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U.K. Sex Counselor Refuses Gays, Loses ’Discrimination’ Suit Over Lost Job

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Dec 1, 2009
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A British sex counselor who refused to provide services to same-sex couples was fired for failing to do his job. He has now lost a suit, and a subsequent appeal, alleging that he was the victim of discrimination based on his religion.

To some, the firing of 48-year-old Gary McFarlane, who at one time was a church elder, was only proper. McFarlane had been employed by Relate, a charity dedicated to providing relationship counseling. The charity is open to all couples, regardless of sexual orientation.

To others, however, McFarlane’s firing constitutes an attack on "people of conscience" whose religious beliefs compel them to withhold services from gays and lesbians.

McFarlane took his former employer to an employment tribunal, claiming that he was discriminated against because of his religious beliefs, a Nov. 30 article in the U.K. newspaper The Daily Mail recounted. The tribunal ruled against him last January, finding that although he had been wrongfully dismissed, he had not been the victim of discrimination. McFarlane then appealed the decision, which he also lost when a London tribunal ruled against him.

McFarlane had been represented by the Christian Legal Center (CLC), which plans yet another appeal. McFarlane himself spoke out against the ruling, declaring that, "This decision is a stark warning to people of conscience in this nation that as a result of 12 years of Labor rule, the British establishment no longer values the democratic rights of its citizens to hold conscience as a matter of principle." Added McFarlane, "Society is the worse for not allowing people of conscience to be free to exercise legitimate rights."

The CLC’s director, Andrea Minichiello Williams, told the British media, "The seriously worrying underlying point in this case, which the court has refused to accept, is that for religious belief to be protected it is necessary to uphold the right to manifest that belief." Added Williams, "The effect of this judgment is to rule out any expression of deeply-held conscience, even when the expression is limited to a very reasonable, practicable and sensible request to be assigned work such that worker and client are best served and that the work is tenable for the worker."

A similar tribunal decision was reached last year in the case of a civil servant who refused to do her job on the basis of her religious convictions. Lillian Ladele, a registrar, had declined to officiate at civil partnerships in which both partners were of the same gender. Ladele had cited her Christian beliefs for refusing to carry out her duties, and was fired. Ladele initially won her suit, but an appeal led to a ruling against her.

There have been other cases in the U.K. in which "people of conscience" have protested that they have been targeted for their religious convictions. Police Constable Graham Cogman came up for at least two disciplinary hearings following his having circulated messages via work email citing anti-gay Scriptural passages and directing readers to the Web site of an American organization that claimed to be able "cure" gays. PC Cogman also used the police force’s internal messaging system to send a colleague a screed condemning gay groups for their use of the rainbow, which Cogman indicated was a Christian symbol for a covenant between God and human beings.

In a case involving a civilian, police investigated the author of a strongly worded letter that renounced gays in the U.K. for Pride events. The letter was written by a 67-year-old grandmother, Pauline Howe, who took such extreme exception to a Pride parade she saw that she wrote a letter to the local government decrying the Pride parade as a "public display of indecency" and "offensive to God." Ms. Howe’s letter went on to call the participants in the event "sodomites," and make a number of broad claims, including the assertion that same-sex intimacy had "contributed to the downfall of every empire" and "was a major cause of sexually transmitted infections’." Ms. Howe went on to declare that, "It is shameful that this small but vociferous lobby should be allowed such a display unwarranted by the minimal number of homosexuals."

In a letter to Ms. Howe, county official Bridget Buttinger explained that, "The content of your letter has been assessed as potentially being hate related because of the views you expressed towards people of a certain sexual orientation.... Your details and details of the contents of your letter have been recorded as such and passed to the police." Two police officers followed up on the letter in person, and the policemen clarified for Ms. Howe that her choice of wording made her missive appear to be an example of hate speech. However, Ms. Howe insists that her invective was not hate-based; rather, she told the media, she was simply speaking as a Christian. Ms. Howe excoriated the police for "wasting resources" on a visit to her home that she said "made me feel threatened. It was a very unpleasant experience."

Added Ms. Howe, "The officers told me that my letter was thought to be an intention of hate but I was expressing views as a Christian." Christian Institute spokesperson Mike Judge weighed in, saying, "People must be free to express their beliefs--yes, even unpopular beliefs--to government bodies without fear of a knock at the door from police." Added judge, "It’s not a crime to be Christian but it increasingly feels like it."

The Norwich police said that they were simply doing their job in looking into the letter, stating, "We investigate all alleged hate incidents. In this instance the individual concerned was visited by officers, the comments discussed, and no further action was taken."

In the United States, the question of professionals seeking the right to refuse services to gays based on their religious convictions has also arisen. In Michigan, the state’s House approved a bill in 2004 that would have allowed physicians to refuse non-emergency treatment to GLBT patients. The bill provoked controversy because its wording--stipulating that physicians would have the right to refused to treat patients on "ethical, moral or religious grounds"--raised concerns that patients might be turned away for a broad array of reasons, including religion (or lack of religious faith), race, or other factors.

Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that physicians in that state might not cite religious convictions as a legitimate reason to decline care for gay patients. In that case, a lesbian took a fertility specialist to court after being denied treatment because of her sexuality.

In the case of McFarlane’s suit, The Daily Mail reported that Relate’s chief executive, Claire Tyler, hailed the ruling as a vindication for the charity’s commitment to serve everyone in need of its services. "The appeal judgment today validates, once again, Relate’s commitment to equality of access to our services," said Tyler. "Relate’s trusted service, both in Avon and across the country, relies on making sure that all members of society, regardless of their gender, age, race, religion, sexual orientation or relationship status are able to access respectful and professional counseling and sex therapy.

"Relate is committed to supporting all religious beliefs working within Relate," Tyler added. "However, our primary consideration is to our clients who often need complex advice and assistance. We cannot allow anything to damage our clients or to undermine the principle of trust that underpins our work."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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