Protecting Freedom of Religion

British Commission Publishes Report

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Great Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has just published a report about the laws protecting freedom of religion and belief.

The commission interviewed almost 2,500 people and included people with a variety of beliefs, as well as humanists, secularists, and atheists.

“A recurring theme among some employees was the pressure they felt they were under to keep their religion hidden at work and feeling discriminated against when it came to wearing religious symbols or expressing their beliefs.  This was particularly felt by Christians,” the report observed.

Christians, the report said, experience being mocked for their beliefs because their work colleagues assumed they were bigoted. As well, Jews and Muslims said they found it hard to get time off work to observe their religious obligations.

“Others alleged that they were excluded from meetings, or passed over for promotion or recruitment due to their beliefs and felt unable to raise the issue for fear of repercussions,” the report said.

“A recurring theme amongst Christian employees in particular was the pressure they

Perceived to keep their religious views hidden at work,” the report mentioned.

Other issues raised involved the recruitment process, working conditions, promotion and progression. Some of those interviewed reported that particular beliefs were mocked or dismissed in the workplace or classroom, or criticised as unwelcome ‘preaching’ or proselytising.

Schools were another area where difficulties were found. “Christian parents reported their children being ridiculed in schools for their beliefs – for example for believing that God created the world.”

Humanist parents also spoke about problems, for example, a child being told he did not deserve Christmas presents because he did not believe in God.

In general, the report found that: “Employers, employees and service providers emphasised the need for a better understanding of when, and in what ways, requests relating to an individual’s religion or belief should be accepted.”

Regarding the expression of religious views the report identified three main issues.

The first concerned conscientious objection to the marriage of same-sex couples. Some Christians affirmed that requiring employees to be involved in such marriages was an affront to a religious objection of conscience.

A second issue was the protection of employees from harassment or discrimination. “Some employers wanted to know how they should deal with such harassment, unwelcome  proselytising and discrimination against their staff and by one employee towards another,” the report commented.

The third matter regarded a conflict between different aspects of equality legislation on religion or belief or sexual orientation.

“Representatives from some organisations said that the failure to address which rights prevailed when different protected characteristics were affected had led to a perception of a hierarchy of rights (especially sexual orientation being seen to ‘trump’ religion or belief),” the report noted.

Employees expressed concern over some issues, such as feeling their job opportunities were restricted because they did not share the same religion as their employers, and that employers were only hiring staff who shared their religious views.

On the occasion of the report Lord Carey, the Former Archbishop of Canterbury, published an article in London’s Telegraph newspaper, dated March 14. He said that society is becoming «increasingly illiterate» about religion and Christians are being forced to hide their beliefs in the workplace.

“Things have come to a pretty poor pass when, in a country whose history, landscape, literature and laws is so immersed in the Christian faith, we find that Christian believers feel forced to hide their beliefs in the workplace,” he said.

He commented on how sometimes Christmas parties are re-named “End of Year Party” so as not to offend non-Christians. Yet, he added, “I have never found a single Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist who was offended by someone wishing them a “Happy Christmas.”

He encouraged Christians not to be intimidated by hostile workplaces and concluded.

“It is right to listen and respect a variety of viewpoints and beliefs that are all brushing against each other in a plural society. By the same token, there should be no apology by Christian people when they speak out about their beliefs.”

The report follows a declaration by the parliamentary branch of the Council of Europe that urged states to recognise the principle of “reasonable accommodation” for the beliefs of traditionalist Christians on issues such as homosexuality,” the Telegraph reported March 2.

“Expression of faith is sometimes unduly limited by national legislation and policies which do not allow the accommodation of religious beliefs and practices,” the declaration stated.

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, decried a “culture of fear which shuts down freedom of speech and the expression of faith.”

Tolerance and freedom are expressions commonly used today, but it seems that when it comes to religion they do not apply.

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On the Web:

Text of the report “Religion or belief in the workplace and service Delivery.” –

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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