Conflicting Freedoms

Standard

It is a truism, but in a free society, like the one we aim for, the freedoms of one group of people may sometimes infringe on the freedoms of another group. Balancing these conflicting freedoms is a complex task. For example, I believe the following things.

  • People should be allowed to express their religion
  • People should be allowed to be open about their sexuality

To me, these freedoms are equal: expressing your love for your god is of the same importance as expressing your love for your partner.

Here in Belfast there is an interesting example of a clash between those two freedoms. In 2008, the Sandown Free Presbyterian Church published an advert with the headline

THE WORD OF GOD AGAINST SODOMY

Following complaints, the ASA found that the advert did cause serious offence to some readers. The church is now appealing against that ruling.

It is clear that the Sandown Free Presbyterian Church believes that same-sex relationships are forbidden by the Bible. Should they be allowed to believe that? Of course: freedom of religion means that people are allowed to believe what they wish. Should they be allowed to express their beliefs? Again, the answer is “of course”.

But let’s consider the specific details of the advert here. As well as being generally hostile to gay people, the advert used words and phrases like

a perverted form of sexuality,

vices, and

Gods judgement.

Speaking as an openly gay man (who is also an openly gay Christian) the advert is intimidating. I would have not felt comfortable living in any community where those attitudes were not challenged.

So whose rights should win? Should the Sandown Free Presbyterian Church be allowed to express their religion as they did, or should gay people be allowed to freely express who they are?

The key question is who gets harmed most when one group has its rights restricted at the expense of another’s. The ASA didn’t find that the Sandown Free Presbyterian Church had to change their beliefs, only that in future adverts they had to be careful to not cause offence with the language they use. The infringement on their right to express their religion was extremely minor. Nobody is harmed if I walk down the street hand-in-hand with my boyfriend. The right to express sexuality freely is a right that harms nobody.