The government wants to know how difficult it is to be a Christian at work – so let’s tell them

Taped MouthYou can almost guarantee these days that every couple of months there’ll be another ‘Christian persecution’ story making its way into the papers that tells of a Christian trying to get on and do their job, but because they choose to stay true to their beliefs end up being accused up of being intolerant, awkward, forcing those beliefs on others or just being downright homophobic. Too often these cases we hear of have ended up with sackings and (mostly messy) court hearings and appeals that can still leave judges in a quandary months afterwards.

The latest incident involved Margaret Jones, a registrar at Bedford registry office who met with her management in March and confirmed that, as a Christian, she believed marriage can only be between one man and one woman. She said she would be unwilling to conduct same-sex weddings as she “would not be able to say the words and be sincere.”

In April 2014, a formal investigation was launched after Margaret was accused of “gross misconduct”.  During that process she explained that since every marriage ceremony requires two members of staff – one to conduct and one to register – she was willing to handle the paperwork on the day of the marriage ceremony, but not to conduct the actual wedding., with the result that no couple would be denied a service.

Following the investigation, Margaret was dismissed on the basis that her refusal breached equality laws and ‘brought the council into disrepute’. This was despite the fact that none of her shifts had coincided with any same-sex wedding ceremony and she had not refused to carry out any duties. “As I have not yet done anything wrong, I am being sacked for my belief, not my actions,” she wrote.

At her appeal last month, Margaret’s dismissal was reversed unanimously by a panel of Central Bedfordshire Council Members.  It decided that the council had not fully investigated ways of accommodating Margaret’s religious beliefs and that evidence had been seen that in other cases ‘informal custom and practice arrangements had been developed in order to accommodate individual staff situations.’

The ruling stated that Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance notes ‘encourage employers and employees to find reasonable solutions to religion or belief issues at work’. It’s a point that other employers would do well to remember.

Let us be clear – this episode was not one of persecution by Margaret Jones’ management. Instead it was more a case of bloody-minded incompetence. What her story does highlight yet again is the tensions that many people with religious convictions face in their workplaces. Margaret’s is one of the more extreme (and thankfully rare) examples, but for plenty more it still happens, just in more subtle and informal ways. Sometimes it is low-level derision or suspicion by work colleagues mocking beliefs and practices. This is nothing new; being different has always run the risk of being picked on or considered weird.

Many Christians I speak to, even if they are not experiencing direct animosity towards their faith, are still living with an underlying level of fear about sharing their faith with others at work or even speaking freely about it. I too find myself having to weigh my words carefully at times before I bring my beliefs out into the open. The fear of recriminations or complaints is enough to keep these matters to ourselves. How much of this anxiety is justified and how much of it is down to hearing about the stories in the press like Margaret Jones’ is variable. Some of those working for public services are probably wise to keep quiet. I know a GP who not so long ago would happily offer to pray for patients if they felt it was appropriate, but now is much more cautious due to official NHS guidelines being introduced on matters of expressing faith at work. The risk of disciplinary action is so much greater now if a complaint arises, even if it is a spurious one.

This is the price we are paying for the sake of equality and diversity legislation. It has produced a climate where underlying levels of often religiously illiterate intolerance cause conversations to be shut down. Offending others is a cardinal sin even if that offence resides solely in the mind of the hearer.

The direction of travel we’ve seen in recent years suggests this problem will only become more acute as time moves on. The laws which are in place to protect everyone’s right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect are not always resulting in fairness and dignity for everyone.

We hear plenty of anecdotes of religion being shoved to the bottom of the pile when it comes to the pecking order of equalities, but just how widespread this has become is a question that as it stands is impossible to answer.

The government would appear to be aware that this is an issue that needs addressing. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has launched a major national consultation to hear how both employers and employees’ experiences in the workplace, have been affected by their religion or belief, or those of other people. The point of the programme is to gather as much information as possible in order to strengthen understanding of religion or belief in public life, to improve knowledge of what happens in practice and make sure the right laws are implemented appropriately.

I’m always weary of what these consultations will actually achieve, but Christians in Parliament and the Church of England have asked for this study to be promoted amongst Christians. The National Secular Society who are always very good at mobilising their supporters are doing the same. Christians are generally pretty hopeless at sticking up for themselves and their views with one or two exceptions (gay marriage anyone?), but if it genuinely is increasingly difficult to be yourself if you believe in God, then it’s our responsibility to make sure the commission sees the full picture and not a distorted one.

If you have something to share about faith at work, whether it is big or small, it will take about 30 minutes to fill the online form in. If you know someone who has an experience that has affected them then please pass the link on. We have until October the 14th to tell the government what is really happening up and down the country in our places of employment.

Christians are far from being systematically persecuted in this country, but to assume religious freedoms will last indefinitely without being squeezed is to ignore the tides of secularism that are reforming the landscape. If Christians want to avoid public expressions of faith being pushed into the corners of the public arena, then we need to speak up with grace and clarity but also with volume.



Categories: Faith in society, Local authorities, Persecution

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11 replies

  1. I’m not convinced that Government responds with the same level of trust towards Christians as we place in them.

    Why are CIP and the Church of England promoting this Government consultation and not performing their own studies?

    Does anybody even know how the Government intends to use the information it gathers from individuals in this?

    I’m not being insular – I genuinely would like to know why this is being promoted by Church leaders when the track record Government is not entirely one of being a benevolent unbiased observer?

  2. There’s something I don’t understand about this post.

    Christians are told by their own scriptures that they’ll be persecuted for their beliefs. They’re told they’ll be martyrs. They’re told to rejoice in their sufferings as evidence of a true faith and their reward to come.

    And yet here you are bleating about every sling and arrow that gets slung at you.

    Shouldn’t you be delirious with joy about the prospect of your heavenly rewards getting greater day by day as you suffer persecution (real or imagined) at the hands of evil unbelievers? Doesn’t every cross word at work or every complaint against you by a colleague for religious harassment increase the value of the divine pension pot and real estate fund you’re accruing for all eternity?

    Surely Margaret Jones should have thanked her employers for sacking her. If she’d played her cards right, there might have been a fabulous end-of-terrace Belgravia mansion with Throne views waiting for her on the other side. But by contesting and ultimately winning her case and therefore refusing to bear the suffering imposed on her for the sake of her God, surely now all she can hope for is a miserable garret in Neasden.

    You see, it seems like you Christians want to have your cake and eat it too. You want bliss in the afterlife along with a soft ride here on earth. Surely “don’t be mean to me, I’m a Christian” should rather read “be mean to me, I’m a Christian, the more you pound on me and the more I respond with beatific smiles and turned cheeks, the greater my reward will be in heaven.”

    • There is a story about the devil which says that he lost his job as the bright morning star and that his job was taken over by Christ. As a result it is said that the devil decided that he would make all those aligned to Christ to suffer in the same way as he did.

      Ironic?

      Does a later reward for suffering negate all expression of complaint against that suffering?

      Christ willing Stephen, you will go to heaven one day and I trust that this will not negate your struggle in this lifetime.

    • Yes, sadly there is a religious element in many faiths that glorifies suffering as an end in itself. But the Bible does not encourage us to do that – it would call anything that we think we can do ourselves to earn our righteousness a form of idolatory. Our salvation is by the grace of God and not through any human ‘works’, as you will know if you have studied the Bible. However, it does teach that we can experience joy during and even as a result of suffering. This is not the same as seeking suffering. Believe it or not, Christians have a lot to be joyful about when we are not suffering too!! You are right that we are told to expect it, but that does not mean that we are not able to make a robust defence of ourselves when we experience it- there are examples of Christians doing just that in the New Testament. Sometimes it resulted in charges being dropped, sometimes it inflamed the persecutors further – in these scenarios the personal outcome to those being persecuted was not seen by them as being the most important thing, getting the truth out there mattered more to them.

    • I’ve worked in the public for much of my career (30 years) and many local authorities have Christian fellowships (e.g. http://www.transformworkuk.org/Articles/361347/Transform_Work_UK/Find_a_Group/Meet_the_Workplace/News_from_Croydon.aspx). It is curious that ‘persecution’ seems to equate to ‘the right to discriminate against homosexuals in the public services’ – which is a bit sad really when we think about the main trust of Biblical morality is concerned with how we treat our neighbour, the fatherless, the widow, our employees and our employers – the foreigner in the land etc. Odd to that Margaret Jones, as with Ladele before her, had no problem marrying divorcees – the bread and butter of the registrar office – despite Jesus’ very clear teaching on marriage (see Mark 10).
      Alas Christians are apt to delight in the vanity of victimhood and the narcissism of paranoia.

  3. Christians are people who believe that a god lived on Earth as a man, performed miracles as a god, died as a man, was resurrected like a god to continue to live like a man until he ascended to another plane of existence as a god. I’m not totally sure how you can truly trust such people, but so it goes.

  4. Everyone should be free to follow their faith, but and its a big but, this should be personal to the individual. The workplace is no place for religious expression. If your faith is compromised by your job, get a different job!!! As for talking about your faith, If someone approaches you, fine. But please do not preach or offer prayer when its not wanted. As an atheist, I do find it offensive to be offered prayer, to me it is a total dismissel of my beliefs (or lack of). As christians I know this is difficult as you are told to be ‘fishers of men’ , but you must understand that 96% of us dont want to be caught! !!!
    Like I said I have no problem with you wanting to follow a faith, just keep it to yourselves!!!!!

  5. Margret has no right as a member of the civil service to say she will not do her job because she believes that gay people can’t have the same rights as everyone else, as though her belief system invented marriage. Hera the Greek goddess of marriage was around long before christianity reared it’s ironically intolerant head.

    As for the GP offering to pray for people, this is clearly not appropriate. If a doctor says he will pray for me, What he is really saying is: I’ll give you this to cure what you have, but I don’t think it’ll work so I’ll wish really hard to my personal deity as well. If prayer worked, they wouldn’t need medicine, we’d just have prayer wings (pun) on hospitals. The 10 year study on prayer conclusively showed that prayer either has absolutely no effect, or makes people worse. If you cannot find this study I will link it if requested.

    Yes, personal beliefs that impact on the lives of others in a negative way are indeed bottom of the pile and that’s where they should be. Just because it is tagged with the word ‘religion’ does not elevate it above the rights of every other human being. Everyone has a right to personal religious beliefs, but they do not have a right to impose them on others, such as refusing to perform a civil service. There is no human right to discriminate.

  6. I am a bit alarmed that the government seem to be considering rowing back on equality legislation.

    The issues here fall broadly into three camps.

    1. Christians wanting to be allowed to discriminate against gay people. Clearly this shouldn’t be allowed. There is a vocal minority within the church that feels that they are being persecuted for denying gay people goods and services, but actually acceptance of gay rights is higher amongst Christians than the general population. It is certainly not a key tenet of our faith in fact the bible encourages tolerance of those we disagree with.

    2. Christians sharing their faith at work. I think there is a lot of unfounded fear here. I think if you go round needlessly upsetting people or bullying them then that is different and should be a disciplinary matter, but that isn’t directly connected to sharing faith…it could be horrific bullying if a colleague continually aggressively tried to make you watch Britains got Talent, for example. Or told you you were an evil person for eating meat.

    3. Christians in the NHS praying with people. I can understand why this is discouraged. Many people seeking medical help are in an incredibly vulnerable place and the doctor etc has a huge amount of power over them. They may not understand the full context of the prayer e.g. The patient may think they have no chance because even the doctor has resorted to prayer. It also protects the doctor because the patient may later claim to have been told all sorts – this is more likely to believed if the doctor admits that they prayed. The medical profession of course is faith in action in itself and there is nothing to stop medical staff praying for their patients in private.

    All my life I’ve been told there is a coming persecution and soon Christians won’t be allowed to meet etc. There is still a church on every corner, I can still sing hymns in the street and I can still buy and read multiple translations of the bible. However we Christians have not behaved so tolerantly to those around us.

    • The problem is, whatever your theories are, those things you mention do actually happen:

      1. Of all the people I know, there are only a few who discriminate gay people. Many Christians I know don’t do it. But the few people who do discriminate gays are Christians.

      2. Christians sharing their faith at work are a pain. I have a couple of them and I know what I am talking about. No I don’t think I should be asked “if I believe in God” by people who scarcely know me. Even if I am a Christian: not that people generally ask me about my sex life or my salary, well, my spiritual life should be at the same privacy level. Not to mention when a Muslim who works in the same department comes into the room and they three engage in endless discussions and even shouting arguments. During which they are actually not working. And that’s why my boss has decided not to hire religious people anymore, or at least not people who clearly state their religion on their CVs. His point of view is, f you are the sort of person who writes “Religion: xxxx” first thing on your CV (i.e. using a space that should be part of a WORK thing), you might be likely to waste work time with that. Discriminating? Maybe. But I agree with it and it’s 100% effective, I regret to say. Guess what, my boss is a Christian by the way.

      And yes it’d be really annoying to have a colleague at work insisting that I should watch X-Factor, but I don’t see why it should be worse than a colleague insisting that I should go to church. Let’s leave them at the same level of annoyance related to being told what to do when you are 30+ by people who don’t have a clue about your life. Which is quite high.

      3. Exactly. At the end of the day, it’s not casualty that many people get into religion, drugs or alcohol when they are at a vulnerable moment of their lives. I’m not comparing them in terms of “harmfulness” but they three should definitely be things to be used by people fully aware of what they are as well as able to handle them.

  7. There was actually some sort of discrimination, not directly to gay marriage itself but in terms of rejecting to deal with the two people requesting it. Which by the way is a contradiction from a Christian point of view in my opinion: the thing is, I don’t know this lady neither do I was there so I don’t have a lot to form an opinion on, though I find it somewhat odd that she rejected do conducting the ceremony BUT had no problem in doing the paperwork. Really? That mustn’t even be very Christian either… To be honest, and putting a stupid example, I cannot imagine a Muslim waiter rejecting to serve pork to customers but happy to cook it in the restaurant kitchen.

    There’s another relevant thing to consider: If you’re getting paid for, among other duties, conducting gay marriage ceremonies, you should do it. Otherwise, it might even be a neglection of your duties or the cause of irregularities such as another person needed in order to do them. What if in a certain Registry Office every employee was a Christian? Should a random one be sacked in order to hire an atheist instead so gay marriages could be celebrated? How would christians feel about that ” discrimination”?

    Besides, yes: “marriage” as you Christians understand it is “marriage between a men and a woman”. But that is the “Christian” definition of it. In some cultures, “marriage” can even be something that happens between a woman and several men (or the other way around). That is not legal in the UK, but if it was, nobody should oppose to it just because it isn’t according to their own idea of it. Things are what they are, not what I wish they were, and I therefore shouldn’t be frustrated because the world is not according to my definition of it.

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