Display of Christian symbolsSam Adams
- 11 December 2010
A new campaign to encourage Christians to show their religion openly has been launched, echoing a concern felt by some that they feel discriminated against because of their faith. But the legal groups that advise them may be simply worsening divisions as they fight their corner
When the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, spoke out last week at the launch of the Not Ashamed campaign, claiming that Christians of deep faith face discrimination, his intervention lent an Establishment weight to a project that has been building momentum for some years. For behind Not Ashamed, a campaign urging Christians to “wear their faith with pride”, are two interconnected organisations that have fought hard to publicise what they see as the victimisation of Christians with traditional values.
Christian Concern, a pressure group, was set up four years ago to focus on issues that they say have particularly upset Christians, from the liberalising of legislation on homosexuality to what they see as extreme cases of political correctness which restrict the use of Christian symbols. Lord Carey himself put it like this at the launch of Not Ashamed outside the House of Lords: “What we believe in is of paramount importance to our nation, and were we to lose it, then I have no idea what will happen to the Christian faith in this country.”
Intertwined with Christian Concern is the Christian Legal Centre (CLC), which aims to fight what its proponents sees as particular forms of discrimination against Christians through the courts. Andrea Williams is chief executive of the CLC, set up in 2007 by Christian Concern to mount a fightback against the perceived growth of anti-Christian discrimination. From the nurse who was suspended for asking a patient whether she wanted to pray with her, to the BA check-in worker sacked for refusing to remove her cross while at work, the CLC has fought the cases which it says show that being openly Christian in public appears to have become less and less acceptable in contemporary Britain.
The CLC’s concern is not only that Christians are under attack in secular Britain, but that they are discriminated against in a society which is far keener to respect other religions.
They accuse the state and even some private-sector employers of going out of their way to accommodate Muslims and people of other faiths, while discouraging and even penalising ostentatious Christian expression. An experienced lawyer who now mainly focuses on handling the centre’s strategy and media relations, Williams works alongside four Evangelical Christian lawyers – including barrister Paul Diamond, who works independently and has taken on some of the highest-profile cases that have appeared in the national media. The centre, she says, is run on “a shoestring. ...We are funded by voluntary donations. Many people give us monthly standing orders of around £5 to £10, which we are grateful for.
“All of our work is done on a pro-bono basis so that the issue of money doesn’t put people off coming to us for help.” The 45-year-old mother of four blames sexual- and religious-equality legislation – such as the 2010 Equality Act – for leaving many “law-abiding” Christians with orthodox views on the wrong side of the law. “Christians are living in fear because of the supposedly kind-sounding legislation that has been brought in to ‘protect’ people’s rights,” she said.
“There’s an increasingly hostile atmosphere towards Christians in society at present. Not a day goes by without us receiving at least one or two requests for help from people who feel they are being penalised or restricted from expressing their faith.”
Most people who approach the CLC for help work in the public sector, she said, where equality laws are most keenly adopted. She believes another key problem is the “confusion” among police officers about how to deal with overt religious expression.
“We have found that people are being arrested under public-order legislation for expressing orthodox Christian views on issues such as homosexuality. There seems to be some confusion over what is allowed and what isn’t.”
Mr Diamond, 50, who represents the CLC’s clients in court, said Judaeo-Christian values are simply dismissed as “discriminatory and oppressive” by many in politics and the press. Referring to the case of British Airways check-in assistant Nadia Eweida, who is suing the airline after she was put on unpaid leave because she refused to remove a necklace with a cross pendant while at work, Mr Diamond said: “There’s a political agenda. BA staff are allowed to wear hijab and other religious items but the only thing that breaks their diversity rules is a cross the size of a sixpence.”
Ms Eweida was allowed to return to work in 2007 after BA amended its policy to allow staff to display faith symbols, but she claimed the suspension had discriminated against her. She lost her case at the Court of Appeal earlier this year, but now plans to take the dispute to the European Court of Human Rights.
The CLC deals with a wide range of other issues affecting Christians, from blasphemy to bioethics, the right to life, and adoption. Among its most high-profile current cases is that of a Pentecostalist couple, Eunice and Owen Johns, who were banned from being foster parents because of their overt rejection of homosexuality. The Johnses, who have fostered almost 20 children over several years, applied in 2007 to continue their work after a short break, but Derby City Council withdrew their application after it discovered their views. The couple challenged the council’s decision and reapplied the following year but the council’s adoption panel failed to come to a final decision about their application. With the CLC’s support, the Johnses have won the right to take their case against Derby City Council to a judicial review at the High Court. Ms Williams said the issue of the Government insisting on the acceptability of fostering and adoption by homosexuals, which has forced the closure of many Catholic adoption agencies or their distancing from dioceses, is having the opposite effect to what was intended.
“It’s just divided people rather than bringing them closer together. Adoption is a big issue for us. Christians make up a large proportion of those families who adopt or foster but those who express orthodox Christian views are being excluded from the system.
“We are advising a family at the moment who have been required to go on a re-education programme in order to pass the test to be considered for adoption. It’s a worrying situation when we have parents being excluded from the adoption and fostering system just for openly expressing their Christian views.”
The CLC is not alone in providing legal support for Christians who feel they have been discriminated against. The Christian Institute established a legal defence fund in 2006 to pay for legal challenges by Christians of “national importance” and, more recently, the predominantly Catholic St Thomas More Centre which provides free legal advice and assistance in cases involving religious freedom.
The Christian Institute will go to court in Bristol on Monday to defend Cornish guesthouse owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who refused to allow a gay couple to share one of their double-bedded rooms two years ago. The Bulls are being sued for sexual orientation discrimination by Martyn Hall and his civil partner, Steven Preddy, under the Equality Act, over their policy of restricting double-bed accommodation to married couples only. The case is the first of its kind in Britain.
But neither of these bodies has anything like as high a profile as the CLC, leading to criticism of the Centre’s work in some quarters. One Christian lawyer, who did not want to be named, said the CLC’s focus was too narrow, and risked undermining its core message.
“I think they are very sincere and honest people but I think they see things in apocalyptic terms. They almost seek martyrdom rather than trying to seek workable solutions. They are a little too narrow in their outlook. There are too few lawyers. Just four, from what I know. They don’t seem to have any desire to work with other Christian legal groups.” He also claimed the CLC “seemed to be uniformly unsuccessful”.
“They have not won anything, as far as I know. They do not do enough to resolve these issues outside of court, when they would probably be able to achieve more that way. They also seem to have an obsession with homosexual cases.”
These views were refuted by Andrea Williams, who said the CLC was there to “make a stand” and was not discouraged by its losses. “All of our cases are to do with freedom of religion to fight for people’s right to be free to profess their faith,” she said.
“When legislation is anti-Christian then there’s a sense that we are going to lose, but we will continue to contend for the truth and to contend for justice. We are a small group of people who are committed to justice.”
She says that the centre, far from actively seeking out cases, was actually overwhelmed with enquiries from those needing help. After high-profile work on homosexuality, she is turning her attention to abortion, an issue which she is passionate to confront.
“We need as a Church to understand how to protect those women who are on the conveyor belt of abortion,” she said. “We want to change the legislation to ensure that women must give informed consent, so that it is compulsory for women to understand the full impact of abortion before they make their choice. Women are often not made aware of their choices. We have women who come to us who have been massively traumatised by their experience of abortion.”