The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has said Christians should not be afraid of speaking “freely” about their faith at work and in public places. She also said that Christians should "jealously guard" their right to speak out about their faith.
"You raise an important issue that matters to both you and me, and I think that the phrase that was used by the Lawyers Christian Fellowship was 'the jealously guarded principle' of that ability to speak freely, as you say respectfully and responsibly, about one's religion. I'm happy to welcome the publication of this report and its finding. Of course we are now into the season of Advent, and we have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of.”
However, only days later the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) produced new guidance on the subject which, although calling for what it termed “a common sense approach”, stated that employers can impose restrictions on discussion of religion or belief in the workplace. In particular, they stated that it would be acceptable to discuss “what is involved in particular festivals” but “when discussion becomes proselytising – that is seeking to persuade someone to join a religion, cause or group – it may well be proportionate to restrict this in the workplace”.
Do the EHRC really mean that while chatting with colleagues during lunchbreak “you can speak about Christmas, but not about Christ”? There is a serious risk of such sweeping statements creating a “one size fits all approach” to the “regulation” of talking about faith in the workplace. There is, for example, a world of difference between a teacher speaking to children in the classroom and chatting over lunch to colleagues in the staffroom. If this is genuinely a “common sense approach” then the same rules should not apply to both.
There are in fact two fundamental problems with the EHRC approach. First, as one of our Muslim friends recently observed, when bodies such as the EHRC involve the state and the law in personal relationships between, for example, Christians and Muslims, far from helping build positive relationships they often hinder them. Generally speaking freedom of religion for people of all faiths flourishes best in the West where the state interferes least in ordinary people’s lives.
Secondly, the EHRC is a QANGO (Quasi Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation) – i.e. although it is funded by government, it is not controlled by ministers. As such, they are supposed merely to put government policy into practice. However, in cases like the recent guidance issued by the EHRC they sometimes end up making something similar to law without having any direct democratic accountability for their actions. We saw this in the recent court case against a Christian bakery in Northern Ireland, where the judge criticised the Northern Ireland Equality Commission for pursuing their own agenda rather than treating the Christians equally and fairly.