Are "religious rights" special?

Today’s Wail contains a typically sensational report on the case of Lillian Ladele, a bigot whose sky-fairy told her to do it. So many points to be made here that I don’t quite know where to start. Perhaps a quick rewrite is in order. The following should strike everyone the way a story like this strikes me:

Victory for Pastafarian registrar bullied for refusing to perform ‘sinful’ inter-racial weddings

A Pastafarian registrar who refused to carry out interracial ‘weddings’ won a landmark legal battle yesterday.

A. N. Other, 45, was threatened with the sack, bullied and ‘thrown before the lions’ after asking to be excused from conducting civil partnerships for mixed-race couples because of his religious beliefs.

But yesterday a tribunal agreed that his faith had been ridden roughshod over by equalities-obsessed Islington Council, which had sought to ‘trump one set of rights with another’.

The groundbreaking decision could lead to firms facing ‘conscience claims’ from staff who say their own beliefs prevent them carrying out part of their job.

Yesterday’s ruling found that Liberal Democrat-run Islington Council in North London cared too much about the ‘rights of the black, white, asian and oriental communities’.

It also found that the council – which gave Mr. Other an ultimatum to choose between his beliefs and his £31,000-a-year job – showed no respect for his rights as a Pastafarian.

Speaking afterwards, Mr. Other said: ‘It is a victory for religious liberty, not just for myself but for others in a similar position to mine.

‘Civil rights should not be used as an excuse to bully or harass people over their religious beliefs.’

Mr. Other, who is single, said he was treated like a pariah by colleagues and left in an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’.

He had wept as he told the tribunal how his employers gave him an ultimatum to perform the ceremonies or face dismissal for gross misconduct.

‘I was being picked on a daily basis,’ he said. He said he felt like he was being ‘thrown before the lions’, explaining: ‘I hold the orthodox Pastafarian view that marriage is the union of two people of the same race for life and this is the Flying Spaghetti Monster-ordained place for sexual relations.

‘It creates a problem for any Pastafarian if they are expected to do or condone something that they see as sinful.’

His nightmare began in 2004, when he realised that legislation permitting civil partnerships at town halls between gays or lesbians would require him to preside over the ceremonies.

Mr. Other raised his concerns, but was ridiculed. His boss, Helen Mendez-Child, said his stance was akin to a registrar refusing to marry a gay person.

In 2006 Mr. Other and another, unnamed, Pastafarian colleague were accused of ‘discriminating against the homosexual community’.

In May 2007, the council launched an internal disciplinary inquiry into Mr. Other.

Four months later, he was told if he did not co-operate he would be sacked. He took the council to an employment tribunal, claiming discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of religion or beliefs.

Yesterday the Central London tribunal agreed he had been unfairly treated.

In its ruling, which could have implications for the administration of the 18,000 same-sex ceremonies conducted every year, the tribunal said: ‘This is a situation where there is a conflict between two rights or freedoms. It is an important case, which may have a wider impact than the dispute between the parties.

‘The tribunal accepts that it would be wrong for one set of rights to trump another.

‘The evidence before the tribunal was that Islington Council rightly considered the importance of the right of the interracial community not to be discriminated against but did not consider the right of Mr. Other as a member of a religious group.

‘Islington Council decided that the service it provided was secular and that the rights of the interracial community must be protected.

‘In so acting, it took no notice of the rights of Mr. Other by virtue of his orthodox Pastafarian beliefs.’

Compensation will be decided in September. There is no limit to the amount that can be awarded for religious discrimination.

Last night employment lawyer Lisa Mayhew, of Jones Day, said: ‘It is a bit of a wake-up call for employers.

‘They need to think about whether their instructions and the tasks expected of staff might cause people with religious beliefs more problems than others.

‘It does not have to be religion – this could apply across the spectrum in terms of race, gender or sexual orientation.’

But Bert Winterknack, of interracial rights campaign group Brickwall, said: ‘Public servants are paid by taxpayers to deliver public services.

‘They shouldn’t be able to pick and choose who they deliver those services to.’

Now, before we get down to it, there are a few pragmatic points I have seen raised on this. Sure, the argument goes, she couldn’t expect to be employed if she lived, say, in the highlands, and was the only registrar for miles around, but she wasn’t. She worked in a busy registrar’s office, and there were other registrars who could do the ceremonies she objected to, why couldn’t Islington council just be a sport and allow her to duck out of those ceremonies she didn’t want anything to do with. Of course, they could have done that, and, as I understand it, this is the ad hoc arrangement that she came to for some time.

Like any employee who continually demands special treatment in the way their tasks are assigned in a workplace that employs many people, it doesn’t surprise me that this didn’t exactly make her popular in the office. I don’t know how far the alleged “lions” went, but since the article in the Mail, which is pretty sympathetically worded, mentions no specifics at all, I doubt it was especially bad. Besides which, this isn’t what she is complaining about – the employment tribunal are there only to consider the rights and wrongs of her being faced with an ultimatum playing her beliefs against her continued employment.

The main point, really, is that to say the council (and I couldn’t care less that it’s a Lib Dem council, it may as well be a BNP council for all I care, they’d still be right) have wrongly allowed gay rights to trump religious ones is bizarre. The gay people in question are not employees, the religious person in question is, and an employee of a secular, state organisation, at that. Her job description now requires her to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies (which, by the way, were only introduced in the first place to get around the fact that religious twats were so bothered about the idea of the word “marriage” being applied to gay relationships, so I’m not even sure what she’s bothered about; she’s isn’t being asked to “marry” gay people), and she is refusing to do her job. Why should a secular state pay her to only do, say, nine tenths of her job? How about four fifths of her job? Half? A quarter?

Why is there even confusion about people’s right to be employed even if they say they mustn’t do part of the job description, not because they are incapable of doing it, but because they don’t believe in it? Could I demand work as a bricklayer but say I was ideologically opposed to physical work? No? Why not?

But as soon as you attach the magic word “religion” to things, people lose sight of the point. This is a problem for soft-secular states like Britain, who like to think they are essentially secular now but who still have a state religion, a requirement for a daily act of worship in all state schools, and laws against religious discrimination but no similar protections for atheists. An atheist who acted as Lillian Ladele has would, quite rightly, be told to fucking well belt up and get on with their job or find another one. Like she was. And nobody would think they had a leg to stand on.

Of course, nobody should be forced to do something they don’t want to do. And Miss Ladele wasn’t, she was given a choice: officiate in these ceremonies, or find another job which was compatible with her beliefs. She chose instead to throw her toys out of the pram and assert her right to stay on the public purse whilst discriminating against a section of the public who she is employed by. That an employment tribunal thinks that this right exists is the scary part. Because what it means is that, in the minds of the tribunal at least, “religious” rights are in some way special. Belief in a supernatural order to the world does, it seems, qualify you to hold attitudes which unreasonably affect your performance of your job without fear of reproach. In this sense, the state has a long way to go before it can genuinely call itself secular.

People who call Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling et al. “militant”, who claim they are just being mean and picking a fight with mostly inoffensive religious people, can shove it up their arse. Because until stories like this one seem to everyone as obviously absurd as they do to atheists, they have a very important role.