You 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.