Martin Parsons: Labour's attack on Christian liberties
This is the first of a five part series looking at the Conservative Party's relationship with churchgoers after thirteen years of Labour government. Dr Martin Parsons is a regular contributor to CentreRight.
In 1997 the Conservative Party lost its majority in a landslide to Labour, a situation which, despite the colossal unpopularity of the last Labour government, we have not yet managed to reverse. A year after that defeat William Hague reflected that:
‘Millions of people who share our values and our principles felt they could not support the Conservative Party with their votes. We need to reconnect with those people, to persuade them that we share their hopes and their concerns for the future of our country.’
Among those ‘millions’ who felt disillusioned with us in 1997 were many active Christians, people who were socially conservative. They not only intuitively believed in that thing called ‘society’, but were some of the most active participants in it, not just in nice middle class areas, but in the difficult inner city areas, where they continue to make a major contribution to repairing Britain’s broken society.
In the 2-3 years before the general election there was a significant move of practising Christians away from Labour and renewed interest in the Conservatives. However, as we will see later in this series of articles during the election itself the Conservative Party failed to seal the deal with many committed Christians.
During the election the key issue for a great many practising Christians was a widespread perception that there was increasing intolerance towards Christian beliefs and a very real, and not wholly unfounded fear that Christians were being increasingly excluded from public life.
Some may feel that is perhaps overstating the case, I would simply ask any Conservative parliamentary candidate what questions they were asked in election hustings. I can virtually guarantee that almost all of them faced at least one if not several questions on this subject during their election campaign. As to whether the perception Christians have is well grounded I would simply ask you to reflect carefully and sensitively on the examples below, which represent just a small sample of the sort of discrimination and exclusion from public life that Christians have faced as a result of legislation passed by the Labour government.
I will start with an example of someone personally known to me. This is one that has not been publicised by the media, and for that reason is all the more significant, as representative of a much larger body of people who don’t make a loud noise, hold marches and shout ‘discrimination’, but simply quietly withdraw from public life leaving society in general and their local community in particular so much the poorer. I knew Greg from the time I was a teenager, he was the sort of person who would do anything for anyone. A family man with two children, he lived on a large council estate and was a district nurse. When he became a magistrate, people said ‘that’s exactly the sort of person we need as a magistrate – someone who really understands ordinary people’s lives’. A couple of years ago I heard that Greg had quietly stepped down. The reason was that his lifestyle values were incompatible with him being on the adoption panel. It’s the sort of example you expect to hear from Stonewall about discrimination against gay people, but Greg wasn’t gay, he was a committed Christian and under legislation brought in by Labour he was required to act against his conscience by placing children for adoption with gay couples. He didn’t make a loud complaint about it, he didn’t mount a legal challenge against the decision (although one Christian magistrate did and was told that the new legislation required him to act against his conscience), Greg simply stepped down quietly – as did almost certainly many hundreds like him.
The magistrates bench hasn’t been the only area of public life that Christians have been increasingly excluded from as a result of the last Labour government’s ‘equality’ legislation. Lillian Ladelle was a registrar, who as a result of the particular way the Labour government not only framed equality laws but required civil servants to carry them out – lost her job. As a committed Christian she could not in all conscience carry out a civil partnership ceremony, which participants regarded as gay marriage. She tried to swap shifts to avoid carrying out civil partnership ceremonies, but was ordered to do them. She was forced out of the one job that she was trained for, a job that she loved and before Labour brought in this legislation she had not the slightest moral qualms at all about carrying out. She lost her case for unfair dismissal on the grounds that the new legislation required her to carry out civil partnership ceremonies. She was by no means the only Christian working as a registrar to be put in this position. The real tragedy of the story is that when the Labour government passed this legislation it was told that it would directly lead to people like Lillian being either forced to act against their moral conscience or lose their jobs. The Labour government refused to make any special provisions and insisted that Christian civil servants like Lillian would either have to act against their conscience or lose their jobs.
It is not simply Christian magistrates and registrars, there have been cases involving other public sector employees including a Christian couple providing foster care to primary school age children who were told that they were no longer deemed ‘suitable’ as a direct result of the last Labour government’s euphemistically termed ‘equality’ legislation.
Yet it was not simply in the public sector that Christians began to excluded from public life. One of the most disturbing trends under New Labour that led to increasing pressure on Christians and churches was a change in the Social Liberalism that Tony Blair espoused from being a sort of benign enthusiasm to a harsher, much more dictatorial and intolerant approach. This sought to enforce socially liberal attitudes not only on those directly employed in the public sector, but increasingly on anyone even vaguely connected with it and ultimately even down to the level of the individual, despite the very evident erosion of historic British values such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech that this necessarily entailed. Legislation enacted by the last Labour government required independent Roman Catholic adoption agencies to act against their beliefs by placing children for adoption with gay couples. It was not that gay couples could not adopt children from other adoption agencies, they could, as such many commentators observed that there was no need for this legislation. Indeed, the social cost was very high as RC adoption agencies successfully placed some of the most hard to adopt children and the legislation directly led to the closure of a number of these adoption agencies. The legislation was simply an attempt to force any organisation, however remotely connected with the public sector, to adopt practices based on an agenda of social liberalism.
Now just for a minute imagine yourself to be a committed Christian. You have just seen the Labour government pass a law that required Catholic adoption agencies to act in a way that is completely contrary to the teaching of the Bible and the historic teaching of the Christian faith for the last 2,000 years. If this has now happened to a Christian organisation, what will happen next…will this sort of legislation be enforced not only on Christian organisations but also the church itself…?
> In part 2 we will see that Labour actually got very close to doing that, but were rebuffed as a result of amendments put down by Conservative peers.