Christians make a vital contribution to British society but they are being marginalised by public bodies, MPs said yesterday in a parliamentary debate.
Andrew Selous MP called the debate following a spate of cases where Christians have been sidelined for expressing their faith.
Mr Selous said local authorities discriminated against Christians largely because of “ignorance”. He called for the Government to give these authorities “reassurance” that there is “nothing to fear” from Christian organisations.
The Government said it was preparing guidance and pointed to a new charter for faith groups to sign up to.
But this charter has already prompted concern that groups will have to promise not to evangelise if they are to receive public funding.
The case of Christian nurse Caroline Petrie, who was suspended after offering to pray for a patient, was raised during the debate. It was described as “appalling” by David Taylor MP, who said the case indicated the “oversenstivity” of the public sector.
Mr Selous referred to a Christian charity in London working to help single mothers. The group was told by the local authority that its application for funding was refused because “your assistance for single parents includes extending Christian comfort and offering prayer”.
Mr Selous also gave the example of a successful foster parent who was told she could not continue because “your beliefs do not allow you to actively promote another religion for a child”.
There was broad agreement on the great contribution made by Christians to British society. Lembit Öpik MP said: “Although there must be tolerance of all different faiths in this country, nevertheless we live in what must reasonably be called a faith-based society with Christianity at its core.”
He asked: “Is it not ironic that many of the faith-based organisations that operate with no sense of discrimination with regard to the background and viewpoints of the people whom they support are themselves discriminated against?”
Mr Taylor, Labour MP for North-West Leicestershire, agreed that while Christians and faith groups help the marginalised in society, the “current situation means that Christians themselves and members of other faith groups are being marginalised”.
He referred to the case of Caroline Petrie, saying: “That sort of utter overreaction gives an indication of the values of the public sector and its oversensitivity to these matters.”
The Government Minister attending the debate, Mr Iain Wright, said such concerns were misplaced.
He said that the Government was working on guidance to dispel “ignorance” among local authorities, but added that the Government would develop a charter for faith groups to sign up to before they could be awarded public funding.
The Faithworks charter, which will form the basis for the Government’s plans, requires Christian groups who sign up to it to provide services to the community without “imposing our Christian faith or belief on others”.
Communities secretary Hazel Blears said recently that under the charter religious organisations will be offered public funding for projects serving the community.
But this money will, Mrs Blears said, only be available to groups “promising not to use public money to proselytise”.
During yesterday’s debate, Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, referred to groups providing “soup kitchens, shelters, and so forth”, saying they “should not discriminate against service users on religious grounds”.
“They should not have the right to do that, and should not be allowed to proselytise on the state, as it were, using public funding, or while delivering a public service.”
However, most MPs spoke positively of the services provided by Christians. Conservative MP Paul Goodman said: “if the faith institutions and Churches disappeared from my constituency tomorrow, much of the tapestry of civil society would simply unweave.
“The contribution of Churches and Christians, now and over the centuries, to schools, hospitals, charitable work in prisons and voluntary work generally, which many people have illustrated, has made Britain a better country, and continues to do so.
“If by an act of the imagination Christianity were removed from its place in the public sphere—a settled place that is respected, particularly in England—this country would be the poorer for it.”