Religious Liberty

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We believe strongly in the freedom for all religious groups to proclaim their beliefs in the public square. However, in recent years we have seen the Christian voice being marginalised with many concerning restrictions on Christian freedom of speech. Indeed, a recent survey of 12,000 Christians across the Uk found that 93% believe Christianity is being marginalised and 50% have experienced prejudiced.

Christian freedom, we believe, is not merely liberty to believe what we wish, but also liberty to live our lives according to our faith, meet with other Christians and share the good news. When religious freedom is threatened it becomes more challenging for Christians to do these things. We therefore campaign in Westminster and the devolved Parliaments to safeguard Christian civil liberties. 

Why should freedom of religion or belief be protected?

The right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is a fundamental human right protected by international, regional, and domestic law provisions. It is a human right that goes beyond recognising human beings as political and economic entities. Indeed, religion and belief set up moral foundations for our everyday lives and prescribe certain behaviours. Religion further affirms that there is a higher authority than the Government and so sets up moral limitations to its work.

Religious liberty is beneficial for all communities. Indeed, the public service and contribution of religious groups to their communities has been remarkable for many years.[1] Nonetheless, the place for religion and the manifestation of religious belief in the public square is increasingly circumscribed and in a way that is causing increasing concern. This has an adverse effect not only on those who wish to enjoy their religious liberty, but also those who benefit from services provided by religious groups (predominately on a voluntary basis). Hence, the right to FoRB must be protected not only because it is a fundamental human right but also because of the positive impact of the right to FoRB on communities.

Marginalisation of religious belief

There are nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. These include; age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. In theory all the protected characteristics should be treated as equally important and all rights protected[1], but in practice these different rights often push in diametrically opposing directions. This is particularly problematic if one protected characteristic repeatedly clashes with and quashes another protected characteristic.

For example, religious discrimination has been given lower priority than discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.[2] The rationale for such a reality is that religion is a choice, whereas other protected characteristics are ‘objective’.[3] However, this approach erroneously classifies and simplifies what religion is.  Religion or belief cannot be treated as a hobby, and it requires a full and adequate recognition in and protection by law, equal to other protected characteristics. Such a perception of religion as a hobby or as a choice damages the right of individuals who would wish to manifest their religious belief, including in places like the workplace.

Religious opinion is becoming more marginalised in the public sphere and there are stronger pressures to conform. These pressures are twofold; - firstly on employees to facilitate in the course of employment that which is contrary to faith (exemplified in the Ladele case).  Secondly, there are also pressures on service providers to facilitate activity which is contrary to faith in service provision, which is exemplified in the Ashers Bakery case.[2][3]

Employment cases

Equality law should not result in Christians either having to comply with popular opinion or risk facing hardship (being dismissed from employment or harassed). However case law reveals that this is what has happened to Christians in the workplace who have stood by their religious convictions. During this Parliament, we have seen cases like Ladele in which Ms Ladele was dismissed from her job for standing by her beliefs (although the Ladele case was heard in the courts prior to 2010, it was taken to the European Court of Human Rights in 2013). We have also seen cases like Eweida, in which Ms Nadia Eweida was penalised for wearing a cross which she felt was fundamental to her faith. These cases indicate the fact that Christians increasingly have to choose between being employed or providing a service and following their religious convictions. [4]

Service provision cases

In a similar way Christian goods and service providers - be they businesses or charities - increasingly find themselves required to choose between providing goods and services and withdrawing from service provision; particularly when providing services has the effect of endorsing, promoting or facilitating actions that are contrary to their faith.  

This is what happened in the Ashers Bakery case when the Bakery refused to bake a cake carrying a message supporting gay marriage. As a consequence of their refusal to bake the cake, the Equalities Commission for Northern Ireland brought prosecution proceedings against the owners of the business.  Likewise, the Catholic Church has had to sever ties with an adoption agency, the Family Care Society NI, despite it being founded by the Church. This is because the law was changed, requiring agencies to consider applications from same-sex and unmarried couples which the Catholic Church cannot endorse or facilitate without acting in violation of its faith identity. If service providers holding religious convictions are forced to choose between abiding by their faith and following requirements under equality law, many will choose the former. This will result in a reduction in services provided in a religious ethos and would restrict diversity in service provision.[5][6]

CARE’s Position

Reasonable accommodation

Reasonable accommodation is a principle that recognises that in the same way a law designed for the majority can negatively impinge upon the interests of a minority, so too can a law designed for one minority negatively impinge upon another.

The solution to this problem is to apply the law to society in general but to ask whether it conflicts with the identity of other protected characteristics. If it does, the law should then be applied to all protected characteristics in every way apart from where doing so damages another protected characteristic. In this respect, and only in this respect, the law should be applied differently to make space for and to reasonably accommodate the other protected characteristic.

Reasonable accommodation already exists in UK law in relation to disability. In other countries such as Canada, reasonable accommodation has been extended to include many protected categories such as religion, disability, gender, national origin and age. Likewise in the United States reasonable accommodation was used to accommodate religious liberty in employment law before the concept was applied to disability.  What[7][8]’s more, reasonable accommodation does not necessarily have to place additional burdens on employers; for example in Ladele v London Borough of Islington Ms Ladele was willing to swap shifts with other colleagues and work unpopular hours so that she did not have to officiate in a civil partnership which she morally objected to.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has previously considered the mechanism of reasonable accommodation in its guidance for employers. However, it has more recently advocated against the use of this mechanism and found in a 2016 report that the existing model addressing indirect discrimination and the balancing of rights in the workplace was sufficient. The EHRC considered that there was nothing in the law to prevent employers from accommodating religious belief voluntarily. However, such a voluntary model would introduce uncertainty regarding employees' rights and discrepancy of approach between different workplaces.

Our Work

CARE has strongly argued against this position and recently made a submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights demonstrating the inadequacies of the EHRC’s stance and the need for a formal mechanism to be put in place.

The current informal approach to religious discrimination in the workplace creates discrepancies in outcome. There is a lack of certainty as to which individuals will be granted accommodation and which will not, even if their situations are analogous. Introducing a formal mechanism would avoid this uncertainty and provide consistency in approach, ensuring religious beliefs are not arbitrarily limited.

The JCHR concluded in their report that the Government should introduce a legal test to ensure freedom of religion and conscience are reasonably accommodated and to protect the right to freedom of belief.

To read more on reasonable accommodation, see the major report we produced with independent think tank ResPublica in 2016.

Counter-Extremism Measures

In October 2015, the Government released its “Counter-Extremism Strategy.” [9]However, as extremism is not defined in the document and the strategy does not focus exclusively on violent extremism, the proposed strategy is highly problematic. The strategy focuses on promoting so-called “British values” in an attempt to defeat violent and non-violent extremism. However, as the “British values” include the commitment to quality and tolerance, this is often erroneously interpreted as accommodating an obligation to promote equality for the price of religious freedom and living in accordance with religious values. Consequently, such an approach targets religious communities.

The strategy proposed a new mechanism of “Extremism Disruption Orders” (EDOs) that would allow the police to apply to the High Court for an order restricting “harmful activities of the most dangerous extremist individuals.” [10]However, without a clear definition of extremism and without focusing on violent extremism only, such a proposal is a slippery slope leading to targeting religious groups that may have views erroneously seen as contrary to the “British values.”

The Government’s strategy for countering extremism is constantly evolving. We support the initiative to tackle extremism, but care and nuance is required in order to protect freedom of religious belief.

Sunday Trading

CARE is committed to upholding the centrality of family life. Changes to Sunday Trading have a direct impact on this as they negatively affect ‘time off in common’.

The health of our economy depends on both its social and natural environment. In the same way one can undermine long term growth prospects by not caring for the natural environment, so too can one damage long term growth by not caring for the social environment. This is a particular concern when one considers

CARE is part of the Keep Sunday Special Campaign that opposed the initial change in the law back in 1994, along with representatives of trade unions, churches, political parties, private businesses, other faiths and those of none.

Read our latest news on religious liberty here.


[2] Lillian Ladele was a registrar with the London Borough of Islington who did not want to participate in solemnising civil partnerships. She sought to change shifts with other work colleagues who did not morally object to solemnising these types of unions and was threatened with dismissal when she continued to refuse. When the case was bought before the Court of Appeal it considered whether the Employment Appeals Tribunal was incorrect in ruling that Lillian Ladele had been discriminated against because she did not want to solemnise civil partnerships. They ruled that they had been wrong- that Ladele had not been discriminated against. The Supreme Court and European Court of Human Rights agreed with the non-discrimination ruling.

[3] The Ashers Bakery declined the offer to bake a cake for the activist group Queerspace because they felt that they could not support the gay marriage message which the group wanted to print on the cake.

[4] Nadia Eweida was penalised by British Airways when she continued to wear a cross over her uniform after a change to their uniform policy prohibited it. When Ms Eweida refused to conceal the cross she was sent home without pay. The airline suggested that if she wished to continue working she would have to work in the back office, which she refused. Ms Eweida’s appeal to both the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court was in relation to the loss of earnings she suffered during her time away from work. Whilst the English courts had held that Ms Eweida could have minimised her loss of earnings by taking the offer made by British Airways to work in the back office, the European Court of Human Rights did not agree. The British government was therefore advised to pay Ms Eweida 2,000 Euros (£1,600) in damages and to pay her costs totalling 30,000 Euros (£25,000).

[5]The Belfast Telegraph, Gay marriage cake row: Christian bakery Ashers ‘told to pay compensation or face legal action,’ 06 November 2014

 (http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/gay-marriage-cake-row-hristian-bakery-ashers-told-to-pay-compensation-or-face-legal-action-30723562.html)

[6] BBC News, Catholic Church cut links with adoption service over same-sex ruling, 5 December 2014

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-30341893

The Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland cut ties with its adoption agency because they are obliged to allow same-sex couples the opportunity to adopt.

[7]European Commission, Reasonable Accommodation beyond Disability in Europe? September 2013

http://ec.europa.eu/justice/discrimination/files/reasonable_accommodation_beyond_disability_in_europe_en.pdf, p.15

[8] Ibid, p.12

[9]       Counter-Extremism Strategy, Home Office, 19 October 2015. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/counter-extremism-strategy

[10]     Ibid., para.112.

' I urge then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for all kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. '

1 Timothy 1:1-2