We reported recently on replies from Conservative Party Candidates to requests to make the Westminster 2010 pledge to ‘respect, uphold and protect the right of Christians to hold and express Christian beliefs and act according to Christian conscience’
We are now receiving a set similar set of standard letters (with some personal variations) from Liberal Democrat candidates. From those who are happy to make the pledge the replies generally run along the following lines:
Thank you for writing to me and asking me to support the Westminster 2010 Declaration. I am very happy to support the candidate's pledge.
I believe passionately in an individual’s fundamental freedom of conscience and thus believe - in accordance with the European Convention of Human Rights - that religious individuals should have an absolute right to freedom of belief and the right to manifest their belief so long as it does not interfere disproportionately with the legitimate rights and freedoms of others, and subject to other limitations necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety and order. I believe that free religious speech should have protection and should not be limited simply because an individual may be offended.
Christians of all denominations play an important role in the rich tapestry of the United Kingdom and I hope they will continue to do so.
Candidates replying in the above manner are generally qualifying for the green tick (‘has made the pledge’) on our candidates' page unless they are MPs and have a past voting record which indicates that they are not actually supportive.
The European Convention of Human Rights is open to some interpretation in that the ‘absolute right to freedom of belief and the right to manifest their belief’ is balanced with the interference ‘disproportionately with the legitimate rights and freedoms of others’. The key issue is what happens when Christians holding orthodox Christian beliefs are judged to be ‘interfering disproportionately with the legitimate rights and freedoms of others’.
One of our principal concerns is that some recent legislation (eg. Aspects of the Equality Bill, homosexual orientation regulations, ‘homophobic hatred’ offence) have been used to force Christians to do things they believe are wrong with the threat of discipline or dismissal if they do not comply. Other legislation has been used to discriminate against Christians simply for manifesting normal Christian behaviour (eg expressing a view on an ethical issue, offering prayer, wearing a cross)
Free votes are traditionally offered for conscience issues in Parliament but it is left up to the party whips to decide what constitutes a conscience issue. We have as a result seen the government in the last few years not actually allowing free votes on what we believe are clearly issues of conscience (eg such as with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill). When no free vote is allowed on a conscience issue we expect MPs to vote according to their conscience, even if this involves defying the party whip.
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Leader has at best a questionable past voting record on issues of Christian conscience and in his letter to us has not agreed to make the pledge. He also appears not to have read our letter, which was not asking him to sign the Westminster Declaration itself but rather to make the pledge. His reply, which incorporates the standard Lib Dem response, reads as follows:
Thank you for writing to me and asking me to support the Westminster 2010 Declaration.
As set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, Liberal Democrats believe that religious individuals should have an absolute right to freedom of belief and the right to manifest their belief so long as it does not interfere disproportionately with the legitimate rights and freedoms of others, and subject to other limitations necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, public order etc. In particular we believe that free religious speech should have particular protection and not be limited just because someone might be offended.
We have awarded him a red cross – ‘will not make pledge’
A significant number of Lib Dem candidates have, unlike their leader, been very willing to make the pledge. They will need to show a lot of courage if elected as the party itself does not have a strong record on supporting legislation that respects Christian conscience.
The policies of all parties on controversial legislation has been reviewed in the Christian Institute’s recent Election Briefing and their MP database enables voters to check past voting records on key issues. The Election Briefing notes the following:
The Lib Dems firmly supported the Equality Bill and voted for narrowing employment protections for churches and religious organisations. They also argued that religion should not be included as a protected characteristic in the public sector equality duties.
They are against favouring marriage in the tax system and are the main party most supportive of gay rights, with Leader Nick Clegg being the only main party leader so far to advocate the legalisation of same-sex marriage as definitive party policy.
In 2002 the Lib Dems backed adoption by homosexual couples in England and Wales, and passed equivalent Scottish legislation in 2007 when coalition partners in the Scottish Executive. In Scotland the Lib Dems opposed protecting religious adoption agencies from being compelled to place children with same-sex couples, turning against their Labour coalition partners to oppose an exemption during the passage of the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill 2007.
They also strongly supported the Civil Partnership Act, Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) and the Gender Recognition Act. It is also Lib Dem policy that every church school should lose its freedom to choose Christian staff, or to seek pupils who agree with the school’s ethos.