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One woman’s victory for the freedom to disagree

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ONE of the barometers of a healthy democracy is the way it treats the expression of ideas and values which are in conflict with the cultural zeitgeist. In modern Britain, there are few things more counter-cultural than Biblical Christian views on issues involving sex and sexuality. So dogmatic is culture on issues of permissive sexual freedom that dissenting views are punished swiftly and oppressively.

What happens when an elected politician speaks up for values held with sincerity and in good faith? Mary Douglas took such a stand against using public funds to support a Gay Pride event. Thankfully, right won out.

Mrs Douglas has been a Conservative member of Wiltshire Council for 15 years. She has always been open about her Christian faith, noting it on her election literature. In November last year, holding the portfolio role for skills and social mobility, she was a member of a board considering grant applications. One request was from Salisbury Pride, which sought £2,000 for the Salisbury Pride March 2020. The board voted by six votes to two to give £1,000.

Mrs Douglas, being one of the dissenting votes, said: ‘I cannot support this. Not because I do not accept or respect or love people who identify as LGBTQ but because I do. I do not reject people who so identify, and I support completely their right to make choices and to live as they see fit. However, I do not support those choices themselves, nor the ideology they represent. These are beautiful people, well-meaning and sincere, but misguided by a powerful ideology – google Gay Liberation Front Manifesto mid 20thC – which I do not want to be part of promoting. This is not just my view – it represents that of many people who are afraid to say so, “the silent majority”.

‘In fact, even if I agree with the ideology, should local government be funding a march to raise the profile and promote the worldview of any one part of our community? In a diverse society, we need to tolerate different viewpoints and lifestyle, but we do not need to affirm them. Indeed, the very word “tolerate” indicates that we disagree or potentially disapprove of that which we are asked to tolerate. We absolutely should permit marches promoting an ideology, religion or worldview but we do not need to and, indeed, should not promote them.’

The reaction was swift and draconian. The council’s Conservative leader, Philip Whitehead, removed Mrs Douglas from her portfolio with immediate effect. At the same time, a local newspaper published a story labelling Mrs Douglas’s views as disgraceful, while taking out key parts of her statement to give the impression that she was suggesting that those who identify as LGBT are misguided in general. The article also wrongly attributed a quote to Mrs Douglas, which actually came from a Mermaids campaigner seeking to demonise her, that she believed transgender people were mentally ill.

As a result of this reporting two members of the LGBT community, who were not present at the grant board meeting, complained to the council’s standards committee about her views. The result was that Mrs Douglas was investigated for code of conduct infractions and was found to have a case to answer before the standards committee.

Her written and oral submissions focused on two things: (i) the distinction between sexual orientation, which is protected under anti-discrimination law, and the political and worldview elements of LGBT campaigning; (ii) her freedom of speech and the necessity of protecting political speech.

The basic premise of her defence was the existential threat posed to the democratic process by scrutinising an elected official’s every policy stance through the lens of equality considerations. Such concerns are far too nebulous and subject to partisan viewpoint discrimination to be of any practical assistance to justify interfering with elected officials’ freedom to do their job. In fact, it could be argued that the censorship of political speech by threat of code of conduct sanctions, where reasonable minds could genuinely disagree on policy, is the very definition of tyranny.

One of the most fundamental principles Mrs Douglas relied on in her defence was that being gay and LGBT campaigning are not synonymous. The former is about sexual attraction and the latter about political activism and worldview. Not all people who are gay are LGBT campaigners, and not all LGBT activists are gay.

The council’s short-sightedness in not being able to differentiate between the two is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the campaigning organisation Stonewall. While some of their demands are about sexual orientation as a protected characteristic, many of their political demands go well beyond and would require vast sums of public expenditure, changing existing laws, changing the national census, changing the way we sign official documents, overhauling entire institutions, and changing foreign policy.

Some of their demands include asking the government to defund any organisation that is not LGBT friendly, such as the Salvation Army. They also demand that LGBT asylum seekers be given preferential treatment by having them bypass the detention centres that every other asylum seeker must enter. They also wish to change blood donation rules and surrogacy laws.

As campaigners they have every right to engage the democratic process. But to suggest that they are immune from being criticised for having an agenda which would alter the cultural fabric and for which public funds should not necessarily be spent would be preposterous.

Yet this is essentially what Wiltshire Council was suggesting by arguing that Mrs Douglas’s principled opposition to the political message of Pride was actually an attack on sexual orientation. She has every right, on behalf of her constituents, to question why public funds should go to support any event which is politically partisan and question the worldview behind it. To imply that her motives were inherently bigoted says a lot more about the council than Mrs Douglas.

At the heart of her defence was the importance of the free expression of ideas in the public square. Political speech enjoys the highest level of judicial scrutiny both at common law and under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Human Rights Act allows for interference with freedom of expression only where (1) such an interference is prescribed by law, (2) where it pursues a legitimate aim and (3) when it is necessary in a democratic society. With regard to element (2), Article 10 of the Convention provides an exhaustive list of legitimate aims, meaning that a public authority may only limit speech based on the listed legitimate aims proscribed by the convention. There are six of them, none of which was used by the council to justify their disciplinary proceedings against Mrs Douglas. Instead, the Investigating Officer suggested equality considerations were enough to punish the speech of an elected official. In this, she was wrong.

Precisely stated, while members of the council and Salisbury Pride may find Mrs Douglas’s views foreign to their own, and even upsetting, they are nonetheless protected views.

Last Friday Mrs Douglas was vindicated by the standards committee on free speech grounds. Those who voted Mrs Douglas into office because of the views she fights for deserve representation in the political arena as much as any other constituents.

To suggest otherwise would do violence to the integrity and necessity of robust political debate and would disparage and disenfranchise the many who share the beliefs put forward by Mrs Douglas on this issue, whether they be Christians, people of other faiths, or people of no faith at all. Without the freedom to disagree in the context of political debate, we are not free at all.

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Roger Kiska
Roger Kiska, who represented Mary Douglas, is legal counsel for the Christian Legal Centre (London). He is a frequent contributor to television and radio, including the BBC, Sky News, Channel 5 and ITV.

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