Christian relationship counsellor loses appeal bid

A Christian relationship counsellor has lost his bid to bring his dismissal before the Court of Appeal.

Gary McFarlane was dismissed by Relate Avon in October 2007 after admitting to his employers that he felt he could not advise same-sex couples because of his Christian beliefs.

He later lost his claim of unfair dismissal and discrimination at an employment tribunal as well as a subsequent employment appeal tribunal.

Lord Justice Laws today refused to grant Mr McFarlane permission to have his case heard before the Court of Appeal on the grounds that doing so would be “divisive, capricious, arbitrary”.

“In the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society,” he said.

“Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

“The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary.”

Mr McFarlane defended his position. Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live on the outcome of ruling, he said: "I have the ability to provide counselling services to same sex couples. However, because of my Christian beliefs and principles, there should be allowances taken in to account whereby individuals like me can actually avoid having to contradict their very strongly-held Christian principles."

Andrea Williams, Director of the Christian Legal Centre, which has supported Mr McFarlane since his dismissal, said the notion that the Bible’s teachings on sex and marriage were subjective was “contentious”.

She said the ruling effectively sought to “rule out Christian principles of morality from the public square”.

Ms Williams said it had not been unreasonable of Mr McFarlane to ask that his employers accommodate his religious beliefs by referring same sex couples to other counsellors.

“It seems that a religious bar to office has been created, whereby a Christian who wishes to act on their Christian beliefs on marriage will no longer be able to work in a great number of environments,” she said.

The Evangelical Alliance’s executive director of public policy said the ruling demonstrated that recourse to the law may not be helpful for Christians facing dismissal over their beliefs.

“Equality legislation is supposed to protect religious belief, but this judgement, along with others before it, shows that there are major problems in working that protection out in practice,” he said.

“There has to be a better way of dealing with cases such as this outside the courts, which allows space for people of faith and no faith to live and work together, freely and respectfully able to express their diverse beliefs in public.”