Should human rights always outweigh religious rights?
This was the title of a debate on the BBC in which I was recently asked to take part. The panel included, amongst others, secularists, representatives of the LGBT community, and five Moslems. I was there to speak for Christian rights, of course, but what really astonished me was the easy assumption that human and ‘religious’ rights are different.
They are not. In the UK, the first attempt to formulate and set down ‘human’ rights was in Magna Carta, in 1215. It was an attempt by the barons to restrict King John’s tyrannical and despotic use of power, and the first clause guaranteed the freedom of the Church. Honoured ever since as the foundation of liberty in the Western world, three clauses of this groundbreaking Charter remain on the statute books of England and Wales – the first being this ancient protection of religious liberty.
Since 1215 there have been further intermittent attempts to safeguard the rights of the individual against the wrongful exercise of power by the state, but by far the greatest impetus to the development of such rights was the Second World War. In the aftermath of conflict, and still reeling at revelation of the atrocities that had been committed by the Nazis, the nations committed themselves to international co-operation aimed at preventing further conflict and ensuring world peace. Three years later, in 1948, the newly established UN Assembly issued its Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrined, amongst its 30 articles, the rights to freedom of religion, belief and conscience in both practice and manifestation; and freedom of speech.
These rights were subsequently repeated in the European Convention on Human Rights (entering into force on September 3rd, 1953), and in our own Human Rights Act 1998.
But now, apparently, the newly claimed sexual rights of a minority are being prioritised over all other traditional rights, to the extent that ‘religious’ rights are now being assigned a separate, and seemingly subsidiary, category. Which is surprising – but it would appear that 1.5% of the population (which is the figure recorded by the Office for National Statistics for homosexuals) now have protectable rights over and above those of all others. More worryingly, to my mind, is the fact that what was once regarded as a protection against coercion by the State, has now become a weapon to be used by individuals against those who disagree with them. And it is irrelevant that such disagreement is actually not a species of hate crime, as wrongly claimed, but simply the assertion of historic tenets of faith. So we see the Bible being rewritten to become more culturally acceptable, while those who stand on the ancient and revealed Biblical truths are branded discriminating bigots and homophobes.
It is of course incontrovertible that the government has power to pass new laws, and that the popular view of morality can and does change to accommodate current social practice – which can of course work both ways, as demonstrated by the contrast between the values of the Victorian era and those of our own. Increasingly the law is reflecting the altered perspective – but equally incontrovertible is the fact that such attitudes are at base ‘fashion’ and will therefore be transient. By contrast, there are certain ‘rights’ that remain fundamental and inalienable by virtue of our humanity, and which cannot be altered by whim or ideology. Rightssuch as choice, and the freedom to believe.
On the programme I was reviled for saying we are approaching a time in this country when we may well see active persecution against Christians. I am forced to admit I was wrong – it has already begun. Every week we see Christians being marginalised, losing their jobs, being taken to court … even arrested – and all for such things as wearing a cross in public, quoting Scripture prohibiting certain behaviours, offering to pray with people … and even claiming the same ‘rights’ as a gay activist group to post an advert on the side of a bus.
The list goes on and on, and it feels increasingly apparent that there is an element in society that wants to crush us into silence, and drive Christianity from the public arena. Why are they so afraid of us speaking out?
Can it be that, like all tyrants, they know we are right?
To hear the debate, go to The Big Question, BBC 1, at 10 am on Sunday, January 12.