Four British cases involving religious liberty recently hit the European Court of Human Rights. While the United Kingdom is no persecutor state, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, and North Korea, among many others, religious believers in Great Britain face increasing challenges.
Earlier this year an “all‐party” British legislative group, Christians in Parliament, published a report on the status of religious freedom, “Clearing the Ground Inquiry: Preliminary Report into the Freedom of Christians in the UK.” The committee’s key finding: “Christians in the UK face problems in living out their faith and these problems have been mostly caused and exacerbated by social, cultural and legal changes over the past decade.”
Any secular society will challenge people of faith. Christians in Parliament admitted as much: “Christians have, and will always, experience tensions between their beliefs and the shifting values of the societies that they live in.” Nor should believers expect everyone to always accommodate them. Those who believe differently may see no reason to incur expense or inconvenience because Christians believe God requires them to act one way or another. Indeed, Jesus warned his followers that there would be a cost to their faith. “In this world you will have trouble,” he said (John 16:33). Respecting the reasonable requirements and even unreasonable desires of others is one aspect of that cost.
Nevertheless, believers are right to resist being “marginalized,” as the committee feared. To its credit, the report acknowledged that marginalization is not the same as persecution. To suggest the latter “is to minimize the suffering of Christians in many parts of the world who face repression, imprisonment, and death if they worship, preach or convert.” Such is not the case in Great Britain—or the U.S., for that matter, despite abundant cultural and sporadic legal hostility to Christians and other people of faith.
Still, a good and free society will leave space for all of its participants. Christianity has enriched British life for 1600 years. Today Christians are more active than average Britons in charitable and other public activities. Yet, observed Christians in Parliament, “the frequency and nature of the [court] cases [involving Christians] indicates a narrowing of the space for the articulation, expression and demonstration of Christian belief.”
The issue is not retaining Christian dominance of British society. The United Kingdom, like America, has become more pluralistic, with more faiths represented as well as the rise, observed the report, of “a public discourse heavily influenced by secular humanist ideas.” The latter should be as welcome as religious advocacy. However, Christians’ access to the public square should not be artificially and arbitrarily constricted.
Religious illiteracy is one cause of conflict: “Knowledge and understanding of Christian belief is considerably diminished from what it was in previous eras,” concluded the group. The problem is exacerbated by the non‐obligatory nature of Christianity—that believers feel relatively free to personally decide the application of their faith to daily life. In such a situation, explained the report, “there is a challenge for a secularly‐shaped state and legal system that seeks to define religious belief through a series of ‘tick boxes’.” This lack of clarity influences the drafting of laws, which in Britain provide the most serious interference with the outworking of Christian faith. The panel cited “a frequent default position of suspicion towards Christianity as the most concerning effect of religious liberty.”
Many problems occur when religious groups accept government funding for social services. If you take the cash, it is hard to complain about fulfilling the conditions, no matter how unreasonable. The obvious answer is to avoid pocketing Caesar’s coin. That becomes more difficult, however, as government expands, vacuuming up private resources that otherwise would be available to private groups. If more people “give at the office,” so to speak, it becomes less reasonable to strip all religious values out of the office—or the government, in this case.
Harder to avoid are limitations imposed on Christians “in their employment and involvement with public bodies.” Multiple cases include such issues as employers restricting the use of religious jewelry and display of religious symbols. Companies sometimes seem unreasonable, but they have a right to set employment terms.
Far more serious are direct government attacks on basic expressions of faith. For instance, the committee pointed to the case of a long‐time employee of a public housing agency who was demoted and threatened for questioning same‐sex marriage on his personal Facebook page. A street preacher was arrested and charged with a hate crime for saying that homosexuality was a sin. A businessman was detained and questioned by the police for displaying Bible verses viewed as “homophobic.”
The report acknowledged that it might not always be wise to present one’s faith in a confrontational manner. However, added the committee, “the public proclamation of the Bible is an important feature of Christian life.” Criminalizing preaching basic religious doctrine is akin to the sort of persecution common elsewhere around the world.
Employers may be justified in instructing workers to avoid the subject on company time. Indeed, some of the cases examined by Christians in Parliament involved teachers and medical professionals who offered to pray with students and patients, something for which, admitted the committee, “there is certainly need for great sensitivity.” However, it is dubious to single out religion in general and Christianity in particular.
Similar is the problem when government insists on overriding people’s spiritual sensitivities in their work as they personally provide goods and services. It’s an issue upon which Christians differ based on circumstances. Most believers do not object to dealing or working with gays or anyone else when doing so does not imply acceptance or endorsement. But some Christians are more sensitive than others and some activities are more problematic than others.
The report cited examples of a psychotherapist whose counseling “is directed to Christians who share her beliefs,” the owner of a bed and breakfast who refused to rent rooms to unmarried couples, a city council registrar who requested that colleagues conduct same‐sex ceremonies, and Catholic adoption agencies which refused to place children with gays. Similar controversies have occurred in the U.S., as hostile political activists increasingly have sought not equality before the law but humiliation of those who believe differently.
One cause, argued the panel, was the media, which has “an often duplicitous relationship with issues of Christian freedom—both bringing them to light and exacerbating legal tensions.” Christian activists, too, sometimes worsen the problem: “on some occasions we perceive that campaigning becomes inflammatory or even counter‐productive to Christian freedoms.” The report warned believers against seeing themselves “as just another self‐designated victim group.”
Nevertheless, the most threatening factor is the law. The panel pointed to Britain’s 2010 Equality Act, which bans discrimination based on religion, as well as marriage and sexual orientation. Unfortunately, “the law does not provide any guidance about how tensions between the equality strands should be managed.” So far religious liberty has suffered. Concluded the report: “early indications from court judgments are that sexual orientation takes precedence and religious belief is required to adapt.” In this way, the legislation undermines one of its purposes, to protect people of faith. Also, the act “is having the paradoxical effect of undermining the diversity of plural groups in society and even the diversity of individuals.”
One conflict area in Britain, as in America, is when religious organizations set employment requirements based on faith. This often involves sex and sexuality. The other is Christians seeking employment and providing goods and services in a manner which respects their faith. “Discrimination” in this case rarely denies anyone necessary services. Observed the report, in some of the high‐profile legal cases “there was no suggestion that ceremonies would not be carried out, or children would not be cared for, if the accommodation requested was granted.” However, so far this fact has not been considered in implementing the law.
Another problematic measure is the Public Order Act, which penalizes insulting speech. Arrests under this legislation, noted the report, “exemplify a change in culture so that ‘equality’ means you are not supposed to criticize people’s religion or sexual behavior in public.” In this area, at least, Americans enjoy much greater legal protection through the First Amendment.
Professional regulation, particularly of health care professionals, also tends to emphasize prevention of “harassment” over protection of liberty. The commission noted that government rules exhibit “a lack of logic… because someone who is prevented in the workplace from manifesting their belief, either through prayer or witnessing, may consider themselves harassed on account of their beliefs.” By essentially forcing believers to privatize or internalize their faith, these sort of government or government‐backed requirements prevent Christians from acting as “salt and light” as instructed by Jesus. Tensions between an evangelistic lifestyle and sensitive engagement always will exist. But government has unbalanced the playing field, unnecessarily putting people of faith at a sometimes great disadvantage.
Also limiting religious liberty in the United Kingdom is the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Its role is to enforce equality. Testimony taken by Christians in Parliament generated “overwhelming negative” reports about the HRC. The report concluded: “It is our view that the commission has failed to sufficiently represent and advocate for the role of religion in public life and sufficiently balance the outworking of religious belief when there is a tension between it and the other equality strands.”
Having diagnosed the problem, the group sensibly asked, what to do? The panel argued against a view that “the current situation is simply an inevitable outcome of a process of secularization.” To its credit, these Christian advocates rejected “looking to the government to enforce Christian belief on a plural society, but neither are we suggesting that Christians should give in to a secular humanist agenda.”
The committee emphasized “reasonable accommodation,” though acknowledging that this doctrine “is not a silver bullet to protect the role of religion in public life.” Moreover, accommodation cannot be only one way. People of faith also should accept the right of private employers, who offer jobs which are neither a legal entitlement nor a human right, to set their own rules.
In contrast, the state has the greatest obligation to accommodate when it uses its vast coercive power. Unfortunately, in Britain government seems the institution least willing to compromise. Observed the panel: “various levels of government and other public bodies often demonstrate an insufficient understanding of religious belief. This also includes the courts as they apply and interpret the relevant laws.”
Christians in Parliament also suggested that relationships be based on respect rather than tolerance, since the former “is about acknowledging difference and living beside people with whom you may have profound disagreements, even to the point that their view cause you offense.” Most obviously, people should not be arrested for stating Biblical views which others find to be offensive. Similarly, the law should protect diversity rather than mandate sameness. The panel powerfully argues that insensitivity does not justify arresting people for behavior that some find to be “insulting.” For all of this policymakers need to better understand the tenets and role of faith.
The panel closed by recognizing that Christians have a responsibility as well. “There is much to celebrate about contemporary life in Britain,” it noted. Moreover, it was important to acknowledge “an occasional lack of humility and a need to speak truth with grace to an ailing culture.” Further, the committee argued that it is not enough to oppose, but “it is essential that Christians articulate a vision for society that goes beyond defending their own interests and is seen to be for the good of all.”
But retreat is not an option. Christians in Parliament emphasized that believers cannot leave public life. Christianity requires more than worship. It requires believers to be salt and light as they live and act in the world around them. Concluded the report: “Being distinctively Christian, they must work for the good of society, and towards a society that is truly respectful of different beliefs. Christians should encourage a confident pluralism that acknowledges disagreements and is not a cover for enforcing sameness under the cloak of diversity.”
Restrictions on religious liberty are not limited to Britain. Discrimination against Christians elsewhere in Europe was described earlier this year in “Report 2011,” produced by the Austrian‐based non‐governmental organization Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe.
The group pointed to a range of offenses, including violence, vandalism, discrimination, and other forms of hostility. The report concluded: “Intolerance and discrimination against Christians, describing the denial of equal rights and the social marginalization of Christians, is the most explanatory term for this phenomenon in the Western world. Even though this is technically a form of persecution, it must not be called so in Europe, in order to avoid confusion with the crimes committed against Christians in other places of the world.” Last year the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe approved a resolution calling for initiation of debate over “intolerance and discrimination against Christians.”
The examples cited of basic religious freedoms denied range from violent disruption of worship services and workplace bans on religious jewelry and decorations to suppression of Christian iPhone applications and interference with employment terms set by religious organizations. Government plays a key role. In one case the authorities banned a religious‐day barbeque. Governments have denied building permits to churches. Freedom of speech has suffered with the arrest and dismissal of Christians speaking out and protesting on political issues, a radio station ban on Christian ads, a postal service refusal to deliver “offensive” religious materials, interference with Christian rallies, and government fines on pro‐life sidewalk counselors.
Regulations and laws also violate freedom of conscience of Christians in the provision of goods and services. Examples include mandating that Christians rent to homosexuals, penalizing foster parents who oppose homosexuality, and forcing Christian medical professionals to perform or participate in abortions. Faux equality has been imposed, causing “indirect discrimination of Christians as a side‐effect” as well as “a tendency to indirectly discriminate against Christians by criminalizing core elements of Christian teaching,” according to the report. Marriage commissioners have been evaluated to ensure their support for same sex marriage; Catholic social services have been ordered to assist in same sex adoption; Paypal has dropped service for Christian sites.
The report also worries about marginalization of Christians, particularly attempts “to make the public expression or exercise of the non‐tolerated religion impossible.” Examples include firing a teacher who talked about abortion and denying anti‐abortion activists permission to protest. Mockery and suppression of religious symbols is another problem. Some examples reflect private intolerance; others public policies. The report also pointed to “insult, defamation and negative stereotyping.” Many of these represent free speech that despite its offensiveness should be protected from government interference, but which today might result in legal sanction if delivered by Christians against other faiths.
More worrisome are “hate incidents,” some violent, including interfering with religious services and assaulting religious people. Desecration and vandalism have become problems at churches and cemeteries with religious decorations, monuments, and ornaments. A pharmacy was attacked for refusing to sell the “morning‐after” pill.
The group acknowledged the irony of discrimination against a majority. However, the majority is only nominally Christian; the most faithful believers are the most likely to face the greatest persecution. Further, noted the organization, “More essential than numbers is power: who sets the tone, who is listened to, and who creates the agenda.” The Christian faithful do not.
The report suggested “a roadmap to freedom of religion.” That means recognizing that religious liberty is not just individual action but acting in community with one another. It means understanding that religion offers benefits to the larger society. A secular government need not be an anti‐religious government.
The group is generally on point, though it went too far when, for instance, it defended state support for established religions and dismissed treating atheism with “similar consideration, or official standing in a regular and transparent dialogue with the European Institutions as is foreseen for churches.” While religious values should be free to circulate in politics, the institutions of church and state should be kept separate.
Religious persecution is all too common around the world. Less murderous but increasingly worrisome is discrimination against believers in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The continent needs to rediscover its appreciation for freedom of conscience, of which religion is the most basic.