American academics have opened a debate about whether religious freedom is being threatened by the legal promotion of gay rights on both sides of the Atlantic.
It follows several cases in Britain and the US where Christians have clashed with the campaign to legalise same-sex marriage and place children with gay foster parents.
The cases have prompted US scholars to ask whether the law was favouring ‘new claims to equality’ over the rights of religious groups and individuals.
The Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, Washington, held a debate with academics in London to discuss whether Western countries were heading towards a ‘worrying’ new situation where judges were deeming the justification for religious views as ‘irrational’.
Dr Matthew Franck of the Witherspoon Institute argued that the rulings ‘amount to an assault on religious freedom and a form of soft totalitarianism. No serious space can be carved out for conscientious objection. Religious freedom will be an endangered species if the debate is settled in favour of same sex marriage’.
Dr Roger Trigg of Oxford University also argued that European courts are setting human rights in opposition to religion, rather than underpinning it.
He added: ‘Religion is being narrowed and sidelined, restricted only to the freedom of worship. Courts are inclined to make rulings about what is and isn’t a core belief. Religious freedom should be made a special case, as it encapsulates what is most important in life’.
But leading philosopher Stephen Law said he didn’t believe there was a threat to religious freedom in the UK. ‘Having a religious objection should not carry any extra weight in the eyes of the law. Why should religious justifications outweigh those of an atheist? Many of these cases regarding religious freedom aren’t what they appear to be’.
Robin Wilson, a legal professor at Washington and Lee University, made the case for individuals to be exempt from laws that require them to go against their beliefs.
She said, ‘I believe you don’t need to oppose or support same-sex marriage in order to have a view about religious accommodation. You shouldn’t burden Christians who want to live peacefully alongside other groups in society while honouring their religious convictions’.