The Church and Strasbourg
The Church of England (CoE), freshly blooded from its opposition to women vicars and gay bishops, has now turned the big guns of its ecclesiastical conservatism on Europe’s court of human rights.
The canonical broadside comes a week after the home secretary decided that our judges, usually thought to be knowledgeable about the law, needed reminding that article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights - the right to family life - is not an absolute right, but one that can be qualified.
So what was the spark that ignited our state church’s indignation? It was a government proposal, in a consultation paper, to legalise same-sex civil marriages – ones where the ceremony is conducted in a civil venue, not in a church.
In the same consultation, the government also asked for views on whether same-sex religious marriages should continue to be banned or whether they should be allowed, but with the proviso that religious groups opposed to the change would not be obliged to carry out the ceremonies in their churches.
The CoE was having none of what were still simply proposals and, swinging wildly, somehow corralled Strasbourg’s European Court of Human Rights into its churchly opposition.
It said in its response to the consultation that even if parliament decided that religious groups would not be obliged to marry homosexual couples in church, the Strasbourg court would overrule it and tell our churches what to do.
As if this wasn’t enough, legalising same-sex religious marriages would effectively allow Strasbourg to strip the CoE of its power to act as an 'agent of the state’ by conducting marriages for anyone living within a parish, regardless of religious beliefs. This would be a step towards splitting the church from the state, the CoE argued.
It would be the biggest threat to the CoE since the onset of the reformation in the 1530s, the Spanish armada in 1588 and the English civil war in the mid-17th century, it added.
And all because, as the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association said in its own response to the consultation, the government wanted to ‘eliminate discrimination by labels’ and ‘bring stability to (same-sex) couples, families and their children by acknowledging that they are equal to opposite-sex couples and their families’.
Someone clearly hadn’t done an impact assessment to check that Armageddon was not just around the corner…
And now for Theresa May’s reminder to judges that the article eight right to a family life is not absolute, but can be qualified. She is concerned, it seems, that every year a handful of immigrants from outside the EU who have been convicted of a criminal offence have escaped deportation by arguing for this particular right.
Where to start? This is up there with her claim that a man escaped deportation from this country because he and his partner had a pet cat.
If our judges believed that the right to a family life was unchallengeable – was absolute – then our prisons would be empty. Armed robbers, murderers and rapists couldn’t be jailed, but would be sent home to have a nice cup of tea with the wife and kids and enjoy their family life.
But our judges know that the right is not absolute, which is why criminals pack our jails and why convicted immigrants from outside the EU escape deportation only under the most exceptional circumstances.
They also know that our homegrown criminals have human rights, too. They apply to every human, because they are human, and are not just the preserve of asylum seekers, immigrants and alleged terrorists.
And they do not need the home secretary to lecture them on the subject.