MP says free speech ‘includes right to offend’

Dec 22, 2016 by

Church of England Newspaper December 22

“The freedom to speak inoffensively is not worth having” Fiona Bruce MP has said.

A strong call for reasonable accommodation to be enshrined in law was made in Parliament on November 30 in front of MPs, members of the Lords, political activists and church leaders. Fiona Bruce MP who sponsored the meeting identified the religious illiteracy of MPs as an obstacle since many would think the topic referred to the housing crisis.

Lord Mackay of Clashfearn argued strongly that human conscience should be recognised in legislation. It was omitted in the equality legislation which should deal with conflict not with establishing a hierarchy of rights in which some minorities enjoy a protected status. Instead equality laws were being used to enforce compliance on those with conscientious objections. Conscience he urged was fundamental to the way a person lives for which there is no substitute. It has been recognised in law in the past. In the dark days of two world wars when the nation depended on the military service of its young people, those who had conscientious objections were free to discharge other responsibilities. Even the disability legislation recognises reasonable accommodation where the absolute standard of “access all areas” cannot cover everything. He said it was a recognisable legal concept, in contrast to Baroness Hale who in her Oxford lecture on November 1 had dismissed it as not conforming to the standards of truth in the rest of the law.

The lack of such provision meant, according to Philip Blond the director of Respublica, that British liberalism has moved from recognising different accounts of human flourishing and allowing for accommodation so that all may prosper, to the demand: “Be like me, and if you are not then you will pay a penalty. Rights have been separated from what is right, and have become only procedural. So, separated from objective rights they have become weaponised tools pitting minorities against one another. The framework for adjudication is subjective human rights.

The chairman of the discussion, John Bingham of the Telegraph, who is due to take up a senior media post at Lambeth Palace in the new year, noted that this [process had comic elements focusing on wedding cakes. He claimed that rather than preventing discrimination human rights have now created new forms of discrimination and fostered new extremism.

When rights clash ,the practical solution is reasonable accommodation which would avoid costly courtroom dramas as culture wars are fought out in front of judges who have to draw up a hierarchy of rights and in fact, as Roger Trigg has observed, usurp the role of Parliament.

The illiberal behaviour of secularists is self contradictory and self-defeating. It is widely recognised that religious communities contribute to the public good disproportionately to their size. However, although secularists treat religion as though it were a private hobby, they still draw down on the social capital of religious communities who are motivated by the conviction that their their religious beliefs are public facing and are convinced they should serve everyone. Secularists want to have their cake and eat it!

That such trouble was coming was signalled by the bans which universities placed on Christian Unions from 2004 because only Christian speakers addressed their meetings. Universities according to James Orr, the author of the Respublica Report “Beyond Belief” which was showcased at the meeting, are becoming repressive institutions.

Fiona Bruce MP encouraged those present to meet with their MPs to urge on them action to introduce an adjournment debate on reasonable accommodation as a principle in law. The burden of proof should be shifted from the believer to those restriction their freedom of conscience, such as public bodies or employers. Such a topic would also be a good subject for a debate in General Synod, as a Private Members Motion perhaps?

Fiona Bruce was encouraged that MPs across the house had shown increasing interest over the years in religious persecution around the world and defending religious freedom. Free speech she said included the irritating, the eccentric, and the provocative provided that it did not lead to violence. “The freedom to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

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