog.

2 thoughts on “Religious Oppression and the Freedom to Discriminate

  1. Pingback: Masking anti gay bigotry as "religious freedom"! » The Buell Review

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