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Rights, freedoms and weapons

Rights, freedoms and weapons

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The think tank ResPublica has just launched an essay on religious liberty, Beyond BeliefWritten by the Oxford philosopher James Orr, it is an admirably thoughtful, intelligent and provocative intervention. It is also a timely one.

A few days ago, a school in Cornwall apologised to a Christian teaching assistant it had disciplined for sharing her views on gay relationships with a 14-year-old student. Yesterday, Theresa May was asked in Prime Minister Questions about Christians’ right to speak out about their faith. In doing so, she mentioned and endorsed report by the Evangelical Alliance and the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, Speak Up! , intended to “equip and inspire Christians with confidence and knowledge of the current legal freedoms we have to share our faith”. This is a live debate, to which Theos too has contributed, most recently with our elusively named essay How to think about religious freedom

When studying Anglo-Saxon history last millennium, I remember, as a naïve undergraduate, being told by the eccentric, inspiring and now much-missed historian, James Campbell how to read Anglo-Saxon laws. When such laws forbade clerics from carrying weapons or getting into fights in taverns (seriously!), it was a pretty good guess, he told me, that the problem of aggressive and/ or drunk weapon-wielding clerics had become a serious one.

One imagines historians of the early 21st century Britain reaching the same conclusion: so much talk about loss of religious freedom was because religious freedom had been lost. They would be wrong and, in their defence, none of the above mentioned reports even suggests that (indeed, most actively denounce the idea that liberty has been lost). Nonetheless, no talk without substance and all that: the very fact that a school should have deemed it acceptable – even conceivable – to discipline a teacher for voicing her personal opinion when asked, about a topic that less than a decade ago was the almost unchallenged social norm is bewildering, and depressing. We live in unsettling times.

The ResPublica report advocates “reasonable accommodation” as a way forward in this debate, a “principle would require an accommodation of religious practice to be made by employers and public sector bodies”. The principle is already well-attested in the “reasonable adjustments for disabled persons” introduced by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and also, more relevantly, in the legislation, 40 years old this month, permitting Sikhs to wear a turban as opposed to a crash helmet whilst riding a motorcycle. The report gives several examples of what it might involve (although one can’t help think the first one could have been better chosen): “public swimming-pools reserving special hours for women whose religion prohibits mixed swimming… a hospital offering menus without pork to accommodate the dietary practices of Jewish and Muslim patients… an employer making reasonable effort to rearrange work timetables to permit religious employees to observe religious holidays.”

Reasonable accommodation definitely deserves careful attention, if only because, as one MP waggishly put it during the report launch in the House of Commons yesterday, most parliamentarians probably think it has something to do with the housing crisis. If there is a need to re-balance on the onus of responsibility in these conflicts, reasonable accommodation may offer the best modus vivendi.

However, there is just a small streak in me that worries about it. During his address at the launch, author James Orr used a wonderful phrase, which I shall steal from him. The problem, he said, is not with rights per se, but with fact that rights have “become weaponised”, less tools used to navigate the complexities of a shared good and more armaments deployed to assert my good over yours. This rings true (although that may be because we only tend to hear of the more combative rights cases) but if it is true I have a concern that “reasonable accommodation” may just offer more opportunities for such weaponised use. The solution, with the best of intentions, may end up stoking up the litigious problem.

As with guns in urban America, or indeed knives in priest-packed Anglo-Saxon taverns, the more rights you leave lying around the place, the more likely people are to use them.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick

Image by Tim Evanson, via Flickr, available under CreativeCommons


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