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PM's assurances to Christians "wholly insufficient" after Christians’ European Court battle ends

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Issued on behalf of Christian Legal Centre

Press Release

For Immediate Release

28 May 2013

PM's assurances to Christians "wholly insufficient" after Christians’ European Court battle ends

The Grand Chamber of the Council of Europe has rejected a request for referral from three UK Christians, prompting serious concerns over legal protections for Christians in Britain.

The request included that of Christian Legal Centre clients Gary McFarlane and Shirley Chaplin. 

The ECHR previously found that Mr McFarlane's ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ had not been infringed by his employer’s decision to dismiss him – however this was a sensitive area in which countries had differing views and the United Kingdom was entitled to give primacy to homosexual rights over Christians rights - despite the fact that his conscience could have been respected without any risk of others being denied a service to which they were entitled.
Gary had practised as a relationships counsellor for a number of years. Then, during a training course for a new skill, he was prompted to indicate that if the situation ever arose he might have a conscientious objection to providing sex therapy to a same-sex couple on account of his Christian faith.
He was dismissed for gross misconduct for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, despite the fact that (i) the issue involved a hypothetical scenario and (ii) there was never a risk of anyone being denied a service to which they were entitled (since there were many other counsellors who were willing and able to provide it). The dismissal by Relate (his employer) was on principle and it was irrelevant whether he could have been accommodated.  A dismissal for gross misconduct is the most severe sanction available to an employer. 

The European Court recognised that the wearing of a Cross and Christians' sexual ethics were within Article 9 of the Convention ('freedom of thought, conscience and religion'); this is a significant improvement on the position of the UK courts.

The decision of the Grand Chamber has prompted calls for more robust protections to be put in place for Christians in the Government's Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. The House of Lords is due to vote on the Bill at Second Reading next Monday 3 June.

The Prime Minister has previously sought to provide assurance by saying that the Government would protect freedom of conscience for Christians if the Bill becomes law, to the extent that it would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) should any legal action be brought against Christians.

"This case shows that these assurances are worthless," said Andrea Minichiello Williams, CEO of Christian Legal Centre.

"The ECHR has washed its hands of these cases and said that it is down to member states to rule on these matters. The European Court has made it cleat that it doesn't want to interfere.

"With sexual orientation a 'protected characteristic' under UK equality laws, Christians' consciences concerning marriage and sexual ethics is not protected. We have seen time and again in British courts that when they come into conflict, sexual orientation rights trump freedom of religion rights.

"The decision of the Grand Chamber panel shows that the European Court cannot be relied upon.

"The Government needs to take note. The ECHR can no longer be considered a crutch to lean on if Christians face legal challenge in relation to potential same sex marriage legislation.

"In the Bill as it stands there is no provision, for example, for individual clergy. If the Church of England 'opt in' to conducting same sex marriages, there is absolutely no protection for individual clergy who may refuse to conduct such services. Up to one in ten CofE clergy could take this position which could result in thousands of people losing their jobs over their Christian beliefs about marriage.

"The rash nature of this legislation is being exposed. The vote on the Bill in the House of Commons last week revealed the political mood in Britain. None of the amendments intended to protect freedom of conscience for those who believe in traditional marriage were accepted. There is a complete disrespect for and refusal to accommodate conscience.

"The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution last month calling on its member states to respect conscience and accommodate religious beliefs in the public sphere. The British Government is clearly failing to do this. A radical rehaul of our legal and political systems is required where the principles of freedom of conscience and religious accommodation are enshrined".


For further information / interview:
Andrea Minichiello Williams - 07712 591164


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