Stonewalls attempts at resolving faith vs. LGBT conflict in the workplace

Stonewalls attempts at resolving faith vs. LGBT conflict in the workplace

Stonewall has just released its document Religion and sexual orientation: how to manage conflict in the workplace. My workplace, the Hampshire Police, is currently ranked as No.2 on the Stonewall Equality Index as a gay friendly employer. I have a very close working relationship/friendship with some of the people who made this happen and I am very proud of what they have managed to achieve. Given that we want to maintain our position, this document will no doubt be very important to us, and to other police services also seeking so great a prize. In many ways I found it an impressive and useful piece of work by Stonewall, and clearly it has the intention of trying to understand and not judge the variety of perspectives within the UK’s many organisations. Clearly the relationship between faith and sexuality is an area that needs to be thought through further. Whilst a lot of work has been achieved already in this field there is still much to be done, as mistakes and conflicts still emerge within the work environment. These are sadly often handled incorrectly. I think that the examples of conflict given, and the resolutions that were highlighted do show good practice which can be helpfully drawn from.

I hope however you will accept some of my concerns with the document in the spirit of continuous improvement of faith and LGBT relations. I do so being personally committed to diversity, believing that LGBT employees should feel safe to be open within the workplace. Moreover I also hold to many liberal political convictions supporting gay marriage, inheritance rights for gay couples, and gay adoption from secular institutions etc. Nevertheless I also am privileged to represent a conservative religious police charity, Hampshire Christian Police Association, and am personally committed to conservative religious values which have been legally secured by both ACPO policy and national legislation. I can hold the two in tension because I believe that we must live in a free society which protects the rights of all people regardless of religion or sexual orientation.

I applaud that the document has avoided an aggressive “all conservative religious people are bigots and are acting unlawfully” polemic which is too often deployed by many so called ‘human rights’ organisations. I also appreciate the spirit of conciliation which its authors have clearly tried to communicate. Nevertheless I am troubled by the documents meta-narrative which is, in my opinion, still profoundly anti-faith. Therefore I would be concerned if this document became our core reference when constructing Hampshire diversity policy on this issue or managing LGBT/faith workplace conflict.

The study articulates an extremely patronising tone, in that the religious people, who are portrayed as positive examples, are so because they have awakened to the fact that gay and lesbian people are "people too," "valuable" and "not sinful" etc. Thus according to the document, the role of any organisation on this issue is to educate people with conservative faith commitments into holding more moderate anthropologies, and introduce them to LGBT staff so they can “get to know them”. Here are three of the strongest examples:

My experience of working with a sexual orientation group
and the religion groups is just that they’re in very, very
different places. I mean the Christians genuinely believe that
God is telling them this is wrong because it’s in the Bible. It
comes from very, very deep seated faith and roots and
therefore it’s a huge problem to try to shift that. What I’m
going to say to them is I’m up against God basically and I’m
not going to win. So you have to try and use other methods
to actually get them to perhaps meet some of these people
and realise that actually they haven’t sinned and they’re not
bad. But you know it’s just comes from their interpretation of
the Bible and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.
Siobhan, private sector multinational company

I have come across some gay people and I think I have changed
my opinion. I have worked with these people, you know,
they’re really nice people... they are people. Husna, 24, Muslim

I would love to encourage every Christian I knew, and every
Christian I don’t know, to say before you make these
pronouncements of opposition and complete un-acceptance
of individuals, get to know them as individuals first.
Laura, 34, Christian

What this document does not understand is that the source of religious beliefs that many people hold, has less to do with their ignorance and fundamentalist fervour (although this can be a component). For billions of religious believers across the world their religious conversion was premised upon the idea that what they once were engaged in and deeply committed to, (be that pre-marital sex, gambling, fascist politics, hate for ones enemies, un-forgiveness, pursuit of wealth etc) is now rejected through personal choice and a new existential commitment is made to the religious values of a particular faith group. In other words it is not through ignorance that people form their religio-moral decisions, but it is their personal experiences of these things that they are rejecting in favour of a new belief system that they consider to be more life giving.

Many conservative religious people in fact have a very sophisticated approach to diversity in that they may not necessarily agree with another person’s life choices, but neither do they deny others the same rights they themselves have to choose. They certainly do not devalue gay and straight people who differ in their opinion, nor wish to disenfranchise them. In my opinion Simon Barrow gets it right when he talks of “A difference based on friendship” (although he may feel I have quoted him out of context for which I apologise).

Another point of difficulty for me is that, although not explicit, the document implicitly sights the blame for conflict firmly at the door of religious staff. All the examples contain LGBT victims of faith based homophobic abuse or discrimination, and there is not one example of mistakes being made by LGBT people despite there being many examples to draw upon that are registered in tribunals or published by the media.

In conclusion the document feels less about how to 'manage conflict in the work place', and more about how to manage religious people in the workplace. I feel that it is no more helpful to publicly argue that religious people are ignorant than it is to argue that they are bigoted. It might be less aggressive and appear more gracious, but ultimately it suffers from the same failure to understand and respect employees with faith. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Stonewall for working hard to move this debate forward, and I agree with them on many of the examples that they offer. I am also glad that they have avoided making faith and sexual orientation an irresolvable dichotomy as there are many LGBT religious believers, some who hold to very conservative values on sexual orientation.

Ekklesia itself of course is committed to an affirming position on same sex relationships, and so people who read this (if anyone is reading it given that this blog-sphere is somewhat underutilised) may legitimately disagree. But I know many more conservative readers who also are committed readers of Ekklesia so it might make for more an interesting discussion on how a church that holds different positions can support LGBT people in the workplace, particularly those suffering from genuine faith based discrimination. The only thing I would hope people would not fall into is the boring “all conservative evangelicals are bigots” nonsense as that does not create an environment of peaceful progression but of anger and alienation.

Grace and Love Dan
(PS all these views are my own and in no way represent the views of Hampshire Police or the Christian Police Association)