Civil rights advocates are expressing puzzlement at a new report from Christians in Parliament and the Evangelical Alliance UK which claims that Christians are victims of prejudice in Britain.
The report, 'Clearing the Ground', suggests that civic and legal authorities in the UK are suffering from 'religious illiteracy' and that there is a failure to treat Christians who hold conservative social views - including those who say that their beliefs should allow them to discriminate against others in the provision of goods and services - with fairness.
During a six-month inquiry, the Christians in Parliament all-party group, led by Conservative MP Gary Streeter, analysed a range of instances, including employment tribunals and court cases, where Christians claimed they had received unfair treatment under the law.
It also took evidence from what are described by the group as "key organisations, denominations and experts" and received written evidence from a further 40 groups and individuals.
The report criticises the Equality Act 2010, despite the exemptions churches have from it, and indicates that some Christian groups believe that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission is biased against Christians - even though it made a high-profile attempt last year, criticised by other equalities groups, to intervene at the European Court of Human Rights in four cases in which Christians alleged they had been unfairly treated.
The new report alleges that "indications from court judgments are that sexual orientation takes precedence and religious belief is required to adapt in the light of this. We see this as an unacceptable and unsustainable situation.”
'Clearing the Ground' makes a number of recommendations for correcting what it sees as 'religious illiteracy' in public life, and it promotes the notion of 'reasonable accommodation' as a concept "that has merit and warrants further consideration. If proved viable it may help prevent legal cases where religious activity is" [according to the report] "unduly restricted".
Writing for the Daily Telegraph website to accompany the launch of the report, Gary Streeter MP and Jim Dobbin, a Labour MP, call on the Government to consider requiring judges to weigh up whether employers have taken “reasonable” steps to accommodate the religious beliefs of workers. The MPs say new guidelines could help balance what they say are “competing” rights.
But critics say that the report is confused and confusing in its understanding and approach to a range of complex issues.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, commented: "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.
He continued: "The report employs the dubious notion of 'competing rights' to seek to posit a clash between Christians (taken to be a homogenous group) and gay people (who are assumed to be quite separate from Christians). In fact, the whole point of the human rights convention and UK equalities legislation is to seek to ensure fair treatment regardless of religion or belief, or indeed sexual orientation. It protects Christians against discrimination as much, but no more, than anyone else.
"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."
Mr Barrow added: "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 that are 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. This is surely a 'reasonable accommodation' in a plural society?
"The general public mood now is that discrimination and prejudice against gay people, for example, is as unacceptable in public life as discrimination against black people or any other social or ethnic group. It is very sad that some Christians find this hard to accept, and wish to maintain a privileged position for themselves, regarding equal treatment as 'discrimination' against them. But the law is surely correct not to allow prejudice to overcome civil rights for all, and despite the huge efforts of certain lobby groups - whose involvement is not properly investigated by 'Clearing the Ground', incidentally - legal cases brought by a small number of religious complainants have failed again and again. This has not happened because there is bias or ignorance in the legal system, but because of a failure of evidence.
"Indeed, it is insulting and unfair to those who work in the legal system, including Christians, and to those who work for EHRC, who have made very considerable (some would say over-stretched) efforts to reach out to the very groups who attack them, to suggest that they are biased and prejudicial. As a Christian think-tank working on these issues for some years, this is not our experience at all. Specific attempts to show that the law has been inaccurately or unfairly interpreted have been notably unsuccessful, so attempts are now being made to insinuate prejudice. This is regrettable, to say the least.
"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.
"If there is 'religious illiteracy' in society more widely, many would say it begins with the failure of some people of faith to communicate their beliefs in an open and engaging way, and to address prejudice and exclusion - not least against women and LGBT people - in their midst. There is a major theological and educational task to be addressed here," concluded the Ekklesia co-director.
In 2005, Ekklesia's book 'Faith and Politics After Christendom', authored by Jonathan Bartley, predicted that there would be an increase in allegations of discrimination and persecution by some Christians in the UK, and analysed the underlying shifts in social and religious demographics behind this.
* The 'Clearing the Ground' report may be read in summary and in full here: http://www.eauk.org/clearingtheground/
* 'Discriminating Christian confusions', by Simon Barrow: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14312
* 'Christianity, the legal system and discrimination' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11873
* Equalities issues: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/4194
* 'Religion, belief and non-discrimination law' (in the run-up to the 2010 Equality Act) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8700
* 'An ill-judged intervention from the Equality and Human Rights Commission', by Savi Hensman - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15119
Ekklesia is a member of the Cutting Edge Consortium. This is a coalition of faith groups, human rights campaigns, trades unions and other organisations. They are opposing calls for ever more “religious opt-outs” from equalities legislation in Britain. http://www.cuttingedgeconsortium.co.uk