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Liberal Britain turns out the lights

Printer-friendly version By Melanie Phillips

Daily Mail, 31 January 2007

Two days ago, a momentous change occurred to the character of our nation. Quite simply, Britain stopped being a liberal society.

On that day, the Prime Minister announced that there would be no opt-out for Catholic adoption agencies from the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which will make it an offence to refuse to place children for adoption with gay couples.

Mr Blair had apparently personally supported such an exemption, but backed down in the face of a Cabinet revolt — and was then lamely and lamentably supported by David Cameron. Far more was lost by this defeat than the last vestiges of Mr Blair’s political authority.

For with this decision, the country that first invented the concept of liberalism — the land of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, who fashioned the model of a free and tolerant society for the world — is now set to destroy the concept at its very heart.

That concept is freedom of conscience, the right of religious bodies to organise their own affairs in accordance with their own religious and moral precepts. For that is the real issue at the heart of the gay adoption row.

It is not the merits or otherwise of gay adoption. It is the fact that Christians and other faiths can no longer choose to place children only in families with an adoptive mother and father, which they think serve best the interests of the child.

They are being told that the Government disapproves of such a view, and that accordingly they will be criminalised if they refuse to place children with same-sex couples.

In other words, such agencies will be forced to act against their religious and moral beliefs, or else shut down altogether.

But the freedom of religious people to act according to their conscience is an absolutely fundamental principle of a liberal society. The essence of liberal tolerance is that the state does not interfere with religious practices as long as they don’t hurt or disadvantage other people.

Same-sex couples are not hurt by Christians choosing not to place children with them any more than, say, a Conservative Party activist would be hurt by a Labour MP who chose not to hire him as a spin-doctor.

It is not gays who will be hurt by these regulations but Christians, who will be forcibly prevented from acting in accordance with their beliefs.

Gay would-be adoptive parents would always be able to choose a different adoption agency. The Christian agencies, however, will be denied the right to choose between families.

It’s not even as if Catholics never place children with gay adoptive parents. Some do. But those who choose not to will now be prevented from doing so.

Such double standards and imposition of a state view upon religious sensibilities is fundamentally illiberal. Ministers say that discrimination is wrong in all circumstances and there can be no exemptions.

This chilling intolerance is patently ludicrous. The Government discriminates all the time in pursuit of its highly ideological agenda to privilege selfdesignated victim groups. Thus civil partnership law discriminates in favour of gays against unmarried heterosexuals, or welfare benefits discriminate in favour of lone parents and against married couples.

Moreover, the Government intends to make other exemptions in these regulations for religious bodies — to allow, say, churches to refuse to give communion or membership to people who are in breach of core religious precepts.

And a few years ago — after a tremendous battle over similar regulations governing employment rights — exemptions were granted protecting employers from having to hire employees whose beliefs or practices violated the religious ethic of their organisations.

In any event, all adoption agencies make such choices all the time, turning down prospective adoptive parents on the grounds that they are too old, too unhealthy, heavy smokers — or even the wrong skin colour.

Others agencies will not place children with cohabiting or adulterous couples because of the absence of stability in the household.

So the argument about discrimination is patently bogus. The real agenda here is something very different. It is nothing less than the destruction of the moral basis of our society.

As the leader of the revolt against these regulations, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, observed yesterday, the Government is imposing a new type of morality. An antimorality.

There was a time when religious bodies delivered the bulk of this country’s social services. Then these were taken over by the state; and now the state is driving such bodies out altogether unless they abandon their religious ethic.

It’s not just adoption agencies that are being hit in this way. Christian charities are regularly refused official funding simply because they embody Christian values, even though they cater for people of all faiths and none.

The reason is that so-called anti- discrimination law is actually nothing of the kind. It actually discriminates against religion, enabling minorities to use ‘universal’ human rights law as a weapon to attack the bedrock values of this society if they stand in their way.

In our post-religious age, we have effectively replaced God with the state. So instead of morality based on the duties to our fellow human beings laid down in the Bible, we now look to the state to answer our demands for human rights.

Everyone is deemed to have an equal claim as citizens to make such demands. So equality has been redefined from the religious understanding that we are all equal in the eyes of God to the doctrine that those who claim they are disadvantaged are entitled to identical benefits, however they behave or however different their circumstances.

So everything has been turned on its head. In case after case, our human rights- obsessed judges have granted the demands of minorities which were once considered outside the mainstream — and whose agenda was to destroy the very notion of precisely such a mainstream.

So oppressed homosexuality turned into gay rights. Having made permissible what was once illegal, we are now making it compulsory. A society which made it illegal to discriminate against a minority is now making it legal to discriminate against the majority.

It is surely only demonstrable common sense to believe that a vulnerable child who is up for adoption needs, above all, to be placed with a couple which will replicate the model of that child’s own mother and father. But now this mainstream belief is being vilified as bigotry.

In an age where there is no longer general agreement on religion — nor, indeed, on any values — the doctrine of secularism has come to be the new religion. Indeed, human rights law has been called by its proponents a ‘religion for a godless age’. And it is being enforced with all the intolerant zeal of a medieval inquisition to become a secular fundamentalism.

This is but the latest move against religion by a culture which believes that only secularism provides freedom. This is a big mistake.

Our liberal values arise from our Judeo-Christian tradition. Eradicate that, and you will destroy not only individual freedom but also the civil society formed from the diverse institutions it creates, to be replaced instead by repression, uniformity and intolerance.

If the Catholic adoption charities are forced to pull down the shutters, it will also be liberal Britain that turns out the lights.