Saturday, March 21, 2009

Christians, atheists and the Government

A Christian-run shelter for the homeless was threatened with the loss of £150,000 of funding unless it stopped saying grace at mealtimes and putting Bibles out for use by guests.

Teen Challenge UK, a Christian organisation working among drug addicts, is said to have lost £700,000 of funding rather than give up its Christian ethos.

Within days of her announcement that the Government was to fund a council of Muslim theologians to make rulings on controversial elements of Islamic doctrine in an effort to tackle Muslim extremism, Communities Secretary Hazel Blears announced a new white paper designed to encourage people, including faith groups, to work in the community.

But, she told the House of Commons, "I am concerned to ensure that if faith groups become involved, they do so on a proper footing - not by evangelising or proselytising, but by providing services in a non-discriminatory way to the whole community." She said she intended to work on a charter, similar to the one by the Christian organisation Faithworks.

I wrote to her, as follows:

Dear Mrs Blears,

I have been reading your white paper, Communities in control: real people, real power, in which you speak of making use of services from faith-based groups.

In the House of Commons, you said you were concerned to ensure that if faith groups became involved, they did so on a proper footing, not by evangelising or proselytising, but by providing services in a non-discriminatory way.

You spoke of drafting a charter along the lines of the one provided by Faithworks.

Principle 3 of the Faithworks charter speaks of "Never imposing our Christian faith or belief on others." This sounds reasonable. But principle 2 of the charter
says "Acknowledging the freedom of people of all faiths or none both to hold and to express their beliefs and convictions respectfully and freely, within the limits of the UK law."

Does this mean that while people being served by Christian groups would have the freedom to express their beliefs and convictions, Christian groups providing services would not have freedom to express their Christian beliefs and convictions to the people they were serving?

I would be grateful if you would please let me have an answer on this specific point.

Yours sincerely,

I received no reply. I wrote again:

Dear Mrs Blears,

I wrote to you some time ago, but have not had a reply. I attach a copy of my letter.

I should be grateful if you would please let me have a reply to my letter, in particular to the point in the penultimate paragraph.

Thank you.


This time I got a reply from her department. The letter is too long to reproduce here, but the relevant paragraph says

With regard to the specific question you have asked, it is important to make a distinction between the freedom of individuals and organisations to collectively express Christian beliefs and convictions. . . and the imposition of these same beliefs upon others dependent upon the services being provided.

The big question, of course, is what the Government defines as imposition.

MPs complained in a debate in the Commons last week that although Christians have made a vital contribution to British society, they are being marginalised by public bodies.

Andrew Selous MP called the debate following a spate of cases where Christians have been sidelined for expressing their faith. One Christian charity working in London to help single mothers, he said, was told by the local authority that its application for funding was refused because its assistance for single parents included "extending Christian comfort and offering prayer."

"If the faith institutions and churches disappeared from my constituency tomorrow," said Conservative MP Paul Goodman, "much of the tapestry of civil society would simply unweave."

This morning, the Daily Mail says £25,000 of taxpayers' money intended for faith groups, to be used to build "faith communities," has been given by Hazel Blears' Department for Local Government to the British Humanist Association to run local campaigns promoting atheism. Caroline Spelman MP, Conservative local government spokesman, called this "scandalous."

Meanwhile, the Government continues to say that it is preparing a charter for faith groups to sign up to before they are awarded public funding. We wait with interest to see what it says.