On the Equality Bill, the pope has a point

If you believe in freedom of association, then you must accept the right of private institutions to discriminate.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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You know something’s amiss when the head of the Catholic Church, a body associated less with rational inquiry than with the Inquisition, comes to embrace the language of the Enlightenment. But this week there he was, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to a roomful of English and Welsh bishops, happily alluding to John Locke and invoking man’s natural, inviolable freedoms – whether he knew it or not.

The occasion for the pontiff’s unexpected turn of phrase came in the form of New Labour’s Equality Bill, a piece of legislation just about to finish passing through the House of Commons before it heads up to the House of Lords. And what a vision of forced equality it is. Jam-packed with proposals such as allowing companies to discriminate in favour of women and ethnic minorities in light of staff shortages, or demands that companies publish what they pay their staff (revealing gender pay disparities), the Equality Bill promises to further entrench the state in the private sphere, giving it unprecedented freedom to regulate everyday relations.

What irked the Pope, however, was not his love of sexism in the workplace – it was that the legislation might well force religious organisations to follow anti-discrimination guidelines when recruiting staff. And for an organisation that likes its staff to be, well, Catholic, with all that that entails, such as the belief that being gay is not a source of pride but of sin, then anti-discrimination laws might well prove a little tricky. Cue Benedict XVI’s Lockean phrasing and talk of natural law: ‘The effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal [of equality] has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.’

Regardless of what the legislative, clause-laden nuances of the bill actually entail, its supporters have been quick to seize the opportunity to attack the pope – for his prejudices, his beliefs, or, as its otherwise known, his Catholicism. MEP Stephen Hughes jumped in: ‘As a Catholic, I am appalled by the attitude of the pope. Religious leaders should be trying to eradicate inequality, not perpetuate it’, he said, clearly mistaking religious leaders for Bono. Political activist Peter Tatchell also stuck the boot in: ‘[The pope’s] ill-informed claim that our equality laws undermine religious freedom suggests that he supports the right of churches to discriminate in accordance with their religious ethos.’

Tatchell is correct of course. The pope does believe that churches have the right to discriminate in accordance with their religious ethos. But what Tatchell, Hughes and the rest of the pope’s critics don’t seem to understand is that churches ought to be free to do just that – organise themselves on the basis of what they believe in. This principle doesn’t just apply to churches. It ought to be effective throughout the social world, from the private sphere to the political sphere.

At issue here is our freedom of association. At the most personal, intimate level, this is a freedom we take for granted. It’s the freedom to choose one’s company, to choose who one associates with and who one doesn’t. At every stage, because we’re moral subjects, capable of judgement, we discriminate, excluding some people, because they’re unfeasibly annoying perhaps, and selecting others, maybe because they’re kind or funny. This freedom of association extends beyond the most informal relations and into the wider private and political sphere. It is manifest in book groups, in sports clubs, in trade unions. In each, we associate with others because we have chosen to do so, almost always because of something we hold in common, whether it’s a love of literature or a shared economic interest.

As part of this freedom of association, this freedom to give shared beliefs or interests an organisational form, others, who do not share those beliefs or interests, will be excluded. As intolerable as New Labour may find it, discrimination goes hand-in-hand with freedom of association. You can’t defend one without defending the other. For instance, someone who thinks throwing weighted spikes at a piece of cork is the activity of a moron is unlikely to be welcome at a darts club. Or, to take a more topical example, a British man of Pakistani origin is unlikely to be embraced by the British National Party – unless, of course, he himself is a white power-style racist.

And more often than not, the discriminatory nature of groups in the private and political realm is not actually a problem. Not least because if agreement on certain beliefs, or a common interest, is the condition for association, disagreement on certain beliefs or the lack of a common interest is the reason for the lack of association. One doesn’t seek to associate with those one virulently disagrees with; one argues against them. Such is the nature of that which is given collective form by freedom of association, namely, freedom of speech.

This isn’t to defend discrimination in the public sector. When it comes to state-funded, public bodies – from the health service to the law – discrimination needs to be challenged. To accept discrimination in public services would be to deny the formal equality we all ought to enjoy as citizens, designating some people, whether on the basis of ethnicity or gender, as somehow inferior, as less than fully human. Which was precisely the situation confronting Britain’s working classes and women well into the twentieth century.

But the Catholic Church is not a state-funded public body. It exists as an organisation of the social world, not the state. In the UK, it is, to all intents and purposes, a private institution. It ought to be free to decide its constitution, its staffing policy, to discriminate in accordance with its ethos, because if a church doesn’t do that, it might as well not exist. After all, a congregation exists because of a church’s ethos, its belief system, not in spite of it. A faith that doesn’t discriminate, that doesn’t embody judgement, that doesn’t have an ethical vision of the world, is a faith without faith in itself – which is no faith at all.

Make no mistake, the Equality Bill is an attack on everybody’s freedom. Such was the ruling class’s fear of social revolt at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the state introduced so-called ‘combination’ laws, to stop the formation of incipient workers’ organisations. Nearly 200 years later, such is the modern state’s suspicion, not just of workers, but of every private individual’s conscience, that it is seeking to regulate freedom of association in general. When the pope is the voice of liberty and freedom, you know there’s something up with our secular rulers.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill criticised state-enforced equality and called for the mainstream to reclaim our Voltaire. Tim Black pointed out that the EHRC is autocratic. In a speech last year, Wendy Kaminer argued that state intervention into everyday life is giving rise to habits of submission. Chris Snowden looked at the nanny state’s successor, the bully state. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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