The first of four major conferences looking into issues regarding equality, human rights and ‘religion or belief’ will take place in London on Monday 10 November, involving a range of senior figures in the field.
The conferences are being run as part of a project funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and are sponsored and organised by the British Humanist Association (BHA).
Pepper Harow, BHA Equality and Human Rights Project Officer, explained: "All too often public authorities consider work with faith groups as covering the entire “religion or belief” equality strand. We would like to create a space where the issues involved in this can be discussed."
Ms Harow continued: "People often talk of “clashing” equality needs or rights. This is something we would like to see discussed openly and these conferences will give people an opportunity to do that."
The first conference in London includes a keynote speech by Dr Evan Harris MP and panel sessions including experts from a range of different religion or belief and equality backgrounds. Delegates will also be able to choose from a variety of workshops run by equality organizations.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think tank Ekklesia, who is running one of the workshops in January 2009, said: "This is a valuable opportunity to discuss how religion and belief plays out in terms of vital equality questions in Britain today, and to argue the case for a level playing field for all.
"We now live in a multi-conviction, mixed belief society. This is a challenge to us all, including the churches, faith communities and secular organisations. There is lack of understanding on all sides, and some hostility too. We need better ways of addressing these issues, and the BHA's initiative in promoting these conferences is to be welcomed.
"Many of us from Christian communities are keen to embrace the comprehensive equalities agenda with enthusiasm, rather than seeking opt-outs and privileges. The Gospel message is about service and sharing, not self-seeking. As the Christendom era ends, the churches have an opportunity to review their practice and to rediscover the radically egalitarian dimension of their message which has often been obscured by an uncritical association with certain kinds of temporal power."
The four events will be held in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff between December '08 and February '09.
Other keynote speakers include Angela Mason OBE, Professor A. C. Grayling, and Dr Brian Gibbons.
Among the Christian individuals and organisations taking part in the discussion are, in addition to Ekklesia, the Rev Aled Edwards of Churches Together in Wales, Joy Madeiros, public policy director of Faithworks, the Rev Sharon Fergusson, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), and Dr Daniel Boucher, parliamentary director for CARE.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who heads of the Accord coalition for reform of faith schools policy, and Mr Brian Pearce from the Inter Faith Network UK are also speaking.