The Pope is wrong: Britain’s equalities legislation strengthens “natural law”

Yesterday the religious right made its latest attack on UK equalities legislation. But Pope Benedict is wrong, the Equalities Bill strengthens "natural law."

Yesterday the religious right made its latest attack on UK equalities legislation. Pope Benedict XVI declared the UK’s laws contrary to the Catholic vision of “natural law.” Many people have surmised that he was talking about either the Equalities Bill going through Parliament at the moment or the Sexual Orientation Regulations introduced last year which made it illegal for adoption agencies – including those managed by Catholic churches – to deny adoption to gay couples.

Just last week, Tory Peers were joined by Church of England bishops in the House of Lords in an attempt to defeat the government’s clarification of existing employment protections for the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) community. This is a familiar pattern that has been seen every time the question of LGB equality comes before Parliament: the religious right begin a scaremongering campaign claiming an end to their freedom in the name of equality. Each time they claim that new legislation violates some form of natural law, which they align solely to the interests of the religious.

Natural law is not the property of the right and has an irreplaceable contribution to make to the left’s view of a more humane and equal society. In its preamble the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) makes an explicit appeal to natural law:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The Equalities Bill and the Sexual Orientation Regulations do not force religious organisations, or anyone else, to change their beliefs. The Equalities Bill is simply tightening up the loose definitions used in the 2003 Sexual Orientation Regulations.

Even before its defeat in the House of Lords, the Equalities Bill allowed religious organisations to continue to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in those roles where it was relevant. Religious freedom does not mean the freedom to do anything, as the Archbishop of York suggested in the House of Lords last week. Instead it is the freedom to exercise their belief in a reasonable way. The Equalities Bill seeks to balance that. It permits discrimination:

“relating to sexual orientation only if it is imposed (by the religious organisation)—

(a) because it is necessary to comply with the doctrine of the organisation, or

(b) to avoid conflict with strongly held convictions of a significant number of the religions followers or the strongly held convictions of a significant number of the beliefs followers.”

This definition covers all ministers of religion and closely follows what the original regulations said for lay personnel. Yet the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are paranoid that this is somehow a limiting of the current regulations. What they want is the right to stipulate that candidates for a certain number of “senior lay posts to demonstrate an ability to live a life consistent with the ethos of the religion”. it is hard to see how the government’s wording of this legislation does not fulfil their wishes.

Pope Benedict is wrong – far from being in contravention of natural law, the UK’s equalities legislation sits firmly within the natural law tradition. It should be defended on that basis.

Our guest writer is Daryn McCombe, National Treasurer of LGBTLabour. Daryn studied theology at King’s College London.

24 Responses to “The Pope is wrong: Britain’s equalities legislation strengthens “natural law””

  1. Andrew Regan

    @leftfootfwd "The Pope is wrong: Britain’s …": Yesterday the religious right made its latest attack on UK … http://bit.ly/92tui8 #labour

  2. Michael

    I could be wrong of course, but I suspect the Pope might be rather better qualified to talk about Natural Law than someone with a theology degree from King’s.

  3. LGBT Labour

    #LGBTLabour's @Daryn_McCombe writes for @LeftFootFwd: "The Pope is Wrong" and defends our Equality Legislation : http://bit.ly/aVu8h4

  4. Daryn McCombe

    Just written for @LeftFootFwd: "The Pope is Wrong" about our Equality Legislation : http://bit.ly/aVu8h4 #lgbtlabour

  5. Richard Angell

    RT @LGBTLabour: @Daryn_McCombe writes for @LeftFootFwd "The Pope is Wrong" & defends our Equality Legislation http://bit.ly/aVu8h4

  6. Rob

    While I agree Kings College London is not a great educational establishment, I am convinced it is better that Hitler Youth!

  7. Michael

    @Rob – yawn – couldn’t see that one coming mate. Still, your brilliantly original and piercing wit notwithstanding, the point remains.

  8. Bill Kristol-Balls

    Is natural law similar to natural rights? If so, I’m with Bentham.

    Maybe Labour could send an emissary to the Vatican to explain their thinking. Someone with strong New Labour principles but also a “deeply held” Catholic faith.

    Blair would be good but could they afford him? Possibly not.

    Personally I find it difficult to listen to anything the Catholic Church has to say without thinking about all those children who were raped by their priests and then had their misery compounded by a widespread institutional cover up.

    Natural law obviously beats man-made law, even in cases of child abuse.

  9. Jae Kay

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Pope is wrong: Britain’s equalities legislation strengthens “natural law”:
    http://is.gd/7zdF0

  10. catriona ogilvy

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Pope is wrong: Britain’s equalities legislation strengthens “natural law”:
    http://is.gd/7zdF0

  11. Matthew Taylor

    All depends on which Natural Law you’re talking about (can think of four or five off the top of my head).

    Ultimately, this particular piece is facile; the reference to the UDHR points this out quite nicely. When a Catholic cleric talks about Natural Law they mean Aquinian Natural Law, in which the Catholic view of sexuality is founded, and that expressly supports the Church’s view on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc.

    LFF might be better sticking to stats rather than branching out in this direction.

  12. Daryn McCombe

    The Pope is wrong: Britain’s equalities legislation strengthens “natural law”:
    http://is.gd/7zdF0 (via @leftfootfwd)

  13. Michael

    @Matthew Taylor – yes and no. That is, the overall structure of natural law would be Thomist, and as you describe it, for most people (particularly the laity, and more particularly the elder laity).

    However… the influence of Jacques Maritain on the UDHR can’t really be downplayed, nor the C20 flirtation between natural law theory and secular-liberal ‘rights’ narratives. I think we’re moving away from that, slowly, but there are bound to be a few fuzzy edges that remain.

  14. LGBT Labour

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Pope is wrong: Britain’s equalities legislation strengthens “natural law”: http://is.gd/7zdF0

  15. Lynda Edwards

    I feel the Pope is out of date in his thinking. He is still adhering to Scriptures written thousands of years ago when the world was a different place.
    Much of what the Bible says is common sense but the business of expecting people to grow up, marry and having children is out of date. This world is so overcrowded I believe our Maker is organising the human race to slow the population growth. This is why many people are naturally drawn to their own sex or just live on their own. Even some heterosexual couples prefer not to have children.

    I am heterosexual but live on my own. I never felt any maternal feelings and don’t regret it. Don’t get me wrong – if people feel the need to have children and are able to care for them and bring them up in a satisfactory way then I am pleased to see them become parents.

    I feel it is a sad mistake for a celibate Pope to tell couples how to lead their lives. It doesn’t seem natural for priests to be forbidden to marry – no wonder the Pope has strange ideas about sex!

  16. Michael

    @Matthew Taylor – if it’s of any interest, there’s a fascinating article on broadly this subject here – http://www.communio-icr.com/articles/PDF/rowland35-3.pdf

  17. Philip Painter

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Pope is wrong: Britain’s equalities legislation strengthens “natural law”:
    http://is.gd/7zdF0

  18. Peter Roberts

    I suspect ratzinger knows very little about anything natural let alone law.
    Outside the hothouse of roman catholic theological the concept of natural law is more or less discredited.
    We certainly don’t need any lectures on what is natural from a man who is the head of a church which has broken every law of natural justice to cover up endemic paedophilia among the roman priesthood.

  19. Francis

    The concept of natural law is discredited? Someone had better telephone John Finnis at Oxford and Robert George at Princeton (to name two among many) and let them know.

  20. Letters From A Tory

    “the religious right begin a scaremongering campaign claiming an end to their freedom in the name of equality.”

    It’s not scaremongering when a judge recently ruled that gay rights “trump” religious rights as far as the law is concerned. Despite being non-religious myself, it is obvious to me that this is an overt attack on freedom of expression for religious groups and is therefore an attack on freedom of expression for everyone else.

  21. Fab 5: Tuesday 2 February 2010 | The Young Fabians Blog

    […] point about freedom vs. equality. Meanwhile, Daryn McCombe, writing for Left Foot Forward, disagrees, suggesting natural law and UK equalities legislation are […]

  22. Tim Worstall

    “I feel the Pope is out of date in his thinking. He is still adhering to Scriptures written thousands of years ago”

    Well, yes Lynda. That’s his job, d’ye see?

    “grounds of sexual orientation in those roles where it was relevant. “…..”the freedom to exercise their belief in a reasonable way.”

    The kicker there is who gets to define the words “relevant” and “reasonable”.

  23. Nash

    I think it is called “natural justice” NOT “natural law”. Most laws have a “natural justice” clause which overrides other clauses.

  24. Soondra

    How fortunate for Harriet Harman that this rotten bill has only been scrutinised by the Vatican (and th Lords). It would have been better if Parliament had looked more into it. This is the worst kind of legislation, establishing a “socio-economic” duty on public bodies to consider the impact of their actions on equality. One shudders to think of local councilors hiring equality auditors to consider the impact of a cleaning contract.

    In comparison the impact on religions is, as has been pointed out, limited.

    How does Harman get such a free ride from the left wing press? Instead of being up in arms that her useless husband, Labour’s least effective Treasurer Jack Dromey, looks set to get a safe seat without an all female shortlist, we’re instead looking at the non-issue of the Papal comments. Amazing

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