Culture & Religion
July Mon 16, 2012
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When I was consecrated a bishop in 2005, I was not fretting about religious freedom in Scotland or in the United Kingdom. Yet just six and a half years later, I can say with a concerned and fearful realism that the loss of religious freedom is now arguably the most serious threat that the Catholic Church and all people of faith in this country are facing. The way this issue unfolds will determine how the Church will present itself to society for the foreseeable future. Will the Catholic Church—and other religious bodies and groups—have the space to adhere to, express, and teach their beliefs in the public square? Or will these basic elements of religious freedom be denied, driving the Church and other religious bodies to the margins of society, if not actually underground?How has the question of religious freedom arisen in this country?The question of religious freedom has arisen stealthily and rapidly in the United Kingdom. In 2007 I warned the people of my diocese in a pastoral letter that religious liberty was under attack. The introduction of new regulations that aimed to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services prompted my letter. These regulations were based on the Equality Act of 2006. It was evident that Catholic adoption agencies would be forced to go against the teaching of the Church by placing children with same-sex couples, or else fall afoul of the law. Some agencies complied with this legislation and renounced their Catholic character. Others closed down. Only a few have done neither, skilfully arguing their case, continuing to operate as Catholic agencies facilitating adoption by suitable husbands and wives.Subsequently, in two landmark cases, the courts in England ruled against the owners of a bed and breakfast facility who did not wish to accommodate homosexual couples under their roof, and then disallowed a Christian couple from fostering children because they could not guarantee that they would treat homosexuality as a positive life choice for children in their care. It was clear by then that, with the connivance of courts and the political establishment, religious freedom and freedom of conscience could be sacrificed on the altar of the homosexual agenda.With this history, the Scottish bishops are in no doubt that if the government recognizes same-sex relationships as marriages, we will have to fight to preach and teach the true nature of marriage both from the pulpit and in Catholic schools, and we fear that Catholic men and women will be discriminated against in the workplace and in society. The danger is that the Catholic community will be forced into pariah status by aggressive secularism.The issues at stake are at least two: the notion of religious freedom, and the notion of the state.The Notion of Religious FreedomIn October 2011, I wrote to Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, about government policies that impinged on religious freedom. One of the issues I raised was the question of same-sex marriage. In a subsequent conversation, Salmond assured me that a law introducing same-sex marriage would not restrict the freedom of Catholics to practice their faith. I am not sure if he understood the difference between freedom of worship and freedom of religion, or if he understood it only too well, and was hedging his bets, knowing full well that once legislation permitting same-sex marriage was on the statute books, zealots would call for sanctions against people who publicly expressed dissent from the new orthodoxy.
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