National Affairs Rory Leishman

In an ominous sign of the times, London’s Daily Telegraph published a joint letter to the editor on Jan. 12 in which more than 1,000 priests and eight bishops of the Catholic Church decry the onset of a new age of religious persecution in Britain.

Of prime concern to the letter-writers is the determination of the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron to enact same-sex “marriage” into law. In the judgment of the dissenting bishops and priests, this law is not only objectionable in itself, but taken in conjunction with Britain’s equality laws – the equivalent of Canada’s human rights acts – will have the disastrous effect of “severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship.”

True enough, and it is not just faithful Catholics who have reason for concern. The impending legalization of same-sex marriage would also constrict the freedom of Anglicans, Protestants and all others in England who uphold the traditional definition of true marriage as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman.

In a wide-ranging study of the impact of legalizing same-sex marriage, Aidan O’Neill QC, a leading British expert on human rights law, paid particular attention to schools. Among other considerations, he warned that teachers could be fired for refusing, on grounds of conscience, to teach lessons on the moral equivalence of same-sex and traditional marriage.

True to political form, the Cameron government brazenly denies the allegation. In response to O’Neill, England’s Department for Education assures: “The Government’s proposals for equal marriage do not change anything about teaching in schools. Teachers will continue to be able to express their own personal beliefs about marriage.”  

Is that right? Judging from Canadian experience, people in England have good reason for skepticism. In 2005, the British Columbia College of Teachers suspended Chris Kempling, a public school teacher with a spotless record, for deploring the enactment of same-sex marriage in a letter to the editor of his local newspaper. Upon appeal to the courts, Kempling lost again. In a unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel of the British Columbia Court of Appeal held that the College of Teachers can legally suspend any teacher who makes “discriminatory” statements about homosexuals, inside or outside the classroom.

O’Neill also warned in his legal brief that if same-sex marriage is legalized in England, parents would have no legal right, even for “deeply held religious reasons,” to withdraw their children from school lessons affirming the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. And again, Canadian experience bears out his judgment. Last February, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Catholic parents in Quebec have no constitutional right to withdraw their children on grounds of conscience from a secular course in comparative Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) which the Quebec Legislature has recently imposed on all schools in the province for the stated purpose of encouraging students to “learn to think for themselves “ about divergent religious beliefs and ethical teachings about everything from abortion to same-sex marriage.

O’Neill was asked if the legalization of same-sex marriage in England would affect private and public, faith-based schools in the same way as England’s secular public schools. He responded: “If the school in question were a faith school or otherwise one with a religious ethos within the State sector in England, this would make no difference to my answer.”

Once more, the same goes for Canada. On December 12, the Quebec Court of Appeal decreed that Loyola High School in Montreal, a venerable Catholic institution, has no constitutional right to opt out of teaching the secular ERC course in favour of a similar course which the school has long provided that teaches students about diverse religious and ethical viewpoints from the Catholic perspective, while admonishing the students to fulfill their moral obligation as Christians to love, not just tolerate, people of other faiths and beliefs.

For Christians in England, as in Canada, the challenge is clear: will they cravenly surrender to the intolerant demands of the secular state or steadfastly uphold the truth as God gives us to see the truth in reason, Sacred Scripture and the traditional teachings of the Holy Catholic Church?