A number of articles have appeared in the media recently which have reported on instances where people voicing religious views have found themselves the subject of attention from various authorities.
You don’t have to look far in order to find opinions expressed by Christians that have resulted in complaints being made.
Though in many cases, the complaints have not been because the comments have involved direct or personal abuse, nor spoken in a threatening manner. The views in question have merely been a different view or belief not shared by the complainant.
Less than two weeks ago, there was the story of a Christian charity in Bath who had been told by the Advertising Standards Agency that they were not permitted to use the phrase ‘God heals’ on any of their material.
And by the weekend, the news of a High Court ruling forbidding the saying of prayers before local council meetings in Bideford made front page headlines in the national press.
Last month, David Burrowes, a Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, found himself the target of a social media campaign after voicing his intent to vote against legislation to introduce gay marriage. Within a couple of days of David’s comments, Phillip Dawson, who is treasurer of the local Conservative Association and also a trustee at Christ Church Southgate, set up a Facebook group entitled “Send David Burrowes MP a message on gay marriage” which has been used to gather support amongst others who share Phillip’s differing views to those of his MP.
On an identical issue in October, Adrian Smith found himself removed from his position at the Trafford Housing Trust and placed in a different role within the organisation – with a salary drop of £14,000 – for disagreeing on his Facebook page with the move to legalize gay marriage. He didn’t abuse anyone, and went on to clarify his Christian held beliefs by referencing the Bible’s teaching on marriage. Despite this, he was reported by a colleague who took exception to Adrian having the right to voice his beliefs and the organisation subsequently took action which is currently the subject of a legal challenge.
So much for a tolerant society.
Critics of Christianity, or indeed of any religion, will argue that by opposing gay marriage or other such issues which cause so much controversy, people are denying the right to equality for anyone campaigning in support of them.
But it has come to a point where it’s becoming more and more difficult to disagree on any issue, and the right to even have a different belief on such matters is itself coming under attack.
Taking the subject of gay marriage, the Bible, the teachings of which the Christian faith is based on, states that marriage is for one man and one woman. Those who don’t believe that are entirely free to disagree. The same people are also free to campaign for it to be legalised, if they feel so strongly about it, but there has to be respect for anyone who has strongly held beliefs that differ to their own.
It’s at that point where tolerance in the UK is breaking down and highlights the problem with understanding the difference between tolerance and disagreement.
Being tolerant of people who have different beliefs and who live their lives in a different way is entirely right. From a Christian perspective, the Bible instructs everyone to be treated with love regardless of whether we agree with everything that person might think or do.
However, that doesn’t and shouldn’t ever result in everyone being expected to support any viewpoint that may be popular in society or conform to a belief that simply isn’t shared. And it shouldn’t be the case that voicing a view which may be unpopular amongst a majority can lead to someone finding themselves subjected to personal attacks, or even arrest.
There have been some encouraging things said by Conservatives which would help to address some of the issues which have led to the disputes referred to.
Earlier this week, Conservative peer Baroness Warsi spoke out of the “intolerant” nature of the “militant secularisation” which is present in Britain, and of the importance in allowing people the right to religious identity.
At Westminster, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, vowed to overturn the High Court ruling on the holding of prayers in council meetings by introducing a change in law within a week. He clarified that no-one is forced to sit through prayers, although that was true in the case of Bideford council, with the complainant on that occasion claiming that he was “too embarrassed” to leave.
In a further move, a review of a controversial section of the 1986 Public Order Act is underway, with the government considering the removal of the word ‘insulting’ under Section 5 of the Act, something which has led to a number of cases where people have been arrested due to another individual not agreeing with a comment made.
These are all welcome moves but in a society which supposedly preaches tolerance and equality, there shouldn’t need to be so many measures to protect free speech and differences of opinion. It could even be argued that the measures are only required in order to protect against some of the very people who themselves fight for tolerance.
But then that kind of tolerance is, of course, only ever one-sided.