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Gary Streeter: Christians are disadvantaged when the rights of others trump theirs

Gary Streeter is the MP for South-West Devon

Screen shot 2012-03-02 at 06.42.33Christians in Parliament is a well supported all-party parliamentary group that decided last year to hold an investigation into whether or not Christian freedoms were being squeezed in this country, and so our “Clearing the Ground” select committee-style enquiry was born. This was fuelled in part by an increasing number of high-profile court cases in which Christians seem to have collided with a secular and hostile state steamrollering over their sincerely held beliefs.

The aims of the inquiry were:

  • To clarify the situation that Christians in the UK face in their everyday lives.
  • To identify any particular challenges that Christians face, in particular identifying what aspects of legislation have created these challenges.
  • To identify what changes could be made to address these challenges.
  • To encourage Christians to continue to make positive contributions to all aspects of society.

Since last October we have studied written evidence from over 60 groups and taken oral evidence from over a dozen specialist experts. We launched our preliminary report in the House of Commons earlier this week.

We have concluded that, whilst many of us individually feel we have all the freedoms we need to live out our faith as we would wish, this has not been the experience of every believer in the UK in recent years. The right to hang a palm Sunday cross in your electrician’s van, say a discreet prayer for a patient, carry on your bed & breakfast establishment on the basis that unmarried couples whether gay or straight would not be accommodated, display verses of the bible on the screen on your cafe wall - all these and many more examples of conflict between faith and society have been explored. Yes, there is a problem.

There are two areas in particular where mainstream Christian belief appears to clash particularly with the prevailing secular culture and recent legal framework: sexual ethics and the uniqueness of Christ. The fact that for two thousand years followers of Jesus have embraced certain beliefs counts for little to a modern mindset that sees the world very differently.

Our report has concluded that much of the problem flows from recent legislation (notably the Equalities Act 2010) which is largely overseen by a generation that is struggling more and more with religious illiteracy. In short, many large employers, judges, police officers and civil servants simply do not understand faith, and do not comprehend the significant minority of people living in the UK for whom their personal faith is their single biggest motivator. We are suggesting that more needs to be done across Whitehall, local government and large employers to better inform decision makers about the faith motivator if we are to make sense of this problem. We do this for certain minority groups, so why not for people of faith?

The Equalities Act lists a number of protected groups including people of religious belief as well as people of homosexual orientation. The Act seeks to protect all minorities equally, but unfortunately did not specify what happens when the rights of one group collide with the rights of another. By default it seems that one set of rights now trumps another. This is an aspect of the law that needs to be reviewed.

We also suggest that the concept of reasonable accommodation be applied in some of these instances of conflict. Should every business have to offer services to every customer, irrespective of sincerely held conscience, if there is another business just around the corner that is perfectly happy to do so? This approach is well documented in disability legislation; perhaps it should also be applied in the tricky arena of equalities law.

Amongst other things, the inquiry recommends:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Our report also calls on Christian groups and the media to be responsible and not to exaggerate problems or cry wolf. Most problems are sorted out amicably behind closed doors. We believe that Christians have made a profound contribution to our society and we wish to carry on doing so, serving disadvantaged communities because our faith inspires us to do so. We are here primarily to follow Jesus, and demonstrate his love and mercy, not pick fights with or judge people who do not believe and who live differently. We are here to be salt and light, not a wet blanket. We are not looking for special rights or privileges, but we are looking for a level playing field.

We call this a preliminary report because we have more work to do on some proposed changes to the law. We also want to sit down with groups with a different world view, as well as people of other faiths to see if we can make common cause. We know that in a pluralistic society there will always be tensions between people of faith and those with a secular mindset. We would like there to be a positive debate leading to found solutions, rather than the daily clash of kingdoms.


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