Christians deserve level playing field, says Bristol counsellor
A Christian relationship counsellor who launched a landmark case on religious freedom in Europe yesterday maintains he does not judge or question the gay community, but merely wants a level playing field.
Gary McFarlane was sacked by the Avon branch of relationship charity Relate in 2008, after expressing concern at providing sex therapy to gay couples.
The then-trainee sex therapist, who had long provided relationship counselling to same-sex couples, was asked by his employer what his stance would be on providing sex therapy to those in gay relationships once he qualified.
Mr McFarlane’s response saw him dismissed for gross misconduct for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
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Mr McFarlane is one of four Christians who claim they lost their jobs as a result of discrimination against their beliefs, and yesterday took their cases to the European Court of Human Rights.
“It’s a sad day for us that these cases have gone where they are,” Mr McFarlane told This is Bristol. “I don’t see any winners here.
“All I am asking for is a level playing field. I am not looking to champion one group of rights against another. The pendulum has swung too far against Christians in favour of the other.”
Mr McFarlane added: “You won’t find me out there questioning the gay community. I do not seek to judge people’s lifestyles, but I have rights and we need to be better at balancing those competing rights.
“The balance has swung too far to minority rights to the detriment of other rights. It’s believed you must do it [the job] even if you put aside your own well-held, conscientious views. It’s way bigger than me.”
Mr McFarlane, who was previously a clinical negligence lawyer, said “only two to three per cent” of the population is gay, and “what the majority are required to do is put down their rights.”
Mr McFarlane said the Relate case was a “ball and chain” which forced him to go on benefits for a time, and saw a training course he was due to run in Bristol cancelled.
He said: “I will continue to counsel same-sex couples but sex therapy is very different. I’m asked to improve their sex life, and that’s something I cannot do as a Christian.”
Asked why he was able to give relationship counselling to gay couples but not sex therapy, Mr McFarlane said: “Nothing in life is black and white. I am in an area which is thorny and difficult, and I have to find my own integrity of how far I am ready to go.
“As a Christian you will say any form of sex outside of marriage is wrong; that means I should not give any advice to anyone outside marriage, but I chose not to go there.
“One, sex therapy is directive, not just helping them to reflect and listening to their story. In sex therapy I am the expert, I am telling them what to do. We agree they will do what I tell them to do. And two, it relates to sexual issues.”
Mr McFarlane explained the distinction between relationship counselling and sex therapy. “Sex therapy is really different to counselling,” he said.
“I have about 200 questions I need to go through in about two hours, right from when they were born, and I use them to diagnose their sex problem.
“I write a treatment plan for the couple and it’s tailored for that couple. We are showing them about homework they have to do in the privacy of their homes to improve their sex lives.
“As a result I say as a Christian that is a boundary I cannot cross. I’m going to have a conflict.”
Mr McFarlane also said he believed he was not knowledgeable enough to provide sex therapy to gay couples.
“There are competency issues here,” he said. “I don’t know how to tell a gay couple how to improve their sex life. They would not come to me anyway.
“There are gay sex counsellors, they are being helped by society. They are not going to come to me.”
Mr McFarlane explained: “I said to Relate ‘I will comply with your sex equality policy, but for the future I will take it to my supervisor and see if we can work it through’.”
But the counsellor said Relate did not accept this. “They said ‘we don’t believe you, we think you will not comply’. My word as a lawyer was not enough and my word as a Christian was not enough.”
The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights is not expected to be announced for another two months.