- Conscience and the Commons
Following his election as Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron was grilled by the media about his beliefs as an evangelical Christian. Has the focus on faith, which began with Tony Blair, reached the point where it is harder than ever to hold religious beliefs and play an active role in political life?
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The legalisation of same-sex marriage this week represents a watershed moment where a new social movement will triumph over the previous orthodoxy around human relationships and human sexuality.
The campaign to legalise gay marriage has been marketed as a recognition of freedom, and the spirit of a free society rightly prizes a wide tolerance for personal autonomy. But what we have witnessed is the ability of an elite to use the power of the state to enforce a moral vision on all of society, even to the extent of crushing the conscience of those who get in the way.
A symptom of this has been how the public debate has been conducted. Those who have wished to make a claim for retaining the status quo on marriage have been responded to not by reasoned argument but by being labelled intolerant, obsessive or bigoted.
A free society has an inevitable tension between the common good and the freedom of the individual. But the same-sex marriage debate has given rise to a degradation of both conscience and free debate.
Equality laws have given a powerful framework for the imposition of particular state-endorsed moral views. We are not talking just of the supposed liberty to redefine the natural institution of the family or to live as one wishes despite the consequences. There is now a legal requirement that a new moral vision be endorsed and promoted.
Already as a result of the Public Sector Equality Duty, which came into force in Scotland, England and Wales in 2011, livelihoods and family futures are already being affected for small but not negligible numbers of people – principally those wishing to adopt or foster who are found to hold the “wrong” views on same-sex marriage, or chaplains who have voiced Christian views on marriage too plainly. Last year Revd Brian Ross, a Church of Scotland minister, was forced from his post as chaplain to Strathclyde Police after airing his opposition to gay marriage.
Far from living in a society that fully recognises freedom of expression and its importance for robust debate, citizens can now face the prospect of criminal charge for causing offence in a broad range of circumstances. The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications law passed in 2012 slips in five new transgender categories for special recognition.
The same-sex marriage law will threaten freedom of speech and belief of public sector workers if their views are at odds with the state’s vision of the family.
Scottish politicians have shown an increasing willingness to interfere in the private lives of its citizens. Under the 2005 Sexual Health Strategy children can obtain abortifacients and contraception without the knowledge or consent of their parents.
And to further undermine the role of parents, this week the Scottish Parliament is also expected to pass a provision for every child in Scotland to be given a government employee as a “named person” with a remit for ensuring a child’s welfare in an ambitious eight categories.
At the same time, the state has weakened the rights of conscience that should act as a bulwark for freedom. The passage of same-sex marriage may be looked upon with indifference by so many, but its consequences are far-reaching. The exhilaration of being part of a supposed fight for a new liberty has blinded activists to the damage they have inflicted on the foundations of our democracy.
John Deighan is the parliamentary officer for the Catholic Church in Scotland