What is the role of personal conviction when carrying out public service? The issue came up when Ruth Kelly MP was Minister for Women and Equalities and more recently in her new role. This week the Government has again provided its problematic answer: someone who believes in discrimination and is against existing anti-discrimination laws is still able to carry out a public duty to promote – and enforce – these same anti-discrimination laws. Which confuses me: if you’ve campaigned against a law, how can you then aim to enforce it persuasively and effectively, unless you’ve changed your mind and now think it’s a good law?
Joel Edwards has just been appointed commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the new statutory body mandated to enforce equality and human rights legislation in Britain. This legislation includes the Sexual Orientation Regulations 2007 which ban discrimination on the rounds of sexual orientation in goods and services provision. Yet Edwards, in his capacity as the General Director of the Evangelical Alliance, actively campaigned against the regulations arguing that ‘religious groups’ should be exempt from them as a matter of ‘freedom of conscience’. The issue? Apparently Christians (in his words):
don’t want to find themselves coerced by law into facilitating the promotion of homosexuality
Leaving aside the glaringly obvious points around a) questioning what ‘promoting homosexuality’ is and b) highlighting how homophobic the comment is given the context was about delivering goods and services (revealing much about the organisation’s position on sexual orientation), let us consider this: how well will Edwards be able to deliver on his task of promoting and enforcing the regulations if he believes that some parts of the population shouldn’t be forced to comply with this anti-discrimination law – and therefore should be allowed to discriminate?
Worryingly, underlying Edwards’ argument is the idea that ‘freedom of conscience’ should provide a get out card from delivering fairness and equality. But isn’t conscience just someone’s personal beliefs and therefore open to being prejudicial? It might be ‘deeply held’ (how deep is deep?) and supported by a particular interpretation of a sacred text (sacred to them that is), but it can still be discriminatory.
And that is sort of the point – people aren’t supposed to be allowed not to comply with anti-discrimination law just because they believe discrimination is a good thing. Whether they cite the source of their discrimination and prejudice as a holy text or their tradition/religion/culture/ideology/etc or whether they have no source to cite whatever and just want to discriminate. All not allowed in the world of equality and human rights. Will Edwards’ conscience permit him to aggressively promote these values? Or will he try to opt out of discussions on how commissioners should promote gay rights claiming his conscience forbids him?
In fact, I think both the National Secular Society and The Wardman Wire (who disagrees with the Society) have got it wrong when they frame the problem as being about how ‘objective’ Edwards will be able to be because what they are actually questioning is his neutrality. But we don’t need commissioners to be neutral. We need them to be quite biased in favour of promoting equality and human rights for all.
I really hope the Rev Richard Kirker’s (from the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement) optimism regarding the supposed recent change in Edwards’ beliefs is well-founded. Because if those charged with promoting equality don’t even believe in it, we’re in more trouble than I thought.