Freedom of religion or belief is a human right enshrined in Article...
Britain is becoming a secular society as the number of those who identify with a religious faith continues to fall. 53% of Britons now say they have no religion and amongst the 18-24 age group that figure rises to 75%. Only 11% of those with a faith attend a religious service at least once a week and amongst the non-believers 50% say they never pray. 63% think religion brings more conflict than peace. These statistics pose serious challenges to committed followers of any religion, especially the Christian Churches that were historically the nation’s principle expression of religious belief.
Religious belief and unbelief are not only personal and private matters, they have social and political significance. Historically, the churches played an important role in establishing schools and 4,644 schools in England and 200 in Wales are still Church schools, attended by a million children. Religious education is compulsory in all UK schools and atheists are challenging this whilst secular humanists want the RE syllabus broadened to include humanism. How schools handle such issues as same-sex marriage and transsexualism are challenging for Christian teachers, especially in Christian schools.
The presence of 26 Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords playing a full part in its proceedings is a problem for atheists. The Bishops play a very active part in the Lord’s proceedings, speak in debates and vote on Bills and other business. Given their diocesan responsibilities there are normally only a few in any sitting of the House but some have introduced Bills that have become law and their militant critics find that unacceptable.
Those critics are militant about reducing the influence of religion in public life. Andrew Copson, of Humanists UK, has responded to the increasing evidence of secularization saying, “With these trends set to continue, policy makers in every field, from education to constitutional law, to health and social care need to wake up to such dramatic social changes, particularly the rise of the non-religious and the decline of Christianity.” Stephen Evans, speaking on behalf of the National Secular Society, called for “the need for a serious rethink of the privileges granted to religion in Britain”.
A Christian response to this refers to two important guarantees of religious liberty. First, Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights 1948 declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The European Convention on Human Rights Article 9 says something very similar.
Problems arise when religious liberty clashes with non-religious beliefs and the Courts have to adjudicate. The Ashers bakery case was an example of this. The bakers refused to decorate a cake with a message supporting same sex marriage. They were prosecuted by the Northern Ireland Equalities Commission for discriminating against a gay couple. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court before they were acquitted four years later. Nadia Eweida, sent home for wearing a cross at work, had to go all the way to The European Court of Human Rights to win her case. Others, including Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane lost their cases.
We should not be surprised by any of these cases. Christians will understand them from Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:10-12 and John 15:20-21.) We will care and pray for those in cases reported in the media. We will not cower but boldly live our Christian faith openly but humbly. We will also support Christian MPs and those in office who seek to bring their faith to making and administering the law and public policy.