Clearing the Ground – A Controversial Report on the Discrimination of Christians in the UK

‘Christians in Parliament, an official All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), chaired by Gary Streeter MP, launched Clearing the Ground – a preliminary report of the committee’s findings into the freedoms of Christians within UK public life.

The inquiry was facilitated by the Evangelical Alliance and the report was published in February 2012.

The Clearing the Ground inquiry was tasked with considering the question: Are Christians marginalised in the UK?

This report reflects the findings and views of the committee and is issued by Christians in Parliament.’

(Source, HERE)

* * *

Reactions to the report

Some Christians in the UK, who are complaining fr a log time about discrimination of religious bases in the UK are welcoming the report. Thus the ‘God and Politics in the UK’ Blog describes this document as a ‘game changing report’. In spite of this positive outlook, the final section of this analysis, dealing with how the Church should respond to these challenges, also underlines some complicated realities for the church:

The last century saw a privatisation of faith and the development of a sacred-secular divide through which Christianity lost much of its social and political influence. Now, too often the Church is defined by what it opposes rather than what it stands for. It is essential that Christians once again provide hope and a vision for society that goes beyond defending their own interests and includes the good of all.

 Yet, not everybody in the UK is so positive about this initiative. There is probably no surprise for anybody that the British Humanist Association refutes the findings of the report, arguing that.

The findings of this report are wholly ridiculous and not at all grounded in any reality. A largely fallacious narrative has been constructed around the notion that Christian and religious groups are under threat and being persecuted. Nor has the EHRC been hijacked.  This is a country in which the state allows for exemptions for religious groups in equality laws; funds ‘faith’ schools and allows discriminatory practice within those settings; and reserves places for Bishops in the House of Lords.  The report presents a gay rights versus religious rights battle citing recent cases as examples of the supposed relegation of Christian rights. The right to your religious or non-religious beliefs is absolute; it is legitimate for the right to act on those beliefs to be restrained so that the rights of others are not violated. Our equality law protects religious people on those grounds in exactly the same way that it protects gay people – but no more than that.

‘The vast majority of people in Britain are not members of any local church, religious group or community, and so to lay such emphasis on religious identities as being the ones most important or ones which should be exempt from equality legislation is detrimental to equal and fair society.’

In a similar manner, the National Secular Society describes the report as ‘just another call for special privileges’. Thus, Terry Sanderson, the President of NSS argues:

This report is simply more self-serving and dishonest propaganda from Christians who are determined to overturn the equality and human rights legislation that stand in the way of their discriminating against other people. There should be no attempts to extend the concept of ‘reasonable accommodation’ which is already written into the employment protection laws. Extending it simply means providing another exemption for the religious to make life difficult for others – particularly gay people.

From the two negative positions expressed above it is clear that the main reason for criticism is the perception that by this report conservative Christians in the UK are trying to obtain privileges and exceptions from legal requirements which, in the opinion of the critics, will lead to the discrimination of non-heterosexuals.

Interestingly, the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, commented the report in the same critical manner, saying that rather than clearing the ground, it in fact muddies waters:

Initial impressions from this report are that it raises significantly more questions than it answers. For example, it seems to assume that most people who are convinced Christians automatically share, or should share, a range of prejudices – notably against LGBT people – which make them unwilling to comply with requirements to act in a non-discriminatory way in the provision of public services. This is not the case. Many Christians from all traditions believe that equal treatment of others is not simply a legal requirement but a Christian obligation.

The Christians in Parliament document also jumbles up a range of quite distinct and different legal cases, advocating the notion of ‘reasonable accommodation’ in a way that stretches from matters like workplace dress, where negotiation may be entirely appropriate, through to cases where exemption from equality requirements in the provision of goods and services would clearly disadvantage and discriminate against those not sharing narrowly conservative Christian views. This is not ‘clearing the ground’, it is muddying the waters.

Even more importantly, Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia and author  of this analysis, argues that the main viewpoint of this report is a sort of nostalgia for the lost privileges that Christians used to enjoy in Christendom.

The bottom line here is that being a Christian is no longer a ‘trump card’ in public life in the way that it may once have been, and many Christians whose views are not reflected by this report will undoubtedly say, on strong theological grounds, ‘nor should it be’. Christianity is a free choice, and freedom of belief is abused when it is imposed on people, particularly in a limited and limiting way.

“Nothing in Christian belief compels Christians to participate in the offering of public goods and services of the type at issue here. Those who are not prepared to do so without discriminating against others, or who object to complying with laws aimed at protecting the rights of all, remain free to refuse to do so.

And Borrow’s analysis ends with a conclusion that I fully endorse:

We now live in a mixed-belief ‘spiritual and secular’ society where the number of practicing Christians has fallen considerably. Many sections of the church are adapting well to this, and recognise that the decline of ‘top down’ religion opens up opportunities to rediscover the Christian message as being about empowerment not exclusion. Others, however, resent their loss of status and power to control others. Further education within churches and faith communities about living positively in plural society is now vital.

It is obvious that these reactions are only the beginning of a necessary conversation not only in the UK context, but, I dare to say, in every post-Christian society.

I am afraid we will hear much more in the coming days about this topic and a lot of it will be inspired by a defeatist inferiority complex that is nurtured on the ground of Christian passe-ism and fundamentalism.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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