It certainly came as a great relief to churches and Christian organisations. At the end of January the British Government lost several significant votes in the House of Lords in relation to its Equality Bill. The whole subject of ‘equality’ is an explosive one, but the proposals contained in this Bill in relation to churches and faith-based organisations were especially worrying. Had the Government succeeded in getting its Bill through Parliament in its original form, it could have been illegal for a church of a faith-based group to insist on Christian standards of conduct in anyone it employed, unless the person were engaged specifically in a preaching role. Youth workers and many others would not have been covered by the exemptions the Government was offering.
Although reassurances were given by Government Ministers, the legal advice obtained by a number of Christian bodies indicated that the wording of the Bill could pose a serious threat to their freedom to employ only those who accepted Christian ethical standards for sexual conduct. To refuse to employ, for example, an openly-practising homosexual could well have led to Court action, with a real probability that the complainant would win. Efforts by churches to reason with the Government came to nothing, but an amendment proposed by Lady O’Cathain, was passed by a significant majority.
The controversy over the Equality Bill has simply served to highlight the fact that Christians’ freedom to practise their faith in the public arena is coming under increasing pressure from various directions. A Christian teacher, Olive Jones, was sacked after offering to pray for a sick pupil during a house tutoring visit. Her managers were afraid, it seems, that her comments about faith could be seen as ‘bullying’. Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who refused to perform same-sex civil partnerships, was dismissed and eventually lost her case for religious discrimination at the Court of Appeal. Nadia Eweida was asked by British Airways to remove or hide the cross she wore around her neck at work, although religiously significant items such as turbans and hijabs are permitted for BA employees. She subsequently lost her case for religious discrimination at the Court of Appeal. In many situations it seems that the authorities operate double standards which penalise Christians but not followers of other religions. Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan-Smith commented recently that Christians in public office are made to feel as though they must apologise for their faith. The Prime Minister may say that Christian engagement in politics is beneficial for building a better society, but the actions of the Government he heads speak a very different message.
There are rays of light. We should be thankful for them. The victories in the votes on the Equality Bill are a good example, and the approach of a General Election encouraged the Government to abandon the proposed changes so as not to slow down the passage of the entire Bill. Another encouraging case is that of Christian hoteliers Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang. A Muslim guest accused them of insulting Islam in the course of a discussion which arose at the hotel. They were arrested and prosecuted under the 1998 Public Order Act, but were cleared by the Court when the case came to trial. A price, however, was paid in an 80% fall in business. A significant proportion of their income came from guests who were outpatients at a local hospital which withdrew its business when the prosecution began. A legal victory does not necessarily solve all the problems.
We are living in a society where even outward respect for Christianity is waning and this is evident in some of the cases we have cited. All is by no means lost, but the cost of discipleship for many will increase significantly. We must be ready to support, encourage and, perhaps, suffer.