British Couple Too Traditional for High Court’s Comfort

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A middle-aged British husband and wife recently lost their battle over their right to become foster parents because of their traditional beliefs about marriage and morality.

Owen and Eunice Johns, 65 and 62 respectively, were turned down as candidates by the Derby city council because its members considered their religiously-informed views on moral behavior to constitute intolerance, expressing concern that a child entrusted to them might be influenced by the couple’s beliefs.

Mr. and Mrs. Johns, who have been married for almost 40 years, present an unlikely portrait of prejudice. Middle-class blacks, they have over the years offered their home to 15 foster children aged 5-10 and insist that they have nothing against anyone, no matter his or her beliefs or actions. They simply subscribe to a traditional Christian approach to moral behavior.

But a law passed not long ago by the British Parliament expanded on the definition of improper discrimination, landing the Johnses, for their religious beliefs, on the wrong side of the legal line, at least as regards their eligibility to care for foster children. A social worker expressed concern that the couple might communicate their beliefs to a child entrusted to their care and Mr. and Mrs. Johns were denied permission to take in a child. They took their case to the High Court, asking it to rule that their faith is protected by British law and should not be a bar to their caring for children.

The court ruled, however, that protecting people for their behavioral proclivities “should take precedence” over the right not to be discriminated against for religious beliefs. The justices rejected suggestions that the case involved “a threat to religious liberty,” adding that “No one is asserting that Christians—or, for that matter, Jews or Muslims—are not fit and proper persons to foster or adopt. No one is contending for a blanket ban.”

Speaking outside the court after the ruling, Mrs. Johns said: “All we wanted was to offer a loving home to a child in need. We have a good track record as foster parents.

“We have been excluded because we have moral opinions based on our faith and we feel sidelined because we are Christians with normal, mainstream, Christian views…”

The ruling, said BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Piggot, “is likely to be seen as a landmark decision, as senior judges ruled so decisively against any idea that attitudes might be justified purely because they were Christian in origin.”

Britain’s Daily Telegraph editorialized that “Equality laws are supposed to uphold the rights to religious belief… We are witnessing a modern, secular Inquisition—a determined effort to force everyone to accept a new set of orthodoxies or face damnation as social heretics if they refuse. Parliament and the courts should protect people like Mr. and Mrs. Johns, but have thrown them to the wolves. It is a disgrace.”

At The Guardian, though, columnist Andrew Brown hailed the decision as “an important statement of secular principles” that should serve as a reminder to traditionalists that “the law of England is not Christian.”

The Johnses penned a post-ruling opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph as well, in which they reiterated that they are “prepared to love and accept any child,” just not to tell him or her that something they considered wrong “was a good thing.”

“Worst of all,” the couple wrote, “a vulnerable child has now likely missed the chance of finding a safe and caring home, at a time when there are so few people willing to foster or adopt.

“We feel excluded, and that there is no place for us in society.”

The very week the Johns case was decided by Britain’s High Court, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling affirming that the Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas-based group that, among other loathsome activities, pickets military funerals around the country and hurls invective at the deceased and mourners, has a First Amendment right to do what it does.

It was a timely sign that in the United States free speech, even of a sort whose odiousness is apparent to everyone but the speakers, is alive and well.

So, despite societal changes in attitudes toward personal behaviors, there would seem little reason to fret that a religious person here holding traditional views on moral matters will be hampered in expressing them publicly.

But there are less direct, more subtle ways in which an authority can effectively curb speech, and the recent British High Court ruling shines a bright light on one.

Citizens of the United Kingdom can freely express their views on moral issues. But to access the privilege of being a foster parent—kindnesses can nevertheless be privileges—Britons now must be prepared to tell a foster child in their trust that they approve of behavior they sincerely consider immoral.

Citizens of modern nations, including our own, are beneficiaries of many rights, and offered many privileges as well. Unlike rights, however, privileges—whether related to employment, housing, or the provision of social benefits—can be lawfully tied to acceptance of principles deemed important by society. Obviously, the privilege of adopting or foster parenting is, and should be, subject to many qualifications. For that matter, religious beliefs are rightfully taken into account when matching children from particular religious backgrounds with new or temporary families. But where there is no such factor, foster parents’ moral convictions, even if born of a religious outlook, have thus far not been a concern. American societal views, however, and their reflection in the nation’s laws, are changing. And so the recent British decision should deeply concern us.

The use of their moral beliefs as a cudgel against believers has, in fact, occurred closer to home. Several years ago, British Columbia public school teacher Christopher Kempling was suspended for a month without pay and received a demerit on his professional record for writing letters to a local newspaper expressing his traditional views of morality. He filed to appeal his case to the Canadian Supreme Court but it denied him that option.

We Americans may not take our constitutional cues from our neighbor to the north, but, as a poet once observed, one needn’t be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

The struggle between, on the one hand, those who want not only to protect certain behaviors but to prevent criticism of them and, on the other, those who hew to traditional concepts of right and wrong is, simply put, a zero-sum game. One side succeeds to the detriment of the other. And the Canadian chill has already arrived. Increasingly, would-be social engineering has trumped the free expression of religious views. Americans who adhere to a traditional moral system have been both publicly vilified and denied privileges.

The Boy Scouts of America is a private group and thus legally entitled to its traditional views. Yet, because it bars certain individuals as leaders because of their self-identification with morally objectionable behavior, its has been publicly condemned by, among others, the American Federation of Teachers, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the Reform movement’s Joint Commission on Social Action. And it has lost funding from dozens of United Ways and municipal government sources.

We Americans cherish our constitutional right to live freely, in accordance with our consciences and beliefs. But we can still be legally penalized for those beliefs. What is more, as the recent British decision should remind us, sometimes erosions of religious rights can tiptoe in, whistling innocently, dressed in the shiny robes of progress.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

Communications: [email protected]

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