The last of four major conferences looking into issues regarding equality, human rights and ‘religion or belief’ took place in Cardiff earlier this week, with keynote speaker Dr Brian Gibbons, the Minister for Social Justice and Local Government at the Welsh Assembly.
The Commissioner for Wales from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Neil Wooding, also spoke, as did the Rev Aled Edwards, CEO of Cytun (Churches Together in Wales), Liz Morgan of Stonewall Cymru and Hanne Stinson, CEO of the British Humanist Association.
Workshops were offered by the Welsh Trades Union Congress (workplace issues), Welsh EHRC (equalities), Cardiff Inter-Faith Association, the BHA (Non-religious perspectives), the Centre for Law and Religion, and Ekklesia (on the concept of 'religion or belief).
The four gatherings were held in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff between December 2008 and February 2009. Several hundred people attended in total, from a variety of backgrounds.
The events were run as part of a project funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and were 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 wanted to create a space where the issues involved in this could 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 gave people an opportunity to do that."
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think tank Ekklesia, who spoke in Birmingham and in Cardiff, said: "These were valuable opportunities 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 - as recent events have shown. We need better ways of addressing these issues."
He added: "Many of us from Christian communities are keen to embrace the comprehensive equalities agenda with enthusiasm, rather than seeking opt-outs and privileges. The Christian 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."
Keynote speakers at the conferences in England were Angela Mason OBE, Professor A. C. Grayling, and Dr Evan Harris MP.
Other people from a faith background taking part in the discussions included Joy Madeiros, public policy director of Faithworks, the Rev Sharon Fergusson, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), Dr Daniel Boucher, parliamentary director for CARE, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who also heads of the Accord coalition for reform of faith schools policy, and Brian Pearce from the Inter Faith Network UK.
Read Ekklesia's briefing on religion, belief and non-discrimination law: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8700