Christianity is losing its privileges

22 July 2009

We are witnessing not discrimination against the Church, but a move towards equality with other faiths, argues Malcolm Evans

ARE CHRISTIANS in the UK dis­criminated against? Increasingly, we hear of incidents that suggest that they are: employees in the private and public sectors who have been in­structed not to wear crosses, not to pray for clients, and not to express any views about placing children for adoption with same-sex couples.

Seeking to act in accordance with one’s belief as a Christian appears now to be open to challenge. Society seems to require Christians to behave in accordance with the dictates of an increasingly secular morality.

There are criticisms from some quarters that this is compounded by a heightened degree of deference to those of other faiths. For example, while in some schools girls may not wear crosses, Sikh girls may be per­mitted to wear bracelets, and Muslim girls may wear headscarves.

This is the charge, then: that “Christianophobia” has gripped British society, so that to act on the basis of one’s Christian belief attracts a degree of hostility.

SOMETHING of significance is indeed taking place — but it is not persecution. There will always be situations in which individuals find themselves unlawfully discriminated against on the grounds of their reli­gion or belief, Christian or otherwise. Such cases must be condemned and remedied.

I do not believe, however, that Christians in the UK are the victims of any form of systemic discrim­ination as a matter of public law or policy. This contrasts with the situ­ation in many other countries, where being Christian renders one vulner­able to physical abuse, or worse.

It is now commonplace to say that there is a renewal of interest in the place of religion in public life — but what this means for Christians is often overlooked. The European Court of Human Rights has em­phasised the importance of the freedom of religion and belief, saying that it provides one of the foundations of democratic life.

The Court also calls on states to act in an impartial fashion, mean­ing that states must not privilege one form of religion over another, while at the same time stressing that the state must foster religious pluralism and tolerance. The central problem lies in balancing these two considerations.

Indeed, the Court of Human Rights expects believers to cope with a high degree of challenge to their systems of belief, in the pursuit of the more general goals of securing plural­ism and tolerance.

One example is the publication in Denmark of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. If the Court had been called on to comment on this, it seems likely that it would have found their publication acceptable, if inadvisable. It is only when such forms of expression amount to “malicious violations of the spirit of tolerance” that intervention can be expected.

The other side of the coin, how­ever, is that society in general must be expected to cope with a high degree of public display of personal reli­giosity. Impartiality does not mean that the public space must be emptied of the religious. On the contrary, it means that all forms of religion or belief should be able to secure their place in the public space, since any other approach is hardly likely to foster tolerance.

It also means that Christians — along with other faith communities — need to be present in public and political debate, in order that their voices are heard.

ALTHOUGH many in churches today would not see the UK as a particularly Christian country, few would deny the essentially Christian nature of the assumptions that underpin social understandings of the place of religion. This is underlined by the response of “non-religious” people to issues such as wearing crosses at work. They have been as critical of such misplaced “political correctness” as practising believers.

None the less, the key thing to grasp is that essential questions about religion and belief in a religiously plural society are being explored in a very modern British fashion: not so much from high principle, or arguing from tradition, but on a case-by-case basis, rooted in the experiences of those concerned.

This process takes no account of the historic place of Christianity in the UK. It therefore challenges en­trenched Christian assumptions about its centrality. For example, over the years we have moved from seeing Sunday as a day set apart for all to its being a day on which some Christians find it increasingly difficult to recon­cile their religious and workplace commitments. This is a cause for concern; yet this has long been the case for adherents of other faith traditions, whose holy days have not been given the same degree of recognition.

Debates of this nature reflect what might be described as a recalibration of our public life in the interests of religious pluralism. This may be dis­turb­ing to some, but, whatever else it may be, it is not evidence of discrim­ination against Christians.

Indeed, it is something that Chris­tians, alongside those of other faith traditions, should choose to celebrate, since the very debate validates the significance of religious faith to the public as well as to the private good — something that had appeared under threat from an increasingly secularised society.

We must be careful to avoid char­acterising this process of recalibration as a form of discrimination against the traditionally dominant religion. To do so runs the risk of trivialising the real discrimination that many be­lievers, Christian and non-Christian alike, face daily in many parts of the world: being denied access to jobs, education, and public services; being denied permission to gather together for worship; and much else besides.

It must not be forgotten that, in many countries, there is no such debate to be had at all. The vitality of that debate in the UK reflects a continuing commitment to the freedom of religion and belief for all. It presents opportunities that should be taken, not rejected on the basis of misplaced nostalgia and articulated in the language of discrimination.

Malcolm D. Evans is Professor of International Law at the Uni­versity of Bristol.

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