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Transatlantic Blog

4 challenges to religious liberty in the United Kingdom

To maintain our religious liberties requires vigilance. The tentacles of both the state and indeed of central church establishments all too frequently bear down heavily on individuals exercising basic human freedoms in the exercise of their faith.

This includes, for example, the freedom to work without discrimination on the grounds of our Christian beliefs. The freedom to sing. The freedom to preach from the Bible. Indeed, the freedom to preach at all.

Violations in all these areas have emerged in the United Kingdom in recent weeks. Lack of attentiveness to the foundations of our liberties, both religious and political, threaten the long-term existence of our basic freedoms. Too many people don’t care at all. Christians must remain ever alert.
 

Several cases across the United Kingdom highlight how once liberal democratic countries are beginning to embrace totalitarian approaches to religious freedom.

The case of Kenneth Fergusson: Discrimination at work on the basis of Christian beliefs

From 2011 to 2020, Kenneth Fergusson was the chief executive of the Robertson Trust, Scotland’s largest grant-giving trust to a wide variety of good causes. During that time, Fergusson oversaw the doubling of the foundations grants to 20 million pounds per annum, as well as an increase in staff from seven to 43. In April 2019, Shonaig Macpherson, chair of the Robertson Trust, described Fergusson in his annual appraisal as “engaging” and “optimistic,” “who fulfils an excellent role as an ambassador for the Robertson Trust” and who “continuously seeks to innovate and improve performance of the Trust.” Sounds like a first-class employee doing a superb job in the service of the community.

Fergusson is an elder of Stirling Free Church. The Free Church of Scotland is an evangelical and reformed church which traces its origins to what is known as the “disruption” in 1843, when evangelical ministers left the increasingly liberal Church of Scotland. The Free Church holds to the traditional biblical belief about marriage, that marriage can only be constituted between one man and one woman. Stirling Free Church sought to rent premises from the Robertson Trust. Fergusson recused himself from any involvement in the negotiations.

When Macpherson heard that the trust was renting premises to the church, an email between the chair and the staff noted that Macpherson was “appalled at the idea of the Free Church using a Trust space & Kenneth’s role in facilitating it.” Writing to the Board of Trustees, Macpherson said that due to the Free Church’s views on homosexuality and gay marriage, the arrangements with the church did not fit with the trust’s values or renting policy. She was described as so angry on one occasion that her voice was shaking. Fergusson was dismissed from his post.

Fergusson initiated an action in the Employment Tribunal, supported in his legal costs by The Christian Institute. In July 2021, the tribunal ruled that Fergusson had been unfairly dismissed and subjected to religious discrimination by the Robertson Trust and its chair, Macpherson. A further hearing will be held to assess damages.

Contrary to Macpherson’s claim of neutrality, the Employment Tribunal found that the Robertson Trust did not have a written policy regarding licences to rent and, indeed, had rented premises to various pro-gay marriage groups. Furthermore, the tribunal concluded that she had not read the trust’s disciplinary policy and had already decided to dismiss Kenneth solely on the basis of his Christian beliefs about marriage. The tribunal also held that Macpherson’s evidence was unreliable.

Fergusson himself commented:

I’m just relieved this is over. It’s been a very difficult time for me and my family. I was treated by The Robertson Trust in a way I had never been treated before in my whole professional life. But I’m satisfied that justice has been done. The Tribunal has ruled that they were wrong to behave that way and I’m grateful.

I also want to thank those who have supported me and prayed for me, especially those at The Christian Institute who have been such a blessing to me.

The courage of Fergusson in pursuing his claim, despite the pain and the hardship, is a testament to the vigilance we need to ensure religious liberty is maintained. If he had not taken the action he did, we would have allowed an employer to discriminate without justification simply on the basis of a person’s Christian convictions and not in the least related to one’s ability to perform the role.

The case of Reverend Charlie Boyle: Subjected to discipline for singing “Thine Be the Glory” … in church

Charlie Boyle is a vicar of the Church of England. He is the Vicar of All Saints, Branksome, in Dorset, in the notoriously liberal Diocese of Salisbury. It was Easter Sunday 2021. As he left the church, Boyle sang the last verse of “Thine Be the Glory.” What else would one do during worship on Easter Sunday? He also entered the church to return Bibles to their places in the building.

The problem? In these COVID times, he was not wearing a mask. The hierarchy, in the person of the Archdeacon of Dorset, listed a series of offenses and sought to pressure Charlie to leave his post and his home. He is married with four young children. He did not do so and the bishop confirmed that the church was seeking to initiate disciplinary proceedings against him. We might also mention that Boyle suffers from asthma and is legally entitled to not wear a mask.

It is hard to describe the extent of the failure of the spiritual leadership of the bishop and archdeacon that this man faces disciplinary action. As Boyle commented:

I am deeply saddened and hurt that COVID regulations are being used as an excuse by the church hierarchy to bully me and my young family. Despite the pressure on me, which has affected my health, I am not going to give up on my calling just because I sang “Thine Be The Glory” on Easter Sunday in church without a mask. Furthermore, I am shocked that one of the allegations against me is that I brought Bibles into a church.

The case of the Rev. Bernard Randall: Fired for preaching the bible

Rev. Bernard Randall was the chaplain of Trent College, a private college with a Church of England foundation. After preaching a sermon in the chapel titled, “Competing Ideologies,” Randall was reported, without his knowledge, to the government’s counter-terrorism watchdog as a potentially violent religious extremist.  He was then fired. Although reinstated on appeal, he was then made redundant – a religious extremist who simply expounded the teaching of the Bible. His college had introduced a program called “Educate and Celebrate.” You can guess what the students were to be educated about and what they were expected to celebrate.

Randall affirmed many aspects of the program but pointed out that it represented a competing ideology to that of the Bible and that it was entirely legitimate to believe that marriage was between one man and one woman. This is the position of scripture, most religious traditions and is an ethical precept that can be reached independently of a religious text. Indeed, human beings are created male and female and gender and biology cannot be separated. All that Randall argued was that it is as legitimate to hold this view as it is to hold the liberal alternative. Hardly extremist.

Randall has now initiated action for harassment, victimization, discrimination, and unfair dismissal. He said:

My story sends a message to other Christians that you are not free to talk about your faith. It seems it is no longer enough to just ‘tolerate’ LGBT ideology. You must accept it without question and no debate is allowed without serious consequences. Someone else will decide what is and what isn’t acceptable, and suddenly you can become an outcast, possibly for the rest of your life.

The case of Hazel Lewis: You can’t preach at all, even if you don’t mention sexuality

Hazel Lewis is a street preacher who was arrested outside Finsbury Park tube station in North London in February 2020 after members of the public claimed that Hazel had been making homophobic and racist comments. On the basis of these complaints, she was arrested and the police prepared to charge her with hate offenses.

Hazel had recorded audio footage of her preaching. Once police officers listened to the recording, it was clear, even to them, that the allegations were false and hate charges would not succeed. One might have thought that at this point the police would have apologized to Hazel and released her. But no.

The police have become an arm of the woke state, moving considerably beyond the enforcement of the law to corporate interpreters of the law, rather like those in the old Soviet-bloc countries. Hence the police sought to bring different charges against her, accusing Hazel of a breach of the Public Order Act by causing harassment, alarm, and distress. Her case was thrown out by a district judge, who ruled that there was “no case to answer”.

Vigilance is key

Complacency has always been one of the great dangers for Christianity. And so it is with the challenges to religious liberty. The threat is not just in the United Kingdom or the United States, but also globally. Yet we neglect the threats under our noses at our peril. Seemingly liberal democratic countries which, captured by secular humanist philosophies, now neglect their histories and embrace what can only be described as oppressive, even totalitarian approaches to religious freedom.

We need to remain ever alert, share the stories and the cases and continue to make careful, reasoned cases for liberty— religious, economic, and political. We have to win the argument afresh in every generation.

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Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994.

Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.