Christian Engagement with Society
Priority A - Facilitating Dialogue
In cases where the characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010 conflict with each other, mediation and arbitration between groups should be encouraged as much as possible, with lawsuits as an absolute last resort. Rather than allowing for the creation of winners and losers, policy needs to focus on fostering dialogue between groups whose rights conflict with each other.
Priority B - Equal Protection
This dialogue should take place with a view to protecting the liberty of conscience of the religious person in public employment as well as the rights of other groups to equal treatment in public society. Examples would include the previously mentioned Ladele case, nurses' freedom to appropriately respond to requests for prayer, and the ability of religious persons generally to express their faith in the context of dress code subject only to issues of safety and the capacity to function effectively in their work.
Priority C - Clarification of Funding Guidelines
Local authorities, in dialogue with religious groups, need help to clarify the extent to which they can support faith based community support initiatives. This dialogue is particularly necessary in clarifying the interaction and difference between proselytising activity on the one hand and faith motivated community projects on the other.
Priority D - Regular Review of Practice
With regards to the protection of liberty of conscience, practise in areas over which the Assembly has jurisdiction (e.g. Health services, education) should be reviewed on a regular basis (e.g. every three years) to ensure that this is not being unduly limited. One way to enable this would be to ensure that guidelines for the appropriate expression of faith in public sector organisations were developed in dialogue with religious groups.
Most Christians want to make a positive contribution to society. We are encouraged by Jeremiah in his letter to the exiled Israelites to "seek the welfare of the city...and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." (Jer. 29:7). We are exhorted to respect the nature of our culture whilst staying true to our Christian values and convictions: Paul in his letter to the Romans tells us to "live at peace with everyone" (Rom. 12:18), as far as it depends on us, while at the same time taking care to "do what is right before all people" (Rom. 12:17). So it is our Christian values and convictions that drive us to respect and serve others and to help the disadvantaged.
It is therefore a matter of some concern that the manifestation of Christian faith in the public sector is a subject of considerable controversy. Highly publicised court cases (e.g. Lillian Ladele v London Borough of Islington, 2009) have highlighted an application of the Equality Act 2010 whereby some protected characteristics (in the Ladele case, civil marriage/sexual orientation) are seen to have priority over others (e.g. religion and belief) in situations where they are in conflict. Moreover, some Christian groups applying for funding for community support projects, such as food banks, have been refused by local authorities out of a desire not to fund the propagation of a particular religion, whereas others have not.
The "Clearing the Ground" inquiry, published in February 2012 by Christians in Parliament (1), contains an in depth analysis of these interpretations of the Equality Act, and a number of recommendations in response to them. They are echoed, in part, here.
1. http://www.eauk.org/current-affairs/publications/upload/Clearing-the-ground.pdf , accessed 07.06.2012