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New report allays councils’ and faith groups’ fears

28 June 2013

FAITH groups bidding to provide services in the community should not be expected to "act against sincerely held beliefs", the chairman of Christians in Parliament said this month.

Gary Streeter, the Conservative MP for Devon South West, said that local authorities must pursue "reasonable accommodation" and recognise that "not every group has to offer services to every person."

He was speaking after the launch of a new report from Christians in Parliament and the Evangelical Alliance, which explores the ties between local authorities and faith groups.

Faith in the Community identified concern among local authorities that people from other faiths, or from the LGBT community, might not receive equal access to services provided by faith groups.

Concern about conflicting views on sexual relationships is "legitimate" the authors write, because "the internal contradictions of equality legislation mean that there are now unresolved tensions between some religious beliefs and other protected characteristics."

They write of a need to work out "how to provide faith groups with sufficient space to authentically live out their beliefs without prevent- ing anyone accessing services because of their sexual orientation", but note that "this tension works the other way round as well. . . No response [from a local authority] referenced the need to protect religious beliefs from the impact of views different to theirs and what the promotion of these views might mean for religious free- dom."

Nevertheless, the report suggests that councils' fears are "largely unfounded, and should not be prohibitive to working together". Mr Streeter said that there was a need for "a little bit of flexibility on either side".

The report also argues that the Equality Act (2010) has led to a "reductionist" understanding of faith among "religiously illiterate" local authorities. While emphasising the importance of religion and belief for councils, the Act does so in a "mechanistic, structural way".

Local authorities that are trying to comply with it are seeking to be "faith-blind. . . The prescriptions that equalities legislation places on local authorities encourages them to consider so many issues, matters, and subjects as being equally important, which can render the guidance as nonsensical."

By treating faith groups solely as an equality and diversity group, councils develop a "reductionist understanding of beliefs and the impact they have on their adherents", and fail to grasp the varied and distinctive contribution faith groups make to the life of their local community".

Mr Streeter said that local authorities should develop a "basic understanding that Christians are motivated to serve other people partly because we know that God loves these people, and therefore we should love them, but that it is his command; therefore it should not be a surprise to people. They [local authorities] must think 'Why are these people volunteering their time like this?' It is important that they understand they are not just doing it to get people saved."

The report, Clearing the Ground, published last year by Christians in Parliament, diagnosed "religious il- literacy" in public life and within the media ( News, 2 March 2012). The new report, based on responses to a survey from 155 local authorities in England, Scotland, and Wales (a third of the total) picks up on this theme.

Barriers to greater engagement included "repeated concern" among local authorities that faith groups only wanted to provide services for their own communities, and fear that faith groups might divert funds to evangelism. The report argues that these concerns are misplaced, and based on perception rather than reality.

The report says that faith groups make a "vast contribution" to local communities. Services and activities run by faith groups ranged from dog training to anger management to marriage courses; but the three services consistently cited were Street Pastors, food banks, and Christians Against Poverty.

Churches reach areas that local authorities cannot, the report argues, and are made up of people "compelled by compassion" to reach the most vulnerable in their communities.

It concludes that "most LAs make specific efforts to engage with faith groups," but that central government has abdicated its responsibil-ity to provide guidance to local authorities on how to develop religious literacy. It warns: "The Big Society will not be fully realised without faith groups."

Mr Streeter said that MPs were considering the idea of a "faith-friendly kite-mark", to be awarded to bodies that demonstrate an effort to understand faith groups.

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