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Christian fundamentalists suffer new setback as counsellor refused leave to appeal

A Bristol relationships guidance counsellor has lost his bid to appeal against a court decision that he was not discriminated against when he was sacked by Relate for refusing to give sex therapy to homosexuals.

In a powerful High Court dismissal of the application to appeal, Lord Justice Laws said legislation for the protection of views held purely on religious grounds cannot be justified. He said it was an irrational idea, “but it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary.”

In an intervention in the application to appeal hearing, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey had supported Mr McFarlane’s bid, demanding the formation of a specially-constituted panel of judges with a "proven sensitivity and understanding of religious issues" to hear the case. His idea has been ridiculed and criticised by legal experts as dangerous and unworkable.

Lord Carey said recent decisions involving Christians by the courts had used “dangerous” reasoning and this could lead to civil unrest. This, too, was dismissed by the National Secular Society as a ridiculous overstatement that indicates that Lord Carey is losing touch with reality.

Lord Justice Laws said Lord Carey's views were "misplaced" and judges had never likened Christians to bigots, or sought to equate condemnation by some Christians of homosexuality with homophobia. He said it was possible that Lord Carey's "mistaken suggestions" arose from a misunderstanding of the law on discrimination.

Judge Law’s ruling continued: "We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion - any belief system - cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens, and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.”

He continued: "The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the state, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself."

Mr McFarlane, 48, wanted permission to appeal against an Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling which supported his sacking by Relate Avon in 2008. The father of two, who had worked for the national counselling service since 2003, had alleged unfair dismissal on the grounds of religious discrimination.

Terry Sanderson, president of the national Secular Society, said: “This is the right outcome for this case. The law must be clear that anti-discrimination laws exist to protect people, not beliefs. The right to follow a religious belief is a qualified right and it must not be used to legitimise discrimination against gay people who are legally entitled to protection against bigotry and persecution”.

“Fundamentalists are mounting one challenge after another in courts and Employment Tribunals. They are trying hard to undermine the laws that protect gay people from discrimination. They are seeking to create a hierarchy of rights that places Christian dogma over the rights of people to fair treatment. They must not be allowed to succeed.”

Terry Sanderson commented: “Equality for all before the law must be non-negotiable. Special treatment for any religious group undermines the democratic foundation of our legal system. All citizens should be alarmed by this cynical attempt to carve out special privileges for Christians. The judiciary is absolutely right to resist this move, which is totally unworthy of a 21st century democracy.

“The Christian Legal Centre and Lord Carey should be ashamed of themselves for calling into question the impartiality of the judicial system. Judges are more than able to set aside their personal viewpoints when dealing with the many different kinds of interest groups”.

Read the judgement in full