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Exploring the Christian Marginalisation Narrative beyond the Workplace

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About The Author

Kelly Ann Cannon (Guest Contributor)

Kelly is a first year doctoral student at the University of Derby researching in the field of Law and Religion. She also teaches Business Law and Employment Law. In her spare time she enjoys box set marathons and cuddles with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Everywhere you look today churches are being closed, Christians are often being marginalised and faith is something few people like to discuss openly.

Cherie Blair QC

There is a contemporary narrative emerging from certain Christians commentators, expressing their concern that, in a number of different contexts, those of a Christian faith are increasingly subject to marginalisation and discrimination, both direct and indirect. One example of this narrative was recently examined by Keir Baker for Keep Calm Talk Law: a raft of legal decisions have been frequently cited to decry discrimination in the workplace; it is alleged that the law is quicker to prevent Christian employees from manifesting their faith than it is to restrict the manifestations of their counterparts of other – or no – faiths

In that article, it was argued that there is ‘little concrete evidence’ to support the claims of marginalisation and discrimination ‘in the legal world’, particularly in the context of employment law. However, it has been contended by Christian critics that the scope of the marginalisation is more far reaching, and not just confined to the boundaries of the workplace: it extends into all aspects of a person’s life.

The fact that this contention exists shows how analysing the Christian marginalisation narrative through the legal lens is but one method to scrutinise its veracity. After all, it is clear that many of the concerns raised by Christians can be traced back to the inevitable clash between progressive liberalism and the traditional views of life: the policies of an increasingly liberal state clash with the conceptions of family, work and ethics that are firmly rooted in Christian doctrine.

It is therefore not only legal decisions, but also sociological and political forces that have contributed to the current narrative of Christian marginalisation. This article will therefore argue that these influences must not be overlooked.

The Legal Origins of the Narrative

Many in the Christian community are increasingly concerned about how they are being treated in workplaces: progressive laws on sexuality and equality, and court decisions that mandate employer neutrality, increase the chances of a Christian employee being placed in a position where their faith, beliefs, morals and ethics are at risk of being impinged. The facts at the heart of Eweida et al. v UK [2013], a combined case heard by the European Court of Human Rights that was examined by Keir Baker for Keep Calm Talk Law, is a prime example of this occurring.

Beyond the workplace, Christian commentators have pointed to other cases that allegedly demonstrate how easily the expression of their religion can be set aside in favour of the rights of others. For example, in R (Johns) v Derby City Council [2011], the Court of Appeal refused to overturn a Council’s decision to deny approval to a couple wishing to be considered as potential foster parents because of their opposition to same-sex relationships and homosexuality – opinions that stemmed from their Christian faith.

This decision has been strongly criticised: as Rosalind English has observed, it appears to lay down a prima facie rule that people who adhere to religions that frown on homosexuality must be unfit for fostering which local authorities are bound by law to follow.

Furthermore, Christian commentators have contended that restrictions on freedom of speech intended to combat ‘hate speech’ can risk becoming restrictions of religious expression. This is illustrated by the legal troubles faced by the Christian street preacher Mike Overd, who was arrested for public order offences after giving public sermons in Taunton criticising homosexuality. Though Overd’s conviction was successfully overturned on appeal, the initial decision raised alarm in Christian circles – caused in part by aspects of District Judge Qureshi’s judgment which appeared to set out the particular  Bible verses that were to acceptable to use when explaining the religion’s teaching on homosexual practice.

It is easy to see why these decisions have raised concern among the Christian community. However, it is important to note the flaws in relying on a select number of individual cases when trying to prove the existence of a Christian marginalisation narrative. Cases are heavily fact and context-specific, such that Keir Baker has argued for Keep Calm Talk Law that:

[M]aking sweeping claims about the relative positions of law and religion based on specific cases is unhelpful; the extent to which an individual and isolated case will have social and legal significance, or illustrate prevalent or entrenched problems in society, is doubtful.

Nevertheless, even if it appears not to stand firm from a legal perspective, it is equally important not to use this fact to completely dismiss the narrative of marginalisation advanced by Christian commentators as being entirely baseless without taking into account other perspectives. As Ben McGuckin has observed for Keep Calm Talk Law, lawyers must not be too quick to dismiss approaching solutions from non-legal standpoints.

Indeed, the key to understanding this narrative is to go beyond the law and its application, and to explore why the narrative is emerging. It is therefore beneficial for the law to understand the political and sociological origins of the narrative.

The Political Origins of the Narrative

The UK has long had a constitutional relationship with Christianity. From the Queen’s position as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and possessing the title of Defender of the Faith, to the presence of bishops in the House of Lords, Christianity has historically played – and is still currently playing – a role of significance in the framework of society. This state of affairs enhances the extent to which it might be considered surprising that the belief in a Christian marginalisation narrative has emerged: how can a prima facie Christian country be marginalising Christian beliefs?

However, to cite the UK’s clear and long-standing constitutional relationship with Christianity as evidence to disprove the existence of a marginalisation narrative is a weak argument. The 21st century has seen the UK become increasingly secularized; today, the role of religion in the political framework of the country is of limited – and perhaps only historical – significance.

Indeed, it is clear that such an argument overlooks the limited impact that these constitutional traditions have on day-to-day life, in which society’s norms and values are of far greater significance. Notwithstanding the minor impacts that religious leaders – whether that be the public influence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the legislative powers of the Bishops in the House of Lords – can have, it is these community standards that are the dominant contributor to the social   and even legal   dialogue.

As a result, these aspects of the UK’s political and constitutional relationship with Christianity are subtle and rarely significant.  In contrast, the impact of, and the coverage given to, legal decisions on the Christian faith and its interaction with the law is more obvious. It is therefore unsurprising that the Christian marginalisation narrative focuses on the impact of the law on its faith: it is simply a more concrete manifestation of the changes in society that have occurred in the past 50 years.

The Sociological of the Narrative

Professor Grace Davie’s examination of the UK’s religious landscape from 1945 to the early 20th Century assessed how the practising of religion had changed over time, based on variable factors such as the war and urbanisation. Though her findings were first published in 1994, a continuation of her research has looked into more current developments of the religious landscape; this work highlights inconsistencies between an individual’s personal belief in a faith, and their public actions and manifestations of that belief – inconsistencies that are a feature of modern life.

In essence, Professor Davie discovered that the foothold which religion once possessed within the everyday lives of the UK population has changed dramatically: no longer do people’s lives revolve around the social interactions of Church and its associated community. The rise of mass communication has prevented the population becoming bound by where they live or how and to whom they can communicate. To deviate from the norms of their local community is no longer to risk becoming a social pariah.

As a result, people have greater freedom as to what faiths they can follow and as to how they can identify themselves. This has meant that being an extroverted adherent to the values and practice of Christianity is no longer as unavoidable as it once was.

Meanwhile, Professor Paul Weller has explored the interaction between religion and the public sphere in contemporary society. Crucially, his findings support the existence of a Christian marginalisation narrative, with many Christian respondents to his research expressing concern that the manifestation of their religion was being treated less favourably across all areas of society. However, equally crucially, non-Christian respondents articulated a belief that Christianity is, in fact:

[P]rivileged and embedded in society which can lead to unfair treatment for others, particularly in education and governance.

This shows that the Christian marginalisation narrative is a symptom of the changes in society that have occurred in recent times. Certainly, the Christian commentators’ assertion that  Christianity has acquired a less significant role in people’s lives is true: to this extent, the narrative is founded in fact.

However, a very different question is whether the narrative is justified. The legal decisions that are targeted as the source of this marginalisation are often simply a feature of the law accommodating different faiths. It is one thing to recognise the decreasing importance of faith in the modern world; it is another thing altogether to complain that this accommodation of multiple faiths – necessary in a pluralist society – is unreasonable.

Conclusion

The role of religion in politics today has changed, and individuals express their religious beliefs differently; this article has therefore recognised that complaints about the decreasing significance of Christianity in the modern world are not baseless. Given the nature of these changes, it is understandable that developments in the law have become the focus of the Christian marginalisation narrative, because they are more concrete and tangible examples of the changes that have been occurring for the past 50 years.

It is important to examine the Christian marginalisation narrative from outside a purely legal context. Indeed, when this occurs, it becomes clear that there are arguments of merit on both sides of the debate. Undeniably, the legal developments that were created with the intention of countering inequality and discrimination on grounds of characteristics like gender or sexuality are welcome advances that – quite rightly – were fought long and hard for.

Nevertheless, the law should give due care and attention of the claims of an emergence of a Christian marginalisation narrative. Accusations of an unspoken dissociation with Christianity that is facilitated a hierarchy of rights must be taken seriously: they must not be judged by reference to the historical status quo, but scrutinised with fresh and untainted eyes. After all, the bedrock of the legal profession – and, indeed, society as a whole – is to ensure equality. It must find ways to avoid one group’s equality becoming another’s inequality.

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Tagged: Constitution, Criminal Law, Discrimination, Employment Law, Human Rights, Religion, Rule of Law

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