Clearing the Ground - Preliminary report into the freedom of Christians in the UK
• The Equality Act 2010 fails to deal with the tensions between different strands of equality policy.
• Court decisions have relegated religious beliefs below other strands and effectively created a hierarchy of rights.
• The place of religious belief suffers because companies, institutions and the government do not take sufficient action to accommodate it.
• The 1986 Public Order Act, and specifically Section 5, places the bar too low through its prohibition on insulting language.
• The policing of the Public Order Act and other legislation demonstrates a lack of understanding of what is a legitimate expression of Christian belief.
• Government departments handle religious belief in a complex and confused manner and lack sufficient coordination.
• Advice from government departments on how to handle religious belief in the public sector varies and in many cases fails to grasp the nature and implications of belief.
• Guidance from professional bodies on religious belief often fails to understand, and therefore safeguard, a role for belief in public life.
• Across the UK, local authorities handle their relationships with religious groups in very different ways.
The Committee consisted of Gary Streeter MP (Chair), Fiona Bruce MP, Baroness Berridge of the Vale of Catmose, David Burrowes MP, Baroness Brinton of Kenardington, Jim Dobbin MP, Lord Edmiston of Lapworth, and Gavin Shuker MP.
They noted the relative religious illiteracy of the nation, which has led to many situations where religious belief is misunderstood and subsequently restricted. This comes from a social and cultural minimisation of Christianity in public life. Religious illiteracy has led to legal restrictions on the way that faith can be expressed. Recent changes have compelled Christians to provide services that they had never previously offered and which may be contrary to their beliefs.
There are specific and necessary steps which the Government should take, and national and local bodies should implement to enable Christians and other faiths to have greater confidence in their freedom to express their beliefs. They recommend:
• Reasonable accommodation is a concept that has merit and warrants further consideration. If proved viable it may help prevent legal cases where religious activity is unduly restricted.
• Areas of the law that permit the arrest of individuals for insulting behaviour need to be significantly amended or reinforced with guidance that permits freedom for preaching and the public articulation of Christian beliefs.
• Guidance for local authorities on how to deal with faith groups needs to be strengthened.
• Professional bodies need better guidance relating to religious identity, activity and freedom.
• Better guidance for government departments and professional bodies to help accommodate religious belief and the way it works itself out in everyday life.
• Clear guidelines should be provided to local authorities to reaffirm that children can be adopted and fostered by people with religious beliefs.
• Better coordination is needed of policy relating to religion in and across government, and urgent effort is required to address religious illiteracy.
• The Equality and Human Rights Commission should be reviewed and restructured to better include and represent religious beliefs.
Under a heading: 'How the Church should respond', the Committee says:
Many of the challenges identified are not wholly the responsibility of the government to resolve. There is a growing need for churches and Christian organisations to take responsibility when their actions may have contributed to a perception that the scale of the problem facing Christians is greater than it is.
Christians have, and will always, experience tensions between their beliefs and the shifting values of the societies that they live in. To some extent the present tensions should be seen as an encouragement of faithful witness.
Ahead of bringing cases to court, Christians need to consider the potential impact their actions might have on politics, public opinion and the confidence of other Christians in their mission.
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.
For many Christians public life is seen as a way of living out their beliefs, and across all denominations there is a growing awareness of the need to respond to the challenges that face our communities, nation and world. This shift is already transforming many, often deprived, parts of the country, however, there is much more that remains to be done in demonstrating this vital role of faith.
Christians need to take seriously their historical role in leading and serving in public life, and church discipleship needs to account for this role – because the gospel is good news for society.
The Committee noted that 'Christianity has a rich cultural heritage in the UK. For more than 1,600 years, it has shaped the way people in the British Isles think and act, both personally and publicly. It is by far the most significant single historical influence of our social and political culture and, latterly, has been joined by other influences, many of which are antithetical to Judeo-Christian perspectives. Although Christianity has (negatively and positively) contributed to the evolution of our political culture, it is indisputable that the social and political landscape for authentic Christian witness in the UK has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. The past century has seen, in the place of a Christian public ethos, many atheistic ideas come to the fore. These have been tried and tested in politics and society. The result is that, although the UK is still constitutionally Christian, it is also religiously plural and has a public discourse heavily influenced by secular humanist ideas'.
It remains to be seen how many of these recommendations are accepted by the Government, but we should not forget that the Prime Minister himself recently reminded us:
“We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so… the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today. Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend…Over to you, Prime Minister.
The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option… Put simply for too long we have been unwilling to distinguish right from wrong. ‘Live and let live’ has too often become ‘do what you please’. Bad choices have too often been defended as just different lifestyles. To be confident in saying something is wrong, is not a sign of weakness. It’s a strength. But we can’t fight something with nothing. As I’ve said if we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything... those who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgement on the behaviour of others fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality or the role that faith can play in helping people to have a moral code…
I believe the Church – and indeed all our religious leaders and their communities in Britain – have a vital role to play in helping to achieve this.”