The Christian service agency Faithworks, which contracts with government and has some 20,000 community and church partners across the country, has given a critical response to a new report challenging the contribution religious groups make to public service provision.
The new report, Quality and Equality, calls for inclusive services open to all and recommends a more transparent tendering process for religious organisations contracted into public service supply and delivery. In addition, it highlights the need for legislative change to ensure that organisations providing public services:
* could not discriminate between service users on grounds of ‘religion or belief’, or on any other grounds;
* must respect the human rights of service users;
* have equality-based employment policies, so that no one is privileged for a position because of her/his religion or belief, her/his sexual orientation, or on any other irrelevant ground.
"The distinctive role of the faith sector is denied in the British Humanist Association’s (BHA) report, which assumes a lack of professionalism, inclusivity and commitment to standards" says the agency.
"There is much in the [work of] the British Humanist Association itself that I celebrate and welcome," says the Rev Malcolm Duncan, Leader of the Faithworks Movement, "but in this report it has fallen into accusatory and exclusive language."
Duncan goes on: "The report attempts to consign faith to the edge of society, attacking and misrepresenting who we are and our motivation for what we do. Its language caricatures the faith sector, assuming the worst of us rather than acknowledging the best."
"The way ahead," Duncan says, "is not to dismiss faith, but to embrace it whilst at the same time celebrating the rights and responsibilities of humanists and secularists."
Faithworks stresses that it agrees with the principle of a level playing field in the commissioning of public services and in the vital link between public benefit and the use of public funds.
"In fact the recommendations around public benefit and human rights in the BHA report, Quality and Equality: Human Rights Public Services and Religious Organisations mirror some of the objectives and tone of The Faithworks Charter, points out Duncan.
The BHA's statement of principles on comprehensive equalities have been endorsed by the Trades Union Congress, and by the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which has also warned of the danger to both government and faith groups of a cosy 'new deal' on contracted out services which it says risks marginalising critical questions about social justice, the role of the state and redistribution of wealth.
Faithworks' Malcolm Duncan said yesterday: "There are thousands of projects and groups in the faith sector that already do what the BHA are suggesting. We are pursuing the way ahead – a faith standard that assures public benefit and the correct use of public funds."
The Faithworks Movement was one of the religious bodies to endorse the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SoRs) when many church and faith groups vigorously opposed them.
But the BHA and other critics say that the record of faiths on equalities and human rights remains highly suspect, and by granting them opt-outs the government is institutionalising discrimination - for example in faith schools that select pupils of a particular religious background aheda of others and do the same in staff recruitment.
Meanwhile, Faithworks argues: "The BHA are calling for faith to be removed from public services in a roundabout way – that’s not just wrong, it is misguided, dangerous and will doom communities to poorer services. Faith groups have a valuable contribution to make and that contribution is not only at the heart of social and welfare provision, it is at the heart of a healthy and balanced society."
But Duncan says he does not want to dismiss the BHA’s report outright. "There is much upon which the BHA and Faithworks would agree," he comments. "Just as there are good and bad examples of faith projects and work, there are good and bad examples of humanist and secularist projects. I wholeheartedly agree with the BHA’s conviction that there should be a level playing field for faith groups and non-faith groups."
He continues: "I am as committed to a clearer separation of the roles of church and state as the BHA. As a human being, I am as committed as they are to the dignity of all human beings. As a social activist, I share their abhorrence of discrimination. However, this report suggests that the only way to create a healthy balance is by banning faith communities from the public square.
"It is exactly this kind of posturing and language that causes those of faith to ‘fear’ secularism rather than understand it. I encourage the BHA to enter into a balanced dialogue about these issues and offer both my own services and those of Faithworks to government, the BHA and others in the hope that by listening to one another and understanding where we agree, as well as where we disagree, we might actually move forward constructively and positively together. Our communities deserve the best of our experience and wisdom, not the worst."
The British Humanist Association stresses that it works with religious groups on common agendas and is not seeking any kind of 'ban' on faith organisations in public life. However its report says that taxpayer funded public services should not be religiously constructed, especially when that imperils universal human rights and equalities which a large number of people in faith communities do not accept - for example in relation to sexual orientation.