Leading article: An archaic law to deal with a puerile action

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The Independent Culture
THE APPEARANCE of Peter Tatchell in a magistrates' court yesterday tells us more about the Church of England than it does about Mr Tatchell.

His invasion of Archbishop Carey's pulpit during his Easter sermon was childish and counter-productive, fixing in the public mind an image of gay rights campaigners as irresponsible extremists. But the laws under which he stands accused are a throwback to Britain's feudal past. Mr Tatchell has been charged under section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act of 1860, a law that originated in the Brawling Act of 1551. What nation allows the modern problem of non-violent protest to be tackled under arcane legislation covering "indecent behaviour in a church"?

Those two Acts give all churches a protection that has little grounding in either logic or justice. Company directors have no such protection during board meetings. This is not the only example of Christianity's protected status. It is only the Christian religion that enjoys protection under the blasphemy laws, a standing insult to citizens who profess other faiths.

The Church of England itself enjoys too many exemptions from statute law. Complaints against the clergy are dealt with by consistory courts rather than industrial tribunals. Bishops have the automatic right to sit in the House of Lord - other religions have to rely on government discretion in choosing who sits there. Many bishops are admirable, but they would be better chosen on the same basis as those from other faiths. The bravery of the Bishop of Edinburgh, who has spoken in defence of Mr Tatchell - if not his tactics - would make him the first candidate.

Mr Tatchell's actions have not done his own cause much good; but they have highlighted privileges outdated in a truly "modern" nation.