At Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Theresa May was asked about Christians’ freedom to profess their faith. The PM’s reply was impeccably broadminded. The “ability to speak freely” about one’s faith is a vital principle, May said. “We have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech,” she added, “and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of.”
But Christians are as used to seeing such liberties praised as they are to seeing them challenged in practice – the “gay cake” case being only the most recent example of how an ordinary citizen can suddenly be cast in the role of a conscientious objector.
A new report suggests one way for the Prime Minister to honour the national tradition. Beyond Belief, from the influential think tank ResPublica, argues for a “reasonable accommodation” clause to be slotted into the government’s proposed British Bill of Rights. It would mean that employers have a duty to work around their employees’ religious beliefs, rather than vice versa.
The report, written by the Oxford philosopher James Orr, digs deep into how we got here: a situation where Christians can lose jobs, be fined or face humiliating inquisitions for following their Christian conscience.
The stories are familiar, and they usually involve gay rights: Mr and Mrs Bull, B&B owners sued for not providing double bedrooms to unmarried (including gay) couples; Belfast’s Ashers Baking Company, fined £500 after politely declining to bake a cake with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”; Lillian Ladele, sacked as a registrar because she asked not to officiate at same-sex civil partnerships.
Orr’s report lays some of the blame on the 2010 Equality Act, which handed great power to judges to decide whether someone’s rights had been violated. It can be invoked by a gay person who feels discriminated against on the grounds of their sexuality, and by a Christian who feels discriminated against on the grounds of their religion. The Act, as Beyond Belief puts it, has “encouraged subjective rights to become legal weapons for one minority group to wield against another.”
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