August 4, 2008
Like many people in Islington, I’ve been following the saga of Lillian Ladele and Islington Council with interest. When the news reached the general public that Ladele’s appeal against her dismissal had been successful, we were inundated with many offers of support, both from individuals and from organisations such as the Nation Secular Society, amongst others. All viewed the case as being a setback for the acceptance of gay marriage in the UK, not without reason – the Christian Institute, which funded Ladele’s suit, is claiming this as legal recognition for religion-based prejudice.
We have confirmed that we’re appealing the decision. This is quite a complex issue – the grounds on which we lost the appeal were not necessarily those that the Christian Institute would like to believe, but rather that the management’s original handling of the case fell below the standards that an employee could reasonably accept. However, mishandling a case does not mean that the grounds for her dismissal do not still stand, and so our appeal may have a good chance of success.
Since the appeal came to court, a prominent case involving religious principles has been heard which may have bearing on this issue. The right of a Welsh Sikh girl to wear her kara in class has been upheld by the courts, on the grounds that the kara is an indispensible part of her faith. This stands in stark contrast to the ruling that a Muslim girl in Luton was not permitted to wear a jilbab in class. The difference here appears to revolve around how intrinsic a particular manifestation of religion is to that particular faith. In the case of the Sikh, the kara is specified within scripture as something a Sikh must carry. In the case of the Muslim, the jilbab is not specified within the Koran as something that a Muslim girl must wear, the Koran only specifying the much weaker constraint that women must not dress ‘immodestly’. Since mainstream Muslim opinion in the UK does not appear to hold that anything below the jilbab is immodest, the court found against the girl.
This has bearing on the Ladele case, as these are examples of the courts ruling on what can be properly considered to be a necessary part of a religion – in essence, the courts doing a form of theology. Now, this is where it becomes very interesting indeed. While there are parts of the Bible that clearly condemn homosexuality, there are also parts that seem to describe homosexual relationships. That’s not to even mention all the exhortations in the New Testament to look after those who are the worst off in society, who everyone else passes by.
I realise that having a judge in essence state, “I think what God meant to say,” may seem a little unpalatable to some people, but since there’s a legal precedent for this, I suspect that’s what will eventually happen in the Ladele case. The reason why this has to be the case lies in the Bible itself, specifically in chapter 9 of the Book of Genesis, the infamous Curse of Ham.
This isn’t God turning all of his enemies into vacuum-packed meat slices, but rather a curse placed upon Canaan by Noah. Essentially, God turns Canaan black because he slept with his mother. This has been used in the past to justify all sorts of racism. And that’s why it’s crucial here. An individual’s interpretation of scripture cannot outweigh that of the courts, otherwise a Christian colleague of Ladele would be entitled to refuse to work with her on the grounds that, as a black person, she has been cursed by God. Without a reference to mainstream religious opinion, the Bible permits most forms of discrimination.
However, quite frankly, given the current furore within the Anglican church over gay bishops, who knows what mainstream opinion is any more?