RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: by Christopher BrohierNews Weekly
Christians singled out for discrimination: report
, August 3, 2013
Christians in Europe have increasingly become targets of discrimination, lawsuits and heavy penalties under the EU’s so-called human rights laws, according to a recent study. Adelaide barrister Christopher Brohier predicts that Christians in Australia could soon face similar pressures.
A British Christian couple, who ran a bed and breakfast facility in their home, were fined UK£3,500 in October 2012 for refusing a homosexual couple double-room accommodation, on religious grounds. The homosexual men, Michael Black and John Morgan, successfully sued the guest-house owners, Francis and Susanne Wilkinson, under Britain’s anti-discrimination laws.
That is just one of the incidents referred to in a major report on discrimination against Christians in Europe, recently published by the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians, a non-profit, non-government organisation (NGO) based in Austria.
The Observatory monitors circumstances in which professing Christians in Europe suffer marginalisation or discrimination. Its recent report details many troubling events and trends, and contains valuable lessons and warnings for professing Christians in Australia.
The 2012 report contains six chapters:
- Limiting Conscientious Objection;
- Curbing Free Speech by Hate Speech Legislation;
- Violations of Freedom of Assembly and Association;
- Discriminatory Equality Policies;
- Limiting Parental Rights; and
- The Latest ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] Jurisprudence on Religious Freedom: Four Rulings Concerning Christians.
While Article 9 of the European Charter of Human Rights recognises the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, those who for Christian or other reasons oppose practices, such as abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, are effectively denied the right to exercise a free conscience.
One draft submission to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe aimed to oblige doctors and nurses to perform abortions, even when this was contrary to their consciences. The move was defeated and the right to conscientious objection re-affirmed. However, many professionals still report difficulties.
In France, medical practitioners with anti-abortion convictions face real difficulties becoming gynaecologists as it is almost impossible to train in this specialist field without conducting an abortion. French pharmacists must stock and sell the “morning-after pill”.
In England, prospective Christian foster-parents have been barred from adopting children for saying that they would not condone homosexual behaviour.
This overseas trend of restricting freedom of conscience has been mirrored in Australia. Victoria’s controversial Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 requires a doctor with a conscientious objection to abortion to disclose his or her view and to refer a woman patient seeking an abortion to another doctor who does not have such an objection. There is currently a bill before the Tasmanian parliament that seeks to enact a similar provision in that state.
“Hate speech” legislation penalises people for what they say. For European Christians the two main pretexts for their being prosecuted are when they express criticism of Islam or homosexuality.
Some judges of the European Court of Human Rights have declared that permitting the free expression of “extremist opinions” can cause much more harm than imposing restrictions on freedom of expression. In France, any speech critical of homosexuals is effectively forbidden.
In the United Kingdom a street preacher was arrested and spent time in a police cell for publicly speaking against homosexual practices. Pro-lifers have been prosecuted for protesting outside abortion clinics.
In Ireland, Philip Boyce, the Catholic Bishop of Raphoe in County Donegal, was investigated by police for an alleged “hate crime” after saying that the Catholic Church was under attack from “aggressive secularism”. David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister, was quoted in September 2012 as saying that faith schools should be forbidden to teach that homosexuality is a sin.
Australia has seen a recent attempt by the federal Labor Party to introduce similar “hate speech” legislation in its now abandoned amendments to the Commonwealth’s human rights legislation. Vocal public opposition led to Labor’s attempt failing, but it may well be that similar legislation will be introduced in the future.
If same-sex marriage ever becomes legalised in Australia, lawsuits will be launched against anyone who speaks against it.
Article 12 of the European Union (EU) Charter of Fundamental Rights supposedly guarantees freedom of assembly; but in practice this freedom is by no means assured for people advocating a Christian view.
Since 2003, Evangelical Protestants in Paris have been accustomed to holding an annual “Marathon of the Bible”, with hundreds of participants reading the Bible and discussing it with others over a period of four days. However, in October 2012, French authorities denied them permission to hold their event.
In Germany, the freedom of pro-life activists has been infringed by the “ban mile” concept of prohibiting the right to protest within any reasonable proximity to an abortion clinic.
Tasmanian pro-abortion legislators are seeking to introduce a similar prohibition in their proposed abortion law amendments, which are currently under consideration by the island-state’s upper house, the Legislative Council. This proposal would ban protests within a 150-metre radius of an abortion facility.
In South Australia, in the recent past, two pro-lifers were charged with offensive behaviour because they were holding a model of a baby in front of an abortion clinic. The prosecution against them, however, was dropped (with the police paying legal costs), when it became clear that the individuals charged would be defended and the constitutional matters contested.
Thus the freedoms hitherto enjoyed by Western Christians are becoming increasingly curbed in Australia as well as in Europe.
The principle of equality before the law has been used or misused to demand equality of moral choices. While equal opportunity legislation is framed in neutral language, it is often those with a Christian viewpoint who are taken to court.
At the beginning of this article, we mentioned the case of the English Christian bed and breakfast owners who were fined last October for refusing to allow a homosexual couple to have a double room on their premises. Equality before the law did not extend to their rights to run their own business, in their own home, according to their convictions.
In the same month, in France, a man who refused to sell his house to a homosexual couple was fined and ordered to pay damages to the couple.
While it is generally accepted that parents have the right to educate their children according to their own convictions, this right is increasingly being restricted. Several European states have outlawed home-schooling. In others, the right to opt out of sex education is forbidden.
In Austria, in June 2012, several English-speaking Christian families who home-schooled their children were fined and threatened with their children being taken away, ostensibly because they have been educating their children in English, even though there are many exclusively English schools in the country.
Earlier, in April, a German couple were prosecuted for home-schooling their children, in order to teach them Christian sexual ethics. They lost their case in court.
In Australia, parental freedom still exists, but the Labor government’s new national curriculum may see increasing restrictions on that right.
The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians 2012 report, mentioned earlier, closes with a summary of the decisions arrived at by the European Court of Human Rights in relation to four British freedom of religion cases.
One case involved a Christian employee of British Airways who alleged that her rights had been violated when she was forbidden to wear a cross at work. The court brought down a ruling in her favour.
In another case, however, a Christian nurse who had been forbidden to wear a cross at work lost her case. The European court held that the cross was a generally recognised Christian symbol (contrary to the argument mounted by the British government), but that the restriction was legitimate for health and safety reasons.
The final two cases were of Christians who were dismissed as registrars of births, deaths and marriages, because they refused to carry out certain duties that they thought condoned homosexuality. The UK courts held that a belief that marriage was between a man and a woman was not a core component of Christian belief and so was not protected under UK law.
On appeal, the European Court of Human Rights held that these beliefs were part of the Christian identity of the two employees and so were protected, but that it was necessary to restrict their freedom in order to ensure the freedom of others.
As we have seen, the problems suffered by Christians in Europe are increasingly being mirrored in Australia.
Given the Prime Minister Mr Kevin Rudd’s recent conversion to the cause of same-sex marriage, the forthcoming federal election will be crucial for the future of Australia.
A victory for the Labor Party will see the issue of same-sex marriage pushed hard.
And, as so often has been the experience overseas, once same-sex marriage is legalised, criticism of it will be forbidden and churches could be forced to hold same-sex marriage ceremonies on their premises.
If the Coalition wins, the issue may be subdued for a time. Significantly, the shadow attorney-general, Senator George Brandis QC, has spoken of reforming the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Paradoxically, that will be good for the cause of freedom.
The scene is also set for court actions to test the freedom of political communication and the freedom of religion under the Commonwealth constitution.
Onward, Christian soldiers!
Christopher Brohier, an Adelaide barrister, is co-founder of Lawyers for the Preservation of the Definition of Marriage (LPDM).