Are we thought-criminals?


photo credit: iStock

photo credit: iStock

‘Whether he wrote “Same sex marriage is not biblical”, or whether he refrained from writing it, made no difference.

‘The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed – would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper – the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed for ever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.’ (George Orwell, 1984, updated).

Voicing criticism

A British Values monitor, part of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, said in mid-September that voicing criticism of homosexuality ‘might be breaking the law’.

Polly Harrow said people can believe homosexuality is wrong in their heads, but speaking it out loud could be illegal.

Harrow, Head of Safeguarding and Prevent at Kirklees College in Huddersfield, made the comments on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in a report on the Government’s counter-extremism policy.

Harrow was asked by the BBC’s Sima Kotecha whether a Muslim who believes that homosexuality is wrong should be accepted. She replied: ‘If that’s what you think and that’s what you believe and you want to hold that in your head, that is your business and your right. But bear in mind that if you speak it out loud you might be breaking the law.’

British Values

Harrow has the task of promoting British Values in the college in Huddersfield. She will raise any concerns about students and refer them to police if necessary.

She says that the British Values strategy is seeking ‘not just tolerance but acceptance of difference and of others’.

The college has received funding for her to carry out the work because of Government concerns over pupils being pulled into terrorism.

Government’s position

Harrow’s comments clash with… (click here to read more)

Christian Institute/The Daily Telegraph/en

This article was first published in the November issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

Is the law stacked against us?


Is the law stacked against us?(view original article here)

An interview with Dr Andrew Hambler

There is conflict for many Christians in the work place.

en has asked Dr Andrew Hambler, senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton Business School, to bring some clarity to where Bible-believing Christians stand regarding faith in a secular workplace.

en: How, within one generation, have Christians gone from being seen as reliable employees to fearing for their jobs?

AH: In 2003 when the Sexual Orientation and the Religion and Belief Regulations came into law, creating new protections and adding to the existing body of discrimination law, things changed. Although these laws were developed with protecting people at their heart, they have had unforeseen consequences. Employers are sometimes worried that they might face a ‘harassment’ claim by a non-religious employee if they allow ‘religious employees’ to articulate their beliefs, particularly if they include some criticism (even implied) of same-sex couples, for example. This has made employers less tolerant when religious beliefs are articulated.

en: So legislation designed to protect people of faith, actually works against them?

AH: In some ways, yes. But it’s important to take a closer look at the origin of those regulations. In the days prior to and during the drafting of these laws in 2003, there was a clear connection made between religion and ethnicity. The ACAS Guide to Religion and Belief, written in 2003 to help employers understand religious discrimination, is concerned primarily with the protection of minority religions. It makes mention of accommodation of dress codes, religious symbols and so on which on the whole do not apply to Christians. In some ways I think it may have come as a surprise to those who drafted the Religion and Belief Regulations (now subsumed into the Equality Act 2010) that they have been invoked so often by Christians but I’m not sure they were really designed with Christians in mind.

en: Does the law offer any help then to Christians?

AH: At a basic level, yes. It stops people being refused jobs just because they are Christians. For example there were news reports of a hotel which did not want to employ a Christian because he wouldn’t ‘fit in’ with the other employees. Reportedly he won an out of court settlement from the employer when he began legal proceedings. This protection is helpful, of course. The problem is that it does not really help Christians to go on to express their faith when employers are hostile.

en: When ‘Joe Christian’ hears the results of a court case where a Christian has claimed religious discrimination against their employer, it pretty much always ends with the Christian losing the case. The question that many ask is why don’t we have a ‘reasonable accommodation’ provision here in the UK as they do in the USA?

AH: Reasonable accommodation sounds reasonable! In theory it requires employers to accept and ‘accommodate’ religious practices in the workplace, such as the wearing of religious symbols, using religious language, perhaps even ‘witnessing’ to other employees. However, the problem is that in the US in particular, this legal right does not have much meaning because the employer can argue ‘undue hardship’ to avoid making these accommodations. So, if there is any cost to the employer (including reputational cost) then they can say it is unreasonable to offer any accommodations at all.

So, I’m not sure whether reasonable accommodation would add very much unless it was introduced as a much stronger right (similar to the well-known right of employees with disabilities to have ‘reasonable adjustments’ made to enable them to work). What we do have in the UK is the right not to suffer ‘indirect discrimination’ because of someone’s religious beliefs, and when this right is invoked by a Christian it usually results in a court ‘balancing’ the rights of Christians to articulate their beliefs against employers’ rights to keep their workplaces secular.

en: What about the use of rational objections to discrimination? If, say, an NHS worker found herself having to agree to promote abortion, couldn’t she use a rational argument, e.g. citing the number of women who suffer depression after abortions, in order to avoid using a religious discrimination argument in a tribunal?

AH: When I speak to NHS HR managers, they often talk about the value of the ‘neutral workplace’. They see that as good practice. As such, the expression of Christian perspectives, or the using of religious arguments regarding objections to abortions, for example, are likely to evoke limited sympathy (although for doctors only there are some limited protections for conscience). But though neutrality sounds enticing, it means secularism in reality. And secularism isn’t neutral. Secular viewpoints on life and death and on issues of human sexuality, parenthood, etc., are very loaded, and one could argue that vocal Christian perspectives are sorely needed as a counterbalance to what appears to be the prevailing ethos. But the idea of ‘neutrality’ prevents this.

en: In your opinion, should a Christian use the law and make a complaint against an employer?

AH: I think that employees should always try to resolve their difficulties where possible in dialogue with the employer, and be prepared to compromise to the extent that their conscience allows. Unfortunately employers are not always equally reasonable.

In those circumstances, should Christians use the law? The courtroom is not a pleasant place. Even the boldest people find it challenging in the extreme; don’t underestimate the toll it will take on you. It is very hard to remain consistent, and your past conduct in the workplace may come out. You shouldn’t necessarily be put off, but if you have been a difficult employee or if you have been disciplined for an unrelated matter, this may be referred to in the tribunal.

So, I think I would say you need to examine your motives and past conduct very carefully and consider what the outcome may be. If you are standing for a principle, then yes, that can be good reason to go to court. But even if that is true, it depends very much upon the individual as to whether they are able to withstand the ordeal of a tribunal case. I am aware of many Christians who say they have found their faith strengthened during the stress of a tribunal claim but also many who find the experience too painful to talk about even some time after the event.

en: Do you think things will get harder for Christians in the workplace?

AH: Yes, certainly for those who want to share their faith at work. My anecdotal evidence is that some employers and certainly professional bodies (e.g. the GMC with its recently revised code of conduct for doctors) are making this more difficult.

Even for those who don’t ‘witness’ very overtly, there may be problems of conscience. For example, there is the fear which was voiced by the Coalition for Marriage that Christian teachers may be required to use resources in the classroom which promote same-sex relationships, something which for many will go against conscience. Michael Gove has gone on record to say that will not happen – but who is to say what the situation will be under a future government? There are certainly no firm legal protections for conscience for teachers built into the Equal Marriage legislation.

However, despite these particular issues, I suspect that the majority of difficulties that Christians face at work will probably continue to be the same as ever – mockery, sidelining, pressure to do something dishonest, temptation to gossip, etc. Such problems have no doubt always existed in the workplace and most Christians may find their particular ‘trials’ at work extend no further than this.

Andrew Hambler is the author of Religious expression in the workplace and the contested role of law, due for publication by Routledge on 15 November 2014

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online www.e-n.org.uk or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

What’s coming up in the June issue of EN


June 2014 highlightsA few highlights to look forward to in the June issue of EN! It’s scheduled to arrive from the printers on Friday May 23. Of course you can always e-mail subs@e-n.org.uk as well if you’d like a complimentary copy or if you’d like to subscribe!

Churches and charitable status


The church and charitable statusMuch ink has been spilled recently over the decision by the Charity Commission to deny the Plymouth Brethren charitable status in respect of one of its gospel halls in Devon (the Preston Down Trust).

The church trust, a member of the Exclusive Brethren, was refused charitable status on the basis that it failed to demonstrate that it provided a genuine public benefit.

A storm of opposition has swelled in some quarters in response to the decision reached by the Charity Commission. On November 13, a heated debate took place in Westminster, leading some MPs to call for an inquiry into the Charity Commission’s interpretation of the law and its handling of the much debated public benefit test.

Some Christians have also commented that the Commission’s decision to deny charitable status to a long established church organisation is a sign of the increasing secularisation of society and reflects how far the country has drifted from its Christian moorings.

But what are the ramifications of the Charity Commission’s recent decision for the wider church?

The law

From 1891, and even from as far back at 1601, particular types of charities, such as ones that advanced religion and education or relieved poverty, were presumed as being of public benefit.

The Charities Act 2006 brought about a paradigm shift in how public benefit is assessed. The presumption that certain charities satisfy the test by their very nature has now gone. The Charity Commission asserts that the new Act imposes a duty on all charities to demonstrate, explicitly, that their aims are for the public benefit. Churches, including the Exclusive Brethren, are no exception to this rule.

The public benefit test

The 2006 Act has led to greater scrutiny by the Charity Commission of charities seeking charitable status. In so doing it has been argued that the Commission is going beyond its role as a regulator by imposing an unnecessarily high public benefit threshold on charities seeking registration. Of even greater concern has been the dispute as to whether the Commission is, in fact, wrongly interpreting the law in relation to the new public benefit test.

The issue at the heart of the Commission’s decision in the Preston Down application was the extent to which organisations and, in particular, churches like the Preston Down Trust should be accessible to the public so that they meet the public benefit test. The Commission’s decision in this case was that the church’s restrictions on who could attend worship and the limited extent to which the church was open to the public meant that they were not providing a public benefit.

Comment

But is the Charity Commission correct in interpreting the public benefit test in this way and, if so, is this a problem for the wider church?

Many practitioners and commentators in the charity sector consider that the Commission has set the bar far too high when considering whether charities meet the public benefit test. The Commission appears to be seeking more evidence to satisfy the public benefit test than is required by the law.

However, it is important to note that the Commission has not just adopted this approach to applications by Christian groups and churches. Applications by non-religious charities, such as community centres and art galleries, are also finding their applications questioned for failing to meet the public benefit test.

While noting that the bar is currently being set too high, it is important that all charities, secular and Christian, applying for registration are subject to proper scrutiny. Charitable status carries the benefit of tax breaks and Gift Aid. If a charity is to receive such benefits from the public purse to aid its public service, it can only be right that the charity uses such privileges to give back to society.

One can understand the Commission’s stance that, to receive public benefits, a charity must provide a public benefit. The public benefit test (properly applied) should serve to screen applications from charities whose aims may not be for the good of society.

The current approach of the Commission and its demands that applicants demonstrate a high level of public benefit raise important questions for evangelical Christians.

The Charity Commission’s approach is a reminder of how important it is for the church to fulfil its mission in accordance with the principles of 1 Peter 2.12. The publicity sparked by the Preston Down case gives all churches and Christian organisations the opportunity to reflect on how they are practically living out their faith in worship and service.

Like many public bodies, the Charity Commission has not been immune to the government’s austerity programme. Figures suggest the Commission has had its annual budget slashed by up to a third. In years gone by the Commission registered charities with less scrutiny and then continued to monitor new charities to ensure they met the public benefit. While such an approach was beneficial, it was expensive and heavy in staff labour. A shift towards greater regulation at the time a charity applies for registration rather than providing continued input later on may simply be the only way the Commission can operate within its budget.

Practical solutions

What can a Christian group or church do to ensure it meets the raised public benefit hurdle in an application for charitable status?

1. Do not assume necessarily that the Charity Commission understands what a church or Christian group does. In my experience of helping Christian organisations apply for charitable status, it has been necessary to spell out what happens at services and activities which go on each week. This process demonstrates to the Commission how the church is meeting the public benefit test by acting in accordance with its objects.

2. Conduct an ‘audit’ of the church’s activities. Churches and Christian groups, like all charitable bodies, should be accountable. To be good stewards of the benefits received by obtaining charitable status, an ‘audit’ of what the church does in engaging the public can be useful. Considering the church’s activities enables it to assess how it is welcoming its visitors to its services and identifies where it can be serving them.

3. However, it is important that Christian groups avoid the danger of simply listing their practical activities to obtain the approval of the Charity Commission. I would advise Christian organisations to make clear in their application that the public genuinely benefits from Christian worship and teaching. While this is something that has always been recognised as a public benefit in law, it is now often met with misunderstanding or confusion by the Commission. In my experience, the approach of the Charity Commission can, sadly, reflect the secular view that the Christian faith is not inherently for the public benefit. This is all the more reason for Christians to stand firm and maintain the principle that the heart of the Christian faith is above all else for the lasting good of the public.

Ben Bourne helps Christian groups and churches obtain charitable status and is a charity and employment solicitor at Ellis-Fermor & Negus Solicitors (http://www.ellis-fermor.co.uk).

(This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057)