When Discrimination Isn’t (Discrimination)

You may have seen the Gary McFarlane case in the media yesterday. This report from CCFON sums up the story:

Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor, won a claim for wrongful dismissal against Relate Avon. He was sacked because his Christian beliefs prevented him giving sex therapy to homosexual couples.The Employment Tribunal was in December and Mr. McFarlane was represented by religious liberties specialist, Barrister, Paul Diamond.

Gary McFarlane had worked for Relate since 2003. He was disappointed with the hostility he had experienced from Relate. Although Mr McFarlane had never had to provide sex therapy to a same sex couple, he thought that if the situation did arise, he would be able to discuss his Christian views with his supervisors so that his position could be discussed and if necessary accommodated. Any such discussions were, however, pre-empted by unexpected meetings between Mr McFarlane and his manager in October 2007 when he was asked to state his views regarding same sex couples. Despite explaining that he would counsel couples in compliance with Relate’s Equal Opportunities Policy, and that he would raise any issues with his supervisors and manager, as good practice required, Mr McFarlane was suspended in early January 2008 and then dismissed in March 2008. Mr McFarlane was given no other choice than to subject his religious faith to the Equal Opportunities Policy.

However, although he won his wrongful dismissal claim, the Tribunal held that his claim of religious discrimination should fail. The Tribunal recognised powerful arguments on both sides, but held that the provision of non discriminatory services was important.

Andrea Minichiello Williams Director of the Christian Legal Centre said : ‘The law is in a confused state; in the case of Lillian Ladele, the Islington Registrar, the Court held that Christian belief must give way to the rights of same sex couples; but in the case of Gary McFarlane there is a finding of wrongful dismissal. The courts and public are confused; we call on the Government to recognise the legitimate expression of conscience by Christians in the area of sexual orientation and provide protection where necessary.’

Mr. McFarlane said that: ‘If I were a Muslim, this would not have happened. But Christians seem to have fewer and fewer rights’

  • Muslim prisoners for sex offences may opt out of therapy (Times 9 April 2008)
  • Non Muslim father banned from Swimming Pool (Telegraph 18/4/08)
  • Magistrate investigated for refusing evidence in veil (BBC 8/1/08)
  • Betts Awards ‘Three Little Pigs’ too offensive (BBC)

Andrea Minichiello Williams continued:- ‘It is important to note that Mr. McFarlane has never refused to counsel a same sex couple; he merely raised the potential conflict between his Christian faith and homosexual conduct. It is deeply disturbing that the mere expression of religious belief with an inability to give unqualified support to sexual orientation issues means that a Christian can be dismissed with no attempt to provide suitable accommodation for his or her beliefs. The law preventing religious discrimination against Christians is in danger of becoming a dead letter’.

You can read a copy of the judgement here.

OK, here’s my problem with this case. Yes, one can argue that it’s disturbing that McFarlane was sacked simply for saying that he needed to think through his approach to same-sex couples and psych-sexual therapy, but beyond this I don’t think he has a leg to stand on. Simply put, I think McFarlane hasn’t been religiously discriminated against as a Christian, because the moral viewpoint he’s putting forward isn’t Christian.

Let me explain. McFarlane indicated that he might have a problem counselling a gay couple, but nowhere did he indicate that he would have a problem counselling an unmarried heterosexual couple. This seems to me to not be the correct application of the Christian sexual ethic. If McFarlane believes that sex between two men (or two women) is wrong and that therefore he would have a problem counselling such a couple, why does he not take the same attitude towards an unmarried man and woman? Surely the Christian sexual ethic is that all sex outside of marriage is not what God intended?

It seems to me that the only way that McFarlane could argue in favour of counselling umarried “straight” couples but not “gay” couples is if he had an objection to gay sex per se, an objection that was unconnected to his Christian faith. If he was really being true to his convictions then he should have raised an issue with counselling both groups, which would have demonstrated that his objection was not so much with the sexual orientation of those being counselled, nor their sexual practices but rather their marital status.

And I think this is vitally important, because as we move year by year to a society that is increasingly institutionally hostile to the truth of the gospel, we need to make sure that when we “stand up for our rights” we are truly standing for the gospel. In this case it appears to me that McFarlane was not (however well intentioned) standing for the truth and his right to be a Christian, but rather was objecting to having to counsel those involved in gay sex because of his dislike for gay sex.

This is all not to say that there are one or two sections of the tribunal ruling which are disturbing. In particular, section 46 where the tribunal ruled that it would be unreasonable for Relate to simply not offer McFarlane as a psycho-sexual counsellor to gay couples strikes me as rather odd. There would be no “potential rejection” of a client gay couple because the client gay couple would never have been offered McFarlane in the first instance. Procedurally it would have been an easy task to carry out (to make sure gay couples weren’t referred to McFarlane) and the issue of potential rejection would never have arisen.

This case is a warning to Christians in the UK. Firstly, it is a wake-up call that religious discrimination is beginning to surface its head and that the institutionally changes of the past few years will affect us all. However, secondly, it is also a healthy reminder to us that if we want to make a stand on the basis of our moral beliefs, we should ensure that we have done our theology first. Are we absolutely sure that what we are objecting to has less to do with the gospel and more to do with our own particular foibles?

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