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Pickles glad to have taken on 'secularist bigots'

10 April 2015


"Be braver about faith": Eric Pickles

"Be braver about faith": Eric Pickles

THE Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has defended the place of faith in public life. He said that it was illiberal to expect people to "leave their faith at the doorstep".

In an interview given shortly before Parliament was dissolved last month, Mr Pickles, a Conservative, said that society should be "braver" about public displays of faith. But he argued that people with no faith should also be respected.

"I think it is impossible to divest faith from public life; and, in particular, it is impossible to divest individual faith," he said.

It was wrong "to ask somebody who is a committed Christian, or a committed Muslim, or a committed Hindu, Jew, Sikh, Buddhist, whatever, to leave their religion at the doorstep, and to come into a room and to discuss social and moral issues without reference to the thing that makes you tick; the thing that connects you to humanity.

"It has always struck me that we should be a little bit braver about accepting faith, and also people who have absolutely no faith, because it is essentially the ingredient that makes people tick."

He predicted that the place of faith would be stronger in five or ten years' time: "I hope we can encourage people to wear openly any displays of religious activity that they want to do. I think it is the sign of a civilised society.

"I also think it is a sign of a civilised society if people who have no faith are respected.

"The thing that I really took objection to was those sort of secularists - and that's not against those people who don't believe in God - but there are a bunch of folks out there who just want to stamp out religion or any displays of religion. That seems to me to be a deeply bigoted and deeply illiberal attitude."

In 2012, the High Court ruled that prayers at council meetings were unlawful after the National Secular Society sought a judicial review against Bideford Town Council on behalf of a local councillor. Mr Pickles described the action as "very illiberal and very intolerant".

His response was to introduce an immediate change in the law, under the Localism Act, to give certain local authorities the power to say prayers. And last week, the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Act received Royal Assent, extending that power to other forms of local authority.

This "wasn't really about me wanting to proselytise Christianity. All I am simply saying is that if people wanted to say prayers before a council meeting, as we say prayers before a meeting of the House of Commons, that we could do so."

He said that his actions had "sought to redress what I thought were the traditional views and values of civic life".

Public displays of faith, and expressions of faith in public life need not lead to conflict, he said, so long as people demonstrated respect.

"I think it is ludicrous to judge somebody as to whether or not they believe in God, or whether they belong to a particular religion or not," he said. "If history teaches us anything, it is that it's precisely out of bigotry and intolerance that a lot of conflict has come.

"If, say, we are working on questions of the homeless, if we are dealing with troubled families, I think people of faith can bring a perspective into that that is indivisible from their personal belief. You cannot expect people to lose being a Christian when they are dealing with other issues. Similarly, we can't judge somebody because they happen to be an atheist when dealing with these difficult issues.

He went on: "I'm rather proud of our churches, and our mosques, and our synagogues and our temples. I'm rather proud of the way that they've addressed social issues, even when they don't agree with the Government. And certainly, through things like Near Neighbours, I think we have been able to put together schemes that have made the lives of some communities, particularly those with some social problems, a lot better."

Asked where the State should draw the line between legitimate manifestations of belief and religious extremism, Mr Pickles accepted that there were difficulties.

"We are tied up very much in our belief in democracy and our belief in freedom and liberalism; and we worry that, in drawing the line too tight one way, we somehow impeach on the liberties that we have traditionally enjoyed in this country; and we also worry that those cloaks of liberalism and freedom and democracy might actually make our place of work, or where we live, that little bit more dangerous.

"So, actually finding the line - I think we know where it is when it is at its most extreme, when the line is being well and truly crossed over; but we are coming close, I think, to the point where we need to look at people who are shouting 'Fire' in a crowded theatre, to use the old test."

One of the most contentious issues between the Government and faith communities over the past five years has been the introduction of same-sex marriage. Mr Pickles acknowledged that his views on the subject had changed; but he continued to have sympathy with the arguments put forward by the Churches.

"I have some sympathy with what church leaders were saying, because those are views that I had," he said, "but the practicalities of seeing a loving relationship [and of] working with people who have those relationships - I just felt that it was wrong for the State not to recognise them. And that's all I'm talking about. . . I am, I suppose, asking for tolerance and respect for the way people choose to organise their own lives that don't damage you and me."

Mr Pickles is set to defend his Brentwood and Ongar seat for the Conservatives in next month's General Election. In 2010, he topped the poll with 56.91 per cent of the vote, and a majority of 16,921.

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