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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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