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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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    Nurse: Caroline Petrie offered a patient prayers.
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For a nation shaped by an overtly Christian heritage, Britain has apparently become a difficult place to be overtly Christian.

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.

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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.

Philosopher A.C. Grayling says that ever since 9/11, a "bad-tempered quarrel" has broken out between those of Christian, Muslim, and other faiths and those who think religion has more influence on modern society than it should. He says that to avoid culture wars, the public space cannot be seen to favor one creed over another.

"It's in the interest of all religious communities that the public domain should remain neutral," Professor Grayling says.

Christians like Eweida say this is "political correctness gone mad." In her case, which she intends to appeal later this year, British Airways was allowed to decide which accessories of faith were acceptable and which were not.

The outcome? A more lenient approach to Muslims and Sikhs than toward Christians, she says.

"They deemed it mandatory for Muslims to wear hijab, but not for Christians to wear a cross," she says. "What right have they got to tell me as an individual how to manifest and proclaim my personal faith? I was brought up in Egypt, and Christians there are allowed to wear crosses. Why should I feel ashamed to hide my faith and my cross because I believe in the word of God?"

The Church of England has begun weighing in on the debate. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, said that asking someone to leave their faith at the door of their workplace was "akin to asking them to remove their skin color before coming into the office."

Yet gloomy intimations of Christian persecution may be overblown. The church remains part of the British establishment, and enjoys formidable privileges. Britain, for example, is the only mature democracy where bishops are elevated, unelected, to a legislative chamber, the House of Lords.

The established church plays a key role in education, running thousands of schools and dictating admissions policy.

It is this privileged status of the established church that may be backfiring on individual Christians – a general wariness that the majority creed shouldn't get any more favors than it already has.

"We have an established church, and so people feel that Christianity is privileged and therefore oppressive and people see it more negatively," says Theo Hobson, a theologian. "It might be healthier if we had a secular state in which religion was more tolerated."

Christians should also be mindful of how they would feel if roles were reversed, says Simon Barrow, codirector of the theological think tank Ekklesia. How would a Christian feel if, for example, a nurse offered them an Islamic prayer?

"People are nervous about overenthusiastic public expression of belief of any kind," Mr. Barrow says. "There is a great desire for people not to tread on one another's toes."

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