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Some British Christians feel oppressed in the public square

High-profile cases involving Bible-sharing and prayer have raised concerns. But many say that reining in certain expressions of faith is a necessary compromise in a multicultural society.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 2009

On my mind: Bishop of Worcester John Inge took ideas for prayer at a job center in Redditch. The Church of England invited people to share concerns that would be prayed about at an Ash Wednesday service.

David Jones/PA Wire

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For a nation shaped by an overtly Christian heritage, Britain has apparently become a difficult place to be overtly Christian.

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The conservative press bewails a steady erosion of Christian values. A member of Parliament has called for debate on "systematic and institutional discrimination toward Christians." Even former Prime Minister Tony Blair recently let slip how aides would brusquely suppress any instinct he had to bring his faith into public view.

Now, a succession of ordinary Christians are finding this rule applies to them, too.

Earlier this month, Caroline Petrie, a nurse, was suspended for offering to pray for a patient. The case echoed another incident in which social worker Naphtali Chondol was fired for giving a Bible to a client.

Elsewhere, a teen was prohibited from wearing a chastity ring in school in a case redolent of British Airways's move to forbid a check-in worker, Nadia Eweida, from wearing a cross. A university Christian group was banned for requiring that members attest to their belief in God. The requirement was considered discriminatory.

"There's going to be lots more cases like this," says Paul Diamond, a barrister specializing in religious liberties cases who represented both Ms. Petrie and Ms. Eweida. "Christians are a soft target – it's easy to be nasty to them."

He says Christians are a victim of an overcorrection. Once, the Church of England and its mores predominated. Now, the pendulum has swung decisively in a secular direction.

"It's important that the state is neutral [but] the issue is slightly more complex because religion goes with culture and values and therefore we are saying we will have no values in the public domain," he adds.

The Christian complaint is generally twofold: that other faiths are treated more favorably and that the dilution of Christian values in a soup of secularism has eroded the core morality of the nation.

Nonsense, say secularists, who argue that Christians do not have a monopoly on morality. With church congregations generally in decline and Britain a patchwork of different faiths (there are some 2 million Muslims, for example), they argue that reining in expressions of faith are a necessary compromise in a multicultural society.