Christian Counsellors Freedom of Conscience Trumped by Rights of Homosexuals

Country: United Kingdom

Date of incident: January 15, 2013

The rights of homosexual couples trumped those of Christians, according to a ruling of the Employment Appeal Tribunal. The European Court of Human Rights dismissed the Christian applicant Gary McFarlane and left the balancing out of rights to national appreciation.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal has ruled on November 30th that Gary McFarlane, a Christian counsellor who worked for Relate, was not unfairly dismissed or discriminated against when he was sacked for his orthodox views on sexual relationships which meant that he could not give an unequivocal commitment to help same-sex couples improve their sex lives. The 48 year old father of two, who is also a solicitor and a former elder of a large multicultural church in Bristol, believes the Bible teaches that same-sex sexual practice is contrary to biblical teaching and therefore that he should do nothing which endorses this activity. Mr McFarlane had no objection to others in Relate counselling couples needing advice on same-sex activity, but for him it was a simple issue of conscience. After managers at Relate made the decision to sack Mr McFarlane in March 2008, and after internal procedures had been exhausted, Mr McFarlane took his case to the Employment Tribunal claiming unfair dismissal and discrimination contrary to the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. In January 2009 the Tribunal ruled that he had not been discriminated against or unfairly dismissed. Mr McFarlane then appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal which ruled to dismiss Mr McFarlane’s appeal.  Mr McFarlane said: “This decision is a stark warning to people of conscience in this nation that as a result of 12 years of Labour rule, the British establishment no longer values the democratic rights of its citizens to hold conscience as a matter of principle”. “Society is the worse for not allowing people of conscience to be free to exercise legitimate rights”.   Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of Christian Legal Centre, said: “Mr McFarlane was quite prepared for other counsellors to help same-sex couples in psychosexual counselling. He simply asked that on the rare occasions he was asked to do the same, his employer roster another counsellor to handle the case. This would have respected both the best interests of the counsellor and client”. “The seriously worrying underlying point in this case, which the Court has refused to accept, is that for religious belief to be protected it is necessary to uphold the right to manifest that belief. The effect of this judgment is to rule out any expression of deeply-held conscience, even when the expression is limited to a very reasonable, practicable and sensible request to be assigned work such that worker and client are best served and that the work is tenable for the worker. This ruling goes against all notion of religious conscience protection and also against common sense”.  “Time and time again in British Courts we see that freedom of religion, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, offers no protection whatsoever to Christians and other people of faith with a conscience.” Mr McFarlane sought to appeal this decision before the Court of Appeal, which was refused permission by Lord Justice Laws on 29th April 2010.  On April 2010, the Telegraph reported: “What started as a disagreement between a relationship counsellor and his managers opened a fundamental fault line between some of Britain’s most senior churchmen and the judiciary.”
Mr McFarlane was supported in his case by a highly unusual direct intervention Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who provided a personal statement to the judge warning of a “dangerous” bias against religious people threatened “civil unrest”. He also called for a separate panel of judges who had a “proven sensitivity to religious issues” to be formed to deal with such cases in the future. But his account was rejected by Lord Justice Judge who accused the
former archbishop of misunderstanding the law. Stephen Cave, executive director of the Evangelical Alliance said: “There has to be a better way of dealing with cases such as this outside the courts, which allows space for people of faith and no faith to live and work together, freely and respectfully able to express their diverse beliefs in public.”

We thank the Christian Legal Centre for the report. Please view: This case was decided by the European Court of Human Rights on January 15th, 2013. Mr McFarlane argued that his rights under Article 9 are insufficiently protected in UK law. The court dismissed his claim, saying that it was up to the national authorities to decide how to balance the rights at stake - freedom of religion and conscience versus sexual orientation rights.  Read more: Summary of the Observatory on this and related cases
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