'Equality' debate is artificial

The Pope’s attack — supported by the Chief Rabbi — on the equality bill is a distraction from true ‘human rights’ injustices


The tension between private rights and public obligations is one of the most enduring themes of human development. As a result of the American and French Revolutions — or, rather, as a result of the ferment in political thought that gave rise to them — the balance between public obligations and private rights began to shift.

Philosophers of the Enlightenment stressed the primacy of the rights of man, by which they meant the rights of individual men (and women) over the rights of the state, and of organised religion, which they tended to regard as an adjunct of the state.

Thomas Paine, a Norfolk man who became one of the founding fathers of the USA, did not mince his words: “I do not believe [he wrote in The Age of Reason] in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of… All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit.”

Given views such as these, it is not difficult to understand why the tenets of the Enlightenment were opposed so fiercely by Jewish religious leaders at the time, and why these doctrines continue to attract rabbinical censure.

Rabbis expecting support for excluding children from state schools are deluded

All this is background to the present confrontation between the Roman Catholic Church and the UK government. On February 1, Pope Benedict XVI issued a severe condemnation of Labour’s equality legislation, complaining that a proposal to give rights to homosexuals violated “natural law.” The following day, Chief Rabbi Sacks declared in The Times that the Supreme Pontiff was quite right to warn of “the threat to freedom” inherent in the proposal and added, for good measure, that the current obsession with “human rights” trampled “our rights as individuals” — by which he made it clear that he meant his own right to decide who may and who may not attend a Jewish school. On February 3, Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, of Manchester, told Guardian readers that “the Pope’s wake-up call mirrors a growing sense of disquiet within the Jewish community that the push towards equality does indeed risk the imposition of unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.”

In one sense, this debate has been manufactured by Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religious leaders for their own ends. The proposal to which Benedict XVI took exception — a clause in the equality bill now before parliament — had already been defeated at the instance of Anglican bishops in the House of Lords. The clause itself sought merely to clarify earlier, 2003 legislation outlawing employment discrimination against gays. Religious organisations will still be exempt from anti-discrimination law when appointing ecclesiastical functionaries, such as priests and rabbis, but not when appointing to other posts, such as caretakers and secretaries. This strikes me as entirely reasonable. Rome is far angrier about the impact of the 2003 legislation on Catholic adoption agencies.

But this is hardly an Anglo- Jewish issue. Sundry Orthodox rabbis are no doubt in high dudgeon over the implications of the JFS case. But if they really think that they will attract public sympathy and support, in an election year, by demanding the right to be able exclude Jewish children from taxpayer-funded Jewish schools they are suffering from serious delusions.

That said, the equality mafia’s current godmother, Harriet Harman, determined, on becoming equality minister in 2007, to push through legislation covering all manner of social ills.

The scoldings visited upon her from Rome are as nothing (I am told) to the rebukes she has received from her Cabinet colleagues over her frenetic plans to permit discrimination in favour of ethnic minorities and women to meet staff shortages, and to make public authorities accountable for “social inequalities” in the provision of services.

The plain fact is that these proposals address the symptoms of social inequality not the causes (such as education) and that there is little to suggest they enjoy anything approaching widespread support among the taxpaying classes.

    Last updated: 12:08am, April 25 2010

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