Very soon, Mr Blair will have to make a tricky choice between two of his pet issues, and whichever choice he makes, he’s going to unleash a storm of resentment and resistance.
The issues are homosexuality and religion. As we have seen in recent debates, the two seem utterly incompatible. If gays get anywhere near gaining equality, religionists immediately begin agitating to retard progress. As Mary Riddell in the Observer said: “Whenever the abolition of Section 28, or biotechnology, or gay sex at 16 is at issue, a gaggle of apoplectic archbishops proffer brimstone and damnation.” We’ll see much more of this in the forthcoming battles on partnership and employment rights.
For instance, last year the European Union approved a directive that obliges member states to enact legislation within three years that will give citizens protection from discrimination in employment on grounds of age, sex, religion, disability and sexual orientation.
Religious lobbyists fought hard in Europe to have the protection for gays watered down. They wanted religious organisations to retain the right to refuse employment to homosexuals. Active homosexuality, they said, was incompatible with their beliefs.
There will be similar sustained bombardment from the religious lobby when this new legislation is considered by Westminster. Organisations like the Christian Institute and the Evangelical Alliance say they don’t want religious bodies to be “forced” to employ gays and lesbians in hospitals, schools, care homes and other welfare organisations that they operate.
The Government is going to have to make a choice. Either gay people get complete protection from discrimination, with no ifs or buts, or they get partial protection, with the religious bodies given a free hand to refuse employment on the grounds of sexual orientation.
If MPs choose the former option, the religious lobby will create an enormous fuss. If they choose the latter, gay people will be outraged and rightly demand full equality (“partial equality” being surely an oxymoron). And for those who think it is OK for Christians, Muslims or Jews only to employ their own, let us not forget that church schools employ tens of thousands of teachers at public expense. The law of averages dictates that some of them must be gay. Will it be OK simply to sack them from jobs? Will it be OK for church schools to put at the bottom of their recruitment advertising “We are an equal opportunity employer – but gays need not apply”? And what about the new Muslim schools that are being proposed by the Government? Can you imagine how a gay teacher would fare in such a place – and how would the Government try to enforce his or her rights in the face of religious bigots who want to stone us to death?
At the same time, pressure is coming from some religious sources for more public funding for faith-based welfare. The Reverend Steve Chalke has started a campaign called “Faith Works” which is lobbying the Government to ensure that faith-based religious charities are not “discriminated against” when taxpayer’s money is handed out. Mr Chalke argues that many churches run welfare facilities, such as old people’s day centres and homeless shelters, and they don’t always get public money to do it. He says that as soon as local authorities realise that religion is involved in the provision of these services, they lose interest and shut their coffers. “Many churches are revealing a picture of having to battle against extraordinary odds to win support from local government,” he told The Church of England Newspaper.
What Mr Chalke doesn’t say, though, is that many of these charities have discriminatory employment policies and some have even refused to provide services to gay people. This is often the reason local councils, with their strict equal opportunities policies, won’t fund them.
The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement uncovered several cases of injustice against gay people carried out by religious welfare groups. For instance, St George’s Crypt Centre in Leeds is a church-run charity for the homeless. Its “equal opportunities” policy stated that it would not employ, among others, homosexuals, adulterers and those involved in occult groups. Evangelical Christians run the Clarendon Street Shelter in Bedford, a hostel for the homeless. They told two of their clients, Michelle Bates and Amanda Grove, that they would have to end their lesbian relationship or be barred from the facility.
This kind of small-minded prejudice and discrimination is widespread in religious organisations. And they want the right to retain it, enshrined in law, when the new legislation comes forward. It is at that point that the Labour Government will find itself between a rock and a hard place – which will they choose, the rights of homosexuals to be free from unfair employment practices or the “rights” of religious groups to sack innocent people from their jobs?
North of the border, where the Church of Scotland is the largest provider of welfare in the country, this discriminatory attitude is particularly strong. Ann Allen, convenor of the Church of Scotland Board of Social Responsibility told The Church of England Newspaper: “All our work is done in the name of Jesus Christ, so those who work in his name have to know him.” This certainly means that atheists can’t work for the Church of Scotland, but it might also mean that “practising” homosexuals can also be considered to have turned away from God, and therefore not be worthy of employment.
Thankfully this view is not universally shared. In the July issue of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland, the Reverend Ewan Aitken of Edinburgh writes that discriminatory employment policies operated by religious groups are “insanity” because they damage the “credibility and thus the ability of all churches to be at the heart of the many initiatives to get beside some of the most vulnerable people in society (or not in society, actually).”
Mr Aitken argues that “Jesus did not discriminate. He loitered with those discriminated against by others… If we then, in our structures and policies, exclude these folk from being part of our work, then we fail to loiter. We simply patronise and reject again.”
We can see a little of the trouble ahead if we look at what is happening at present in the USA. There, George W Bush was elected on a promise that America’s welfare system would all but be handed over to religious charities. Billions of dollars would be provided for the purpose, he said. This was the new thinking – to which Mr Blair also apparently subscribes – that partnership between church and state is the way ahead in relation to social welfare.
But almost as soon as Mr Bush had made his proposals, objections arose from a whole raft of civil liberty and human rights groups. Would the religious groups being offered this massive injection of cash be required not to discriminate? Many of them said they’d rather not have Government money if it meant they had to employ homosexuals or adulterers or non-believers. And how would a “faith based” group be defined? Would radical separatist groups like Nation of Islam qualify? Or those that oppose rights for women or minorities? Is Scientology included, and Hare Krishna and the Moonies?
A huge campaign of resistance arose, but despite this, the faith-based welfare initiative – Charitable Choice as it is euphemistically called – has passed its first legislative hurdle by being approved by the House of Representatives. It still has a long way to go, and is being modified in order to make it more acceptable to the Senate. Mr Bush is anxious to reassure doubters that discrimination will not be institutionalised through this legislation, but at the same time the Guardian reported that “The Bush administration was accused of plotting to allow federally funded American religious organisations to discriminate against gay men and lesbians. A spokesman for [the President] denied a report in the Washington Post that the White House had made a ‘firm commitment’ to allow the Salvation Army and other religious charities to discriminate against gays. But it did not deny claims that it was discussing ways in which charities can continue to discriminate while they receive millions of dollars in federal aid under Mr Bush’s ‘faith based’ social services plan.”
While this was happening, a significant case was heard in Kentucky, concerning a woman who had worked for a Baptist children’s home, but who had been fired when it was discovered she was a lesbian. In its firing notice, the Baptist church said: “Alice Pedreira is being terminated from Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children because her admitted homosexual lifestyle is contrary to Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children core values.”
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Alice Pedreira had challenged her sacking in the District Court. Last month, the Judge ruled that the Baptists did have the right to sack her. “The civil rights statutes protect religious freedom, not personal lifestyle choice,” he told The Courier-Journal newspaper.
Although the Baptist Homes receive 80% of their funding from the public purse, they will not be required to amend their employment policy and can continue to exclude gay people from employment and sack those employees they subsequently discover to be gay.
“This is shocking stuff,” said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the lesbian and gay rights project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We now have a court saying that you can use taxpayers funds to discriminate, and that is perfectly legal. It ups the ante on the Bush faith-based initiative and sets off alarm bells.”
Could this kind of crude religion-inspired persecution of gay people happen here? Let’s not forget that the Labour party manifesto included the promise: “We welcome the contribution of churches and other faith-based organisations as partners of local and central government in community renewal. We will use a successor to the Lambeth Group to look at the government’s interface with faith communities.”
The pressure is really on – not only from the loopy Steve Chalke, but also from the Conservative Christian Fellowship. I was invited recently to debate with one of the CCF’s representatives about this very issue on GMTV. It was clear that the religious lobby has an almost open door access to Downing Street. Mr Chalke himself – who was, bizarrely, chairing this debate – has, according to The Times, made two visits to Number Ten to push his case for public money to go to religious initiatives. When I raised the point about discrimination, the man from the Conservative Christian Fellowship didn’t seem to have thought of it. “I’m sure it wouldn’t happen,” he said. So I pointed out the two cases I’ve mentioned above. He seemed unperturbed.
But the Conservatives don’t matter in this case. It’s the Labour party who will be pulling the strings, and there is increasing concern about the Christian domination of the Cabinet. Speaking on the BBC1 current affairs programme On the Record, Martin O’Neill of the trade and industry select committee said of Mr Blair’s overtures to religious charities: “We could be in danger of reinforcing social divisions in the name of alternative forms of provision.”
Let’s hope that when battle commences, Stonewall and the other gay rights groups are ready for the fray. Fasten your seat belts, it could be a bumpy ride.