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What’s next for religious freedom?

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In a new article for the Catholic Herald, Philip Booth outlines the next battle in the fight for religious freedom. The professor of finance, public policy, and ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, writes that “liberal elites are paying the prices for sidelining” this important freedom.

He argues that while there are definitely threats to religious liberty in the United States, the rights to religious liberty and freedom of association are in far more danger in Europe. He makes this point with three examples.

A couple in Northern Ireland refused to bake a cake with “Support Gay Marriage” written on it and were charged with discrimination:

The judges stated quite clearly that the couple’s action was direct discrimination against gay people. This was so even though they did not know the purchaser was gay and despite the fact that same-sex marriage is not legal in Northern Ireland. In other words, the law is such that people are required to bake cakes with public policy messages on them.

The “gay cake” case not only imposes duties on people who own a business that they may not wish to fulfil, it also undermines the relationship between a person and their work. Christian thinking about work promotes the idea that it is something that should be offered up to God; it should be sanctified. It is not simply a series of activities. Even atheists must surely realise that the personal fulfilment that comes from being creative through work is something that should be treasured, and not undermined by requiring people to do work they believe to be morally wrong and advocate a message they oppose.

A Catholic Nursing Home in Belgium was fined a significant amount for refusing to administer a lethal injection:

The judge said: “The nursing home had no right to refuse euthanasia on the basis of conscientious objection.” Thus the care home was not allowed to act in accordance with the conscience of its owners and is now forced by law to collaborate with actions its owners believe to be evil. A possible result of this case will be the closure of all Catholic care homes in Belgium.

In other words, the Belgian courts have turned euthanasia into a right, so that all care homes have a correlative duty in law to facilitate euthanasia. This ruling attacks both freedom of conscience and freedom of association. Pluralism is also diminished. It is not possible to have a variety of care homes, with some not providing euthanasia and others providing it, and with people choosing in advance which care home they prefer, according to their values.

Finally, Catholic adoption agencies were forced to arrange adoptions for same-sex couples:

Eleven Catholic adoption agencies with histories stretching back to the 1850s closed down. Before 1850, Catholic adoption agencies had been banned because they were Catholic. After 2010, they were banned because they wished to uphold the teaching of the Church. It is a new slant on the term “no popery here”, but the effect is just the same.

Booth then asks, “Why have these threats come about?” This may be because of a fairly recent focus on “particular rights” rather than “general freedoms.” He explains:

The problem with a politics that is based on rights and not freedoms is that rights conflict. The freedom to swing my fist stops at the end of your nose. Contracts, property rights, tort law, common law and the criminal law are quite sufficient for regulating a society that is based on freedom.

But once positive rights are the main governing principle, such rights can clash. My right to run a care home conflicts with your right to get access to euthanasia any way, any place, any time. The right of an atheist not to be offended by having quotations from the Bible shouted over a loudhailer conflicts with somebody else’s right to free speech and to the practice of their religion. And so on.

In the end, we need ever-more complex law to adjudicate these conflicts; and law becomes not the result of the wise application of enduring principles, as was the now effectively defunct English common law. Rather, it results from a struggle between interest groups all trying to assert their rights.

He concludes by imploring that anyone who believes in liberty should “stand up for freedom of association and freedom of religion.”

Read his full article at the Catholic Herald.

Phillip Booth will speak at the Bloomsbury Hotel in London later today, December 1 at the “Crisis of Liberty in the West” Conference hosted by Acton Institute and co-sponsored by the Institute of Economic Affairs and St. Mary’s University Twickenham London. You can watch a Livestream of the event here.

Follow the conversation on social media using #CrisisoftheWest.

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Sarah Stanley

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