Monday, 21 December 2009

Equality before the law

If Harriet Harman's odious Equality Bill reaches the statute book in anything like its current form (in other words, if the House of Lords doesn't manage to delay it before a general election intervenes) then there may well be social and legal chaos in this country. There will also be a lot more work for lawyers. A lot.

Even without the new law, there is almost endless scope for legal mischief-making. The other day Lillian Ladele, the evangelical registrar who claimed that the right not to deal with gay couples formed a vital part of her beliefs as a Christian, finally lost her appeal. Right result; but the case should never have been brought. It should never have been possible to bring it. The Daily Mail has also been highlighting the case of a supply teacher suspended from duty after a family complained about her offer to pray for them. Legal action is clearly in contemplation here, too. Like Ladele, like the nurse Caroline Petrie who was disciplined for wanting to pray with patients ("coincidentally" - says the Mail - a friend of hers) Olive Jones is being represented by the Christian Institute, which makes a point of bringing lawsuits premised on the idea that Christians are being oppressed in "politically correct" Britain.

Signs are, though, that it is about to get a whole lot worse. The other day Mike Foster, Harman's deputy, said that once the legislation was passed both religious and secular groups should be "lining up" their lawyers. "The secularists should have the right to challenge the church," he said, adding "... I would like to see the faith groups stand up and be counted for what they think and to challenge secularism."

He not only expects the new laws to lead to a rash of litigation, he positively wants it. Christians v Secularists, atheists v Christians, gays v Christians, Muslims v Christians, Jews v Jews (as in the recent case of the Jewish Free School) the permutations are endless. As are the possibilities of enrichment for members of the legal profession.

It'll be better than libel. And, unlike libel, most of the money will be coming from the taxpayer.

These cases are usually fought with public money, often both sides being taxpayer funded on account of the great public interest involved. In other words, to establish the precedence between a louse and a flea (in a case like Lillian Ladele's, you really do wish that they could both lose) public money is thrown at lawyers. Just as the NHS has been virtually bankrupted by once unheard-of negligence suits, so public bodies are forced to devote money that should be spent on vital services to fighting off (or, alternatively, bringing) vexatious actions to enforce the new official morality. Meanwhile the country's vital infrastructure degrades and people in real need are ignored.

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, tossed a straw into the wind a couple of days ago, writing to the BBC Trust that some of the messages posted on the Beeb's website regarding proposed anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda would fall foul of the new law. Phillips came in for criticism for his move - the prominent media lawyer Mark Stephens called it "a pathetic attempt to censor free speech on a matter of enormous public interest." Perhaps he does relish the legal actions he will soon be empowered (arguably compelled) to bring. But he didn't draft the new law, he is merely pointing out its contents. As a "public sector body", the BBC will be required, under s148 of the Harman Bill, to (among much else) "foster good relations" between various groups possessing "protected characteristics" - a problematic term I've considered in detail before - and the rest of society. Allowing homophobes or other bigots to "have their say", even in the interests of free speech (which is supposedly protected by the European Convention) will be illegal.

Elsewhere, I notice that The British Humanist Association (perhaps taking up Mike Foster's suggestion) is looking for cases of religious discrimination against non-believers. They have launched a "very important call for evidence" to submit to the EHRC, especially in the areas of education, public services and employment. "Have you ever felt harassed when receiving a public service?" they ask. Are they hoping to find new Caroline Petries and Olive Joneses to make martyrs of, to the delight of the Christian Institute or the ineffable Andrea Williams of the Christian Legal Centre? It sounds like it.

From the Christian side, Baroness O'Cathain, the evangelical Tory peer, complained last week in the Lords that the Equality Bill was "for Christian freedom... the single most damaging Bill to come before the House in my 18 years as a Member." She also, needless to say, offered plenty of examples of Christians who had suffered in the name of "equality and diversity". This is the woman, incidentally, who earlier this year attempted to introduce a ban on "extreme writing", which would have made it a criminal offence to be in possession of written pornography, so it's hard to take her seriously as a defender of freedom. But that, in a sense, is the point. Her desire to oppress others who don't share her moralistic view of what constitutes acceptable literature is matched by the desire of others to restrict her ability to express bigoted opinions.

It's tempting to conclude that, after ruling the roost for several hundred years, Christian supremacists like Lady O'Cathain are finally getting a taste of their own medicine. But that's a dangerous road to go down. For one thing, in the past what O'Cathain calls "the unique place of the Christian faith in national life" didn't lead to endless legal battles. For another, the role of the law has changed from being an embodiment of a moral consensus and now strives to be the instrument for imposing a novel set of moral beliefs. This new dispensation - based around the incompatible concepts of "equality" and "diversity" - can be every bit as oppressive as the old, Christian-based morality, but it has far shallower roots.

While earlier illiberal laws (making homosexuality illegal, criminalising "blasphemy", restricting divorce and so on) reflected (followed, reinforced) popular prejudices or the dictates of the Church, the new official morality is largely sui generis. Legislation springs from the cosy relationship between the Labour government and various pressure groups, lobbyists and quangos, many publicly-funded, some of them staffed by once and future MPs - a process from which the public is effectively excluded. In the name of "progressiveness", the aim of these laws is to change society, to drag the public behind the vanguard. It is as much a top-down morality as anything decreed by the Pope.

But that's not the worst consequence of Harmanism. Groups like the Christian Institute paint themselves as the victims of the culture of political correctness, and to an extent they are. But the Equality Bill will provide them with as many opportunities as threats - religion, of course, being one of the "protected characteristics" sanctified by the bill. Without the politically correct laws they so dislike they wouldn't be able to bring their vexatious claims in the first place. In the culture of competing victimhoods, religious exceptionalists and their secular, relativising opponents, mutually loathing though they may be, both have much to gain by claiming their share of "rights".

Albeit not quite so much to gain as the lawyers.