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Topics In the News
European Court of Human Rights Rules that Religion Cannot Justify Discrimination against Gay Men and Lesbians
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 01/15/13
Last updated on: 01/16/13
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The ECHR ruled that Gary McFarlane, one of the appellants, may not discriminate against homosexuals.

On January 15, 2013, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in two cases from the United Kingdom that religion cannot justify discrimination against gay men and lesbians. The ruling comes in cases involving two Christians who argued that because of their belief that homosexual relationships are contrary to God's law they should not be required by their employers to do anything that condones homosexuality. The Court soundly rejected that argument, upholding rulings by employment tribunals in the UK.

One of the apellants, Lillian Ladele, who was employed as a Registrar by the London Borough of Islington from 1992 to 2009, refused to perform same-sex civil partnership ceremonies. When the Civil Partnership Act came into force in the United Kingdom in December 2005, she was informed by her employer that she would henceforth be required to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies between homosexual couples. When Ladele refused to agree to do so, her contract was terminated.

The other apellant, Gary McFarlane, worked as a counsellor from May 2003 to March 2008 for the national charity Relate, which offers therapy for couples suffering from sexual dysfunction and other relationship problems. When he made it known that he would refuse to treat same-sex couples, he was dismissed for gross misconduct on the ground that he had stated that he would comply with Relate's Equal Opportunities Policies and provide counselling to same-sex couples without any intention of doing so.

After employment tribunals in the United Kingdom upheld the disciplinary actions against Ladele and McFarlane, the two appealed to the ECHR, alleging that they had been discriminated against on the basis of their religious beliefs.

In rejecting the arguments of Ladele and McFarlane, the Court ruled that the policies of the employers--to promote equal opportunities and to require employees to act in a way which did not discriminate against others--had the legitimate aim of securing the rights of others, such as same-sex couples, which were also protected under the European Convention.

In particular, the Court held that differences in treatment based on sexual orientation required particularly serious justification. Employers, therefore, have wide discretion when it comes to striking a balance between their obligation to secure the rights of others and the apellants' right to manifest their religion.

Scott Roberts at PinkNews reports that the UK's Christian Institute expressed disappointment in the ruling, adding that Christians with traditional beliefs about marriage were "at risk of being left out in the cold."

In contrast, equal rights groups welcomed the ruling.

Stonewall Chief Executive Ben Summerskill said, "Today's judgement rightly confirms that it's completely unacceptable in 2013 for public servants to pick and choose who they want to serve on the basis of sexual orientation."

He added, "Gay people contribute over £40bn to the cost of public services in this country. They're entitled to nothing less than equal treatment from those services, even from public servants who don't happen to like gay people."

Labour Member of the European Parliament Michael Cashman said, "British law rightly protect LGBT people from discrimination, and there is no exemption for religious believers. Religion and belief are deeply private and personal, and should never be used to diminish the rights of others."

British Humanist Association Chief Executive Andrew Copson observed that "These cases have been repeatedly lost in court after court and have wasted an enormous amount of time just as they have generated a huge amount of unnecessarily divisive feeling amongst the public."

"The victim narrative that lies behind them, whipped up by the political Christian lobby groups that organise them and the socially conservative media that report them, has no basis in reality," he added.

The BBC News video below reports on these two cases and two other cases involving religion that were decided by the Court.

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