Gay Equality vs. Traditional Marriage: Clash of Rights or Clash of Civilisations?

Posted on January 19, 2011


Marazion, West Cornwall

We commented here recently on the case of Christian hoteliers sued for refusing to allow a homosexual couple to share a room at their hotel in Cornwall. A Judge yesterday ruled against them, arguing that their refusal constitutes an act of ‘direct discrimination’ on grounds of sexual orientation.

Similar claims of persecution against Christians have previously been dismissed. In the well-known cases of Shirley Chaplin and Nadia Eweida, it was claimed by some that wearing a cross was not a fundamental requirement of the Christian religion. In the present case, the Judge accepted however that the hotel owners were expressing a ‘perfectly orthodox Christian belief’, that such belief is covered by the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and that Christian hoteliers, no less than homosexuals, are entitled to protection from discrimination under Article 14 of the ECHR.

Yet, ruling in favour of the homosexual couple, he said that it was inevitable that equality laws would ‘cut across deeply held beliefs of individuals . . . These laws have come into being because of changes in social attitudes. The standards and principles governing our behaviour which were unquestioningly accepted in one generation may not be so accepted in the next’.

Declining to engage in feeble attempts to give a rational justification to equality laws, Mr. Justice Rutherford admitted that they are based on nothing more than vague ‘attitudes’ – the shifting sands of public opinion. Rather than claiming that the hoteliers’ actions did not constitute a requirement of their religion, or that they were not covered by the law, the ruling admitted that their opinion was legitimate and protected by law, but nevertheless needed to be bulldozed in the name of gay rights. A spokesman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) who bankrolled the case declared that ‘[this] decision means that community standards, not private ones, must be upheld’.

That community standards ought to be upheld over private ones I do not seek to dispute. Previously, both religious believers and secular defenders of traditional marriage have painted such cases as ‘clashes of rights’. After the infamous case of MacFarlane v. Relate Avon, Steven Cave of the Evangelical Alliance called for ‘a better way of dealing with cases such as this outside the courts, which allows space for people of faith and no faith to live and work together, freely and respectfully able to express their diverse beliefs in public’.

Lady Justice

Leaving aside the issue of faith, it is difficult to see how the creation of such a space can be achieved, because what we are dealing with are irreconcilable views about man and society, and by extension, the nature and purpose of the public sphere. We must stop fooling ourselves that we can treat fundamental disagreements about such topics as the very nature of marriage – the institution from which human life itself originates – as if they were along the lines of controversies over whether it is wrong to eat pork, or whether women should cover their heads with scarves. A life in common is possible amongst people who disagree about the latter, but not amongst those who disagree about the former. This case highlights the fact that what we face is not so much a clash of rights but a clash of civilisations. One civilisation views humans as having predetermined natures and happiness comes from living in harmony with these natures. Man is a social creature who needs to live in communities which are directed toward the common good, seen not as the good of a majority, but as the perfection of every individual. The family is the most fundamental of communities and the basis of all others, rooted in the union of man and woman for the purpose of procreating and nurturing children. Life is an adventure of seeking to discover more about the world and our human nature, and to live more perfectly in accord with it through the exercise of virtue.

The second views man as an isolated individual in a meaningless universe, ordered toward nothing in particular. Society is akin to a dog kennel: no-one sees beyond his own cage and there is nothing ‘out there’ to be discovered, because we create our own values, re-define, and re-engineer reality as we please. Social institutions like marriage cannot survive in recognisable forms, precisely because they are social, and in this world there can be no such thing as genuine community, but only a collection of individuals in close physical proximity. Life is simply an interlude of grasping at ephemeral pleasure before it passes from nothingness into nothingness. There is a paradox in such an atomistic view however, for in order to reinforce our own self-created conceptions of reality, it is necessary to force these ‘realities’ upon others, hence the absurd claim by the EHRC in this case that ‘the right not to be turned away by a hotel just because you are gay’ is ‘one of the most fundamental rights a person can have’. Radical individualism, paradoxically, travels a full circle to become enforced conformity. The role of the political community is not to direct all toward the common good, or even to direct anyone toward anything at all, but simply to act as a sort of hapless referee amidst the social chaos which is inevitable in a society run along such lines.

The most evident thing in yesterday’s ruling was the confusion of the Judge trying to manoeuvre his way through the labyrinth of legislation which has attempted to accommodate both conceptions of society, and ultimately failed. Let’s stop kidding ourselves that we can create a shared space in which both of these polarised views of man and society can co-exist, and decide which world it is that we want to live in: the real world, or a fantasy world of our own making.

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(Photo of Iustitia: CC: © belgianchocolate. Photo of Marazion: CC: © Bob Jones. No endorsement implied.)