Sunday, 13 July 2008

Unequal Treatment

The Mail today carried an interview with Lillian Ladele, the registrar who controversially won a discrimination case against Islington council last week. She maintained that it was unlawful of the council to force her to conduct civil partnership ceremonies when her sincerely-held Christian belief was that such events were ungodly and wrong. The tribunal, applying new EU-decreed laws against religious discrimination, agreed. Just as, the other week, they agreed that it was wrong of a King's Cross hairdresser to deny a position to a Muslim applicant on the grounds that her strict interpretation of Islamic dress was out of keeping with the business's image.

It's one of those cases where you really wish they could both lose. On the one hand, you have a God-botherer refusing to do her job properly and claiming special treatment on account of her old-fashioned beliefs. On the other, you have Islington council, notorious home of politically-correct "diversity" tsars determined to enforce mercilessly whichever piece of Guardian-approved nonsense happens to be fashionable. When Lillian Ladele claims that she was subjected to a "devastating campaign of bullying" from her bosses and colleagues on account of her Christian beliefs I must say I for one am inclined to believe her. She's black, as it happens, which may well have made them hate her all the more.

The trouble started, according to Ladele, when two of her colleagues contracted a civil partnership, the first women in Islington to do so. Ladele felt herself shunned at the reception. "It was humiliating – nobody even said hello," she complains. "I didn’t understand why they reacted like that." Well, perhaps the fact that she had ostentatiously refused to have anything to do with such unions, which she thought were the work of Satan, had something to do with it. Turning up at the reception and expecting to be greeted warmly seems a touch optimistic in the circumstances. From then on it was downhill all the way. She was bullied and belittled, her requests to be excused from presiding at civil partnerships started to be denied, and when a gay colleague accused her of homophobia no-one took her side. "He was aggressive and intimidated me but everyone was nodding and supporting him and I was totally alone," she complains. Eventually she was threatened with disciplinary action; so she went to court, and backed by money from the Christian Institute, won the day.

Thus, potentially, do the floodgates open. Soon Muslim supermarket workers will be excused from handling pork or alcohol, Catholics will refuse to ring up condoms at the till, Jehovah's Witnesses will demand paid leave to go around knocking on people's doors and Scientologists will have people arrested for calling them a cult. Wait a minute, that already happened.

So who is this woman? We learn that she was born in London but "brought up in Nigeria by devoutly Christian parents". Perhaps - given what we know about the Nigerian version of Christianity and its attitude towards homosexuals, as personified by Archbishop Akinola - this background partly explains the strength of her beliefs. The Mail also reveals that Ladele had a child - out of wedlock - at 20, something she still feels guilty about almost 30 years later. You might think this experience would make her more tolerant of other people's lifestyles, and she claims that it has. "I’m not homophobic," she declares. "I’ve never had a problem with gay people or their lifestyle – as far as I’m concerned we are all God’s children. I worked with several gay people at the council and had always been friendly with them."

At the same time she "did not want to be the one to facilitate same-sex civil partnerships because I do not agree with them." She told the chief registrar, Helen Mendez-Hunt - her main tormentor - that she "would not be able to conduct civil partnerships because it states in the Bible that marriage occurs between a man and a woman, not people of the same sex, and, as a Christian, I try to follow what the Bible teaches."

So let's get this straight. She has "no problem" with gay people or "their lifestyle" - and unless she's talking about repeated trips to see Mamma Mia! she can only be referring to what they get up to in the bedroom, or on Hampstead Heath for that matter. But she thinks that the law shouldn't recognise these relationships and therefore she has a right to refuse to perform part of her job. And she thinks that this has something to do with religion?

Logically, it's hard to see her point. She may indeed have the religious belief that God disapproves of same-sex unions. It's a widespread, though far from universal, notion entertained by many sincere Christians - though many equally sincere Christians are firmly of the opinion that God not only tolerates such unions but is quite happy for openly gay men (and presumably women) to be His bishops. Such is the complex variety of Christian belief in our pleasingly "diverse" society. But since when was a "civil partnership" a religious event? Civil heterosexual marriages are avowedly secular in character. Indeed, such is their whole point: and, with British bureaucracy's genius for applying rules to the point of rank idiocy, there have been several well-attested cases of registrars refusing to allow Robbie Williams' rendition of Angels to be played on such occasions, because, you see, "angels" sounds a bit, well, religious, dunnit? So it's not up to God to approve or disapprove of civil partnerships. God is not being called upon to bless them. For that you need to go to St Bartholomew's.

All that Ladele was being asked to do was to smile sweetly, say the appointed words, and fill out some paperwork. She did not have to express personal approval for the sexual acts that many (though not all) those requesting a civil partnership planned to engage in after the ceremony. Her refusal to perform this defining part of her job description seems a poor ground for claiming discrimination. That she won seems - as Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society has said - a dangerous precedent, one that has "potentially disastrous implications" for the maintenance of a neutral, secular society.

It also points to the problem with the whole notion of "religious discrimination", in that it draws false parallels between religion on the one hand, and sex, race and sexuality on the other. This is not because, as is often pointed out, adherence to a particular religion is, in a pluralistic modern society, a matter of choice or personal conviction. Religious identity can be as strongly self-defining to the believer as his or her race or gender; perhaps more so. The problem lies in the question of what discrimination entails. If you discriminate against a woman because she is a woman, or against a black man because he is black, then you are using unfair and irrelevant criteria. It is possible to discriminate in the same way when it comes to religion. One can say, "I'm not having Muslims working for me", or "I don't want Christians coming in my hotel, with their smug expressions and prayers before breakfast, it lowers the tone." This is discrimination, and if there are laws against discrimination they should apply to all. Such groups as redheads and Goths also find themselves discriminated against, and have no laws to protect them. That is manifestly wrong.

But that isn't what has happened here. Ladele's religion led her to behave in a manner which was incompatible with her job as her employers defined it. Her boss might well have been a smug, hypocritical, devious harridan pursuing a personal vendetta out of spite. This was Islington, so I'm willing to bet that she was. Ladele tells a story of social ostracism, snide remarks and psychological bullying which is all too plausible. But she didn't win the case because she was being belittled by her colleagues. She chose to act contrary to her terms of employment, and because she said that it was "religion" that made her refuse to do her job properly she is now entitled to compensation. If she had said it was her political beliefs, or her taste in interior decoration, that led her to this refusal she would have had no case. But what's the difference? It wasn't because she was a Christian that she declined to conduct civil partnerships. It was because she disapproved of them. Disapproval of a particular aspect of modern life is in no way analogous to race, or sex; nor is it the same thing as religious affiliation. It is possible to imagine entirely secular reasons to disapprove of same-sex unions which might be held just as strongly. This law is a mess.


Tom Rook said...

I thought this was a well written article, but I take exception to the idea that Jehovah's Witnesses are said to be wanting paid time off to do their preaching of the Gospel.

In my 42 years of being a JW I have never met one who would ever conceive of such an idea.

Often we schedule time off for such things, but it our time.

If we have a boss that does not allow it, sometimes we quit, and seek employment where the slave mentality is not so prevalent, but NEVER in my experience has a Witness ever expected PAID time off to take care of his personal responsibilities.


silas said...

My girlfriend had a thought about this, why, if she is avowedly Christian in such a way that she is against same sex partnerships, is she working as a Registrar?

Surely the majority of people who would use a Registrar are non-Christian and/or divorced? And if churches don't allow either of the former groups to get married in their premises, surely she shouldn't have been presiding over any of their marriages either?

Or am I missing something here?

valdemar said...

It is shocking (to me, anyway) that a black woman would demand the legal right to be a bigot. Within living memory it was considered respectable for B&B owners to put 'No Coloureds' signs in their windows. She is a homophobic bigot and her religion is a convenient excuse. And she expects her gay colleagues to overlook her contempt for them and play nice? Yeah, right. Isn't it Christians who are supposed to turn the other cheek?

Lil' Drummer Bwoi said...

what I've never understood is why there are never lines of mono-theists at my door begging me to off them in some, no doubt discreet manner.

after all they claim to love their deity with all their hearts, seem to be wishing to commune with said deity regularly (and what better way to pray than with full on face-time?) and, by all accounts up there (you know where I'ma talking about) is THE place to be, be it this season or for all seasons unto eternity (and that's a LOT of Jimmy Choo's).

are there perhaps a larger than usual contingent of monotheists in more dangerous jobs? is this the reason there are allegedly fewer atheists in fox-holes?

valdemar said...

Good point, li'l drummer boy, if a tad off-topic.

Heresiarch, let me ask you about a comment at the end of your piece. What entirely secular reasons could there be for disapproving of same-sex unions? I'm racking my brains for something untainted by faith.

The Heresiarch said...

I can imagine a few. You might believe, for example, that for British society to survive, long-term, and maintain its identity without even more massive immigration, it's the duty of people to get married and reproduce even if their tastes aren't in that direction. Allowing gay partnerships thus lowers the birthrate. The Romans failed to reproduce adequately, and as a result the empire fell to the barbarians. (I'm not saying that's a good reason, but it's A reason). Or you might think that homosexuality is a matter of nurture and environment and thus psychologically disturbed. Psychiatrists used to label homosexuality as a mental health condition as recently as 40 years ago. However bad that looks now, in terms of what most people think (including me) it's not a RELIGIOUS belief. I'm sure there are other possibilities.

valdemar said...

Good points, both. But the first one implies that only heterosexuals who are capable of reproducing should be allowed to marry, or civilly unite. Lots of married couples can't have kids, after all. That said, I suppose the population argument lies behind communist and fascist persecution of gays.

Second point, slight 'hmmm' factor. Wasn't diagnosing homosexuality as a mental disorder inevitable so long as it was classed as an illegal perversion? And who was to blame for that classification if not our religious brethren?

David said...

This thread is getting a bit 'heavy duty' for me.
It is clear that this is a 'Christian' inspired blaim and shame, 'ambulance chasing' job.

She wa/is not marrying hetros or gays in the eyes of GOD and therefore, if she finds it offensive re-locate.

Feisty lady though.

Lil' Drummer Bwoi said...

my little brother once remarked to my mother, on the way home from school, that he was glad he was not a homosexual (having just learnt what a homosexual was at school) when she enquired why, he replied: "I wouldn't like to get poo all over my willy!"

it remains the only secular reason for (man on man) same-sex disapproval I can find anywhere.

The Heresiarch said...

Well, it certainly put me off. There's a famous line in Juvenal - I learned it at school (though it was not, strictly speaking, a set text) which culminates hesternae occurrere cenae (roughly, preserving the pun, "come into last night's supper"). That sort of thing stays with you for years.

WeepingCross said...

Silas: Only the Church of England has the right to solemnise legal marriages in this country. All members of other Christian denominations must register their marriage civilly, then they can do what they like religiously. That doesn't change the fact that it's an entirely non-religious event.

Generally: I can't see this lady has a logical leg to stand on, though legally it appears she's secure. That only exposes how tattered the law has become. But should issues like this really need legal definition? A sensible employer would have rearranged things so she wouldn't have been faced with the situation. In a polity where everyone is more concerned with defending their rights and enforcing their ideology rather than with rubbing along together in an amiable and charitable way, this is what you get.

The Heff said...

I recall a similar thing in Melbourne a few years ago. Some taxi drivers of a particular religion (I forget which one) started to get a bit sniffy about letting people with alcohol or dogs into thier cabs.

The council told them to piss off.

Eigan said...

She seems to have been employed as a Registrar for some time before civil partnerships were instigated, so it's at least partly an issue about changes to her contract of employment.

It's the way Islington effectively demanded that she made a public affirmation against her beliefs that worries me. Plus, assuming she knows something about church history, they come awfully close to demanding a certificate of sacrifice to the gods of new labour.