A ruling from the European Court of Human Rights today has raised questions about the future involvement of Christians in professional and public life.
In the case of Gary McFarlane the Court found that his 'freedom of thought, conscience and religion' had not been infringed by his employer's decision to dismiss him – despite the fact that his conscience could have been respected without any risk of others being denied a service to which they were entitled.
McFarlane had practised as a relationships counselor for a number of years. Then, during a training course for a new skill, he was prompted to indicate that if the situation ever arose he might have a conscientious objection to providing sex therapy to a same-sex couple on account of his Christian faith.
He was dismissed for gross misconduct for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, despite the fact that the issue involved a hypothetical scenario and there was never a risk of anyone being denied a service to which they were entitled since there were other counsellors who were willing and able to provide it.
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides strong protections for the 'freedom of thought, conscience and religion'.
A ComRes poll in 2010 found that 72% of British adults agree that "Christians should be able to refuse to act against their conscience without being penalised by their employer".
Speaking after the judgment, McFarlane said he was "amazed" by the court's ruling.
"There was no need for me to be dismissed. No one was ever denied a service. My conscience could have been accommodated and no one's rights affected," he said.
"What happened to me was deeply illiberal. I simply wanted to do my job in light of my Christian identity but I was policed and punished for my thoughts, for my beliefs. In a truly tolerant society we make room for one another.
"Today's judgment is a worrying sign not just for those who bring their Christian faith to bear on their work but for all those who hold viewpoints that differ from the reigning orthodoxy.
"Recent equality legislation has not led to greater respect for difference but to the punishment of difference of opinion. It is not bringing us together but driving us apart and making us afraid to talk about our differences. It's leading to a fragile and superficial society."
Andrea Williams, Director of the Christian Legal Centre, said: "It's a great shame that justice has not been done and common sense has not prevailed. Gary's case could have been resolved in a reasonable way. The equality legislation in the United Kingdom has led to some people being more equal than others. This judgment further entrenches this mindset.
"The European Court had the opportunity to redress the balance but has failed to do so. It is deeply ironic that equality legislation has led to such unequal and unfair treatment of Christians.
"This judgment will make it increasingly difficult for Christians to participate fully in society. Many Christians, motivated by their faith, want to serve others in their professions but they will now be hindered from doing so. Christian faith should not be a bar to office."
Source: Christian Concern