A human rights watchdog has a message for Christians: You must choose between following your religion and obeying the law. Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a UK-based non-departmental public body that oversees human rights, took a strong stance against legal exemptions for religious groups during a recent debate in London.
According to Phillips, Christians who want to be exempt from legislation that seeks to ensure equality are similar to Muslims attempting to usher in shariah law. In particular, he was referencing Christian adoption agencies -- many of whom wished to be exempt from working with same-sex families, despite laws requiring them to do so.
"You can't say because we decide we're different then we need a different set of laws," he said, while speaking at a recent debate that focused upon diverse societies. "To me there’s nothing different in principle with a Catholic adoption agency, or indeed Methodist adoption agency, saying the rules in our community are different and therefore the law shouldn’t apply to us. Why not then say shariah can be applied to different parts of the country? It doesn’t work."
Phillips went on to say that churches and religious groups should be free to follow their own rules in the confines of their own environments. But once these institutions begin providing public services, he believes they must follow governmental rules.
"Once you start to provide public services that have to be run under public rules, for example child protection, then it has to go with public law," he explained. "Institutions have to make a decision whether they want to do that or they don’t want to do that."
See Phillips discuss "superdiverse" societies, below (51:00):
The response, thus far, has been a furious one. Former Archbishop of Canterbury called the shariah law comparison "ridiculous" and urged lawmakers to find ways to "accommodate" the religious when new laws clash with their beliefs.
“We are a democracy in which Christianity is established in the Church of England and a nation profoundly influenced by this faith in its Catholic and Anglican heritage," he said. "We need lawmakers to respect this heritage and seek accommodation wherever a strongly held faith seems to clash with new legislation.”
Others, too, saw Phillips' comparison as problematic. Neil Addision, the director of the Thomas More Legal Centre, accused the EHRC of losing track of its original purpose.
"The EHRC is so obsessed with equality that it has lost sight of freedom," Addison proclaimed. "It would prefer people not to do good, rather than to do good on their own terms."
"These comments are deeply illiberal. They are intolerant," added Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre. "Trevor Phillips fails to understand the nature of faith and what inspires faith and what makes agencies like Catholic adoption agencies so selfless."
This debate comes in the wake of a decision earlier this month in which England’s high court found prayer before local council meetings to be unlawful (the Bideford town council plans to appeal). Additionally, last week Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim who is also a British Cabinet member, maintained that Europe is being threatened by militant secularism.
In America, too, a major religious-freedom battle is unfolding between people of faith and the government, as the Obama administration has mandated insurance coverage of controversial contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs. This new regulation, which faith groups are battling against, forces churches to violate their consciences.