Tom Chivers of the Daily Telegraph has published an article entitled Religious beliefs should not trump the laws of the land. In it he argues that religious belief should not entitle anyone to break the law as it currently stands, and cites matters such as Sikh knives in school, and the refusal of some Christian counsellors and bed and breakfast providers to offer their services to homosexuals, as examples of the illegitimate use of religion to excuse law-breaking. And he asks rhetorically whether we’d accept human sacrifice from Aztecs, or the stoning of adulterous wives by extreme Muslims, in the name of their sincerely held religious beliefs even though such practices are not exactly lawful. Unsurprisingly, he’s not enthusiastic, and feels fairly secure that none of the rest of us will be either.
In a brief Twitter exchange, in which he at first put forward the principle that “generally, if you live in a country, you should obey its laws despite beliefs”, it soon became clear that it’s not quite that simple. Nazi Germany, and the Ugandan law to bring in the death penalty for homosexuality, both seem to put paid to the “law is king, and kicks religion into touch” argument. The truth is that Tom’s enthusiasm for the rule of law is more honestly stated as enthusiasm for laws he agrees with.
Where I agree absolutely with Tom’s original article is that contrary to ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, requiring those of religious faith to obey the law does not amount to discrimination against them. In fact, such an argument is ludicrous. The idea that there should be exemptions from laws to accommodate religious belief is intolerable. What is not intolerable is the notion that those who in conscience cannot obey a law should be able to break it. And they should endure the legal consequences. Those who, like Lord Carey, seem to think that it’s enough to argue that in this country, where Christian norms have hitherto been legal norms as well, it is thus right to allow exemptions would do well to remember that the Christian tradition of resistance to “wrong laws” is also the tradition of costly personal sacrifice. Thomas Cranmer did not ask for an exemption from Mary I; he went to the stake.
So those who feel that their bed-sheets should not be soiled by the sexual delights enjoyed between two men should refuse to admit them. And then they should go to court and face justice under the law: they should not cry foul, or claim that they are discriminated against. In their defence, they should publicly state why the law is morally repugnant to them, and see if they can persuade others. They would not persuade me, despite the fact that I too am a Christian, but that’s hardly the point.
I doubt that you could get a fag-paper between me and Tom Chivers on the substantive issues in the specific cases he cites as being ones in which religious special-pleading has no place. But I don’t agree with what I see as the implication, at least, of his piece that there is something illegitimate or dishonourable about those religious people who protest against laws they cannot in conscience accept, and that they should put up and shut up. I’ll bet that if the law in question was one he also believed to be wrong, then he’d be happy to make common cause with Christians or those of other faiths that wanted to resist it. It is as problematic to make a God of the law as it is to claim that one’s own God is above the law.