The head of the U.K.'s Christian Legal Centre sees persecution of Christians in public life, looming behind controversial recent remarks by Equality and Human Rights Commissioner Trevor Phillips.
Andrea Minichiello Williams, who directs the legal center, told CNA that Phillips also sounded “naive,” saying he “doesn't seem to be living in the same Britain that I'm living in.”
Williams is not the only one who wondered where Phillips got some of the ideas he expressed in a June 19 interview with the Telegraph newspaper. The equality commissioner indicated that Muslim immigrants were integrating better into British society than many Christian populations, and said that Catholic adoption agencies were more clearly discriminatory than Shariah courts.
Phillips also said British Christians tended to imagine discrimination against them where none existed. And he indicated that believers should not expect exemptions from the 2010 “Equality Act,” with its controversial language on sexual orientation, once they stepped outside “the door of the church or mosque.”
Williams, whose legal center advocates for the rights of British Christians in the public square, said her country's Christian roots once made it “a land of great freedom,” where “freedom of conscience” was respected.
“Those things we have seen eradicated under the Equalities agenda, which is Trevor Phillips' approach,” she said in a June 30 interview. “Secularism, under the Equalities agenda, is not neutral. It punishes dissenters.”
Williams said the system of equality laws, which began under Prime Minister Tony Blair and continued with his successor Gordon Brown, “sounds like utopia – but in fact, it leads to the beginnings of tyranny.”
“If you enter into the public sphere, or a public sector job, you have to speak and act the prevailing Equalities agenda. If you do not do that, if you disagree, then you are punished. You lose your job. You become under investigation. You perhaps get accused of hate speech. These are our realities in the United Kingdom.”
Phillips' most blatant criticism of traditional Christianity in the Telegraph interview came during a discussion of immigrant populations from Africa and the Carribean.
The commissioner acknowledged that there was “an awful lot of noise about the Church being persecuted,” but said the “more real issue” for “conventional churches” was the influx of “people who … believe in an old time religion which in my view is incompatible with a modern, multi-ethnic, multicultural society.”
Williams explained that this perception of “incompatibility” came from a caricature of Christianity, not from the Gospel of Christ himself. “Everything that flows from him,” she said, “leads to the recognition of the innate dignity of every human being.”
“Because Christianity is not coercive – unlike secularism, and unlike Islam – it leads to true tolerance.”
In his extensive interview with the Telegraph, Phillips said individual believers could expect the commission to stand up for their right to worship and believe as they pleased. He said it was “part of the settlement of a liberal democracy” for individuals not to be “penalized or treated in a discriminatory way” on account of “being an Anglican, being a Muslim or being a Methodist or being a Jew.”
But Williams charged that the commission is not upholding even this limited interpretation of religious freedom.
“What Mr. Phillips needs to do,” she said, “is to come spend a day at the Christian Legal Centre, run through the cases, and see the discrimination that there is out there.”
“In the Shirley Chaplin case, for instance – the nurse who was told to take off her cross after 38 years of wearing it in frontline nursing – exceptions were made for the Muslims, with the long flowing hijab and a big brooch.”
“Down in a South London council, Muslims are allowed to pray five times a day, but Christians are not permitted to display Christian calendars on their desks. These are our realities.”
She also pointed to the case of Eunice and Owen Johns, the elderly Pentecostal couple who were rejected as foster parents – despite their extensive experience – because they disapproved of homosexuality. “The Equality Commission intervened in that case. They intervened against the Christians,” Williams noted.
“They've intervened in a number of other high-profile cases. They have not, ever, intervened against Muslims. They've only ever intervened in the Christian cases to stand against the Christians. This is not equality. This is inequality.”
“There's a complete making-way for Islam, and yet Christianity is suppressed,” Williams observed.
“This notion of accommodating Shariah, of accepting it – and then, of saying that Catholic adoption agencies, which believe a child needs a married mother and father, should be closed – is devastating for society.”
Williams says Britain's aggressive pursuit of secularism was creating a “vacuum” that radical Muslims could seek to exploit. “Radical Islam has an agenda in this nation, and works hard,” she noted.
But many English Christians fail to stand up for biblical truth in this context. “In many ways, the Church has herself to blame for the state we're in. What we've got to do is find our voice. Otherwise, there will be increased oppression and suppression.”
Williams observed that Christianity has historically “survived much worse than attacks by Trevor Phillips.” But she acknowledges that things look “very bleak” at the moment.
“We've currently got a government that's consulting on extending civil unions to religious premises,” she noted. “They said they would never do that.”
Williams and other English Christians want authentic religious freedom for themselves and others. But they understand the conflict with secularism is part of the cost of discipleship.
“Jesus suffered a false trial, was hated by the world, put on the cross,” she recalled. “But there was his resurrection, and the great hope that flows from that.”