A level playing-field for British Christians

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
15 Aug 2010

Last week I discussed the Duke Amachree case on Premier Christian Radio. I was intrigued by a discussion that developed about a “level playing-field” for British Christians.

Duke Amachree was dismissed from his job after giving allegedly inappropriate religious advice to a client, a decision upheld in court last week. The whole case has no doubt caused considerable distress both for Duke and for the client concerned. I would much rather that the dispute had been resolved by mediation than by dismissal and legal action.

I have not followed the case in detail and am not in a position to form a view on whether the judgment was right or wrong. A clear understanding of the case is hampered by the over-reaction of Christian groups and parts of the media. It has been inaccurately reported that Duke was sacked simply for “mentioning God”. This is not true.

On Premier, I discussed the issue alongside Libby Blaxall, a solicitor with the Christian Legal Centre (CLC), who advised Duke on his case. CLC is closely linked with Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON), a lobbying group who argue that Christians as a whole are facing discrimination in Britain.

Some of the cases backed by CLC concern clear abuses of free expression and religious liberty, such as those involving restrictions on Christians' freedom of dress. But at other times, CLC has argued that Christians should themselves be allowed to practise discrimination. A major example is the case of Lilian Ladele, a civil registrar who refused to perform civil partnerships for same-sex couples.

Many of CLC's cases, such as that of Duke Amachree, are very complicated. Forcing them all into a simplistic narrative about anti-Christian discrimination is neither a witness to truth nor an effective way of achieving a just outcome.

Civil liberties have been severely restricted in the UK over the last decade, which anyone who values free expression should find worrying. But we should be worried regardless of whether the people affected are Christians. Jesus has not taught his followers to be concerned only for people who agree with them.

When I raised this on Premier, I was pleased to hear Libby say that CLC supports freedom of religion for every individual. When I asked her why they do not work on the cases of non-Christians whose freedom is abused, she suggested this was not the organisation's purpose, saying half-jokingly, “We'd have to change our name”.

But they wouldn't. They wouldn't have to change their name if their Christian faith motivated them to be concerned for the freedom and dignity of all people. It's worth noting that the gay human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has defended the right to free speech of anti-gay Christians with whom he strongly disagrees. It is sad if Christians cannot return the compliment of treating all as our neighbours.

Libby insisted that CLC is not asking for privileges for Christians but for a “level playing-field”. I heartily agree that Christians should be equal to people of other religions and of none.

At times, the freedom of individual Christians in Britain is abused and this should be resisted. So should the abuse of other people's freedom. This includes the demonisation and stereotyping of Muslims that is so prevalent in the media and which has become routine on the front pages of the Daily Express and the Daily Star.

Anyone wanting a level playing-field should recognise that the UK is a country in which over 99 per cent of faith schools are Christian and in which bishops get to vote on legislation in Parliament (a situation almost unique in the world). These are the vestiges of Christendom, the situation that prevailed for centuries in which Christianity was closely allied to political and cultural power. The gradual passing of Christendom gives us a great opportunity to look again at the real nature of Jesus' message.

When CLC and CCFON say they support a level-playing field, they might be taken more seriously if they were to stand up and call for the removal of the bishops from the House of Lords and the disestablishment of the Church of England.

As British Christians, we could witness to Jesus' values of love in action and servant leadership by voluntarily giving up the privileges which are denied to non-Christians. What a powerful message of love that would send out to others. Sadly, it is a message that much of the Church seems reluctant to hear.

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© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. His new book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, which focuses on religion's relationship with society and politics, can be ordered at http://www.newint.org/publications/no-nonsense-guides/religion/.

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