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Beyond Belief: Defending religious liberty through the British Bill of Rights – Press Release

30th November 2016

  • ResPublica


Strict Embargo: 00:01 30th November 2016

Religious freedoms in everyday life such as bans on crosses and headscarves are being eroded in modern Britain and need to be enshrined in law to help create a better society, a report by the independent think tank ResPublica has found.

In Beyond Belief: Defending religious liberty through the British Bill of Rights ResPublica argues that in a climate of fear and distrust of religion, more needs to be done to protect the freedoms of people of faith.

ResPublica says the best way to do this is for the Government to press ahead with a British Bill of Rights and include the freedom to express religious belief within it.

The think tank argues that societies which enjoy freedom of expression see a wider range of other fundamental rights such as free speech and freedom of association. But increasingly expressions of faith are being eroded amid pressures on religious believers to conform to the rapid and unprecedented revolution in family, sexual, and medical ethics.

Director of ResPublica, Phillip Blond, said: “By refusing people the right to wear a cross or headscarf at work we are eroding the good that could be achieved.

“We hear a lot about the bad things people do in the name of religion but all faiths actually have a role to play in bringing communities together and stopping division.

“Those who go to church, temple or mosque are far more likely to act in the public good whether it is helping deliver meals on wheels or running toddler clubs, or simply being part of a group of like-minded people.”

ResPublica found religious people are 3.6 times more likely to participate in civic engagement such as voluntary work which helps disadvantaged members of society as well as bringing more public cohesion.

Faith can also contribute to the economy with a report in the US finding contributions by religious individuals and organizations in the United States alone amount to around US$1.2 trillion annually.

As well as the Government committing to a Bill of Rights in the next Queen’s speech, ResPublica also wants the Equality and Human Rights Commission to introduce a Religious Freedom Code of Practice. This would stop disputes in workplaces from happening as a framework would be in place to outline what rights employees have.

Universities should also be encouraged to uphold their statutory duty to allow freedom of religious expression, and the freedom to question beliefs without fear of academic staff and students being punished.

Supporting the report, Conservative MP and Parliamentary Chairman of the Conservative Christian Fellowship David Burrowes said: “Religious liberty is a fundamental right, but recently we have seen it being downgraded compared to other human rights. I am delighted that the ‘Religious Liberty & Literacy Report’ is shedding light on this pressing, but too often overlooked issue. Religious freedom is a universal human right which is foundational to a good society, and should not shunned or marginalised.

This ResPublica report delivers a strong set of recommendations for Government in light of the future British Bill of Rights, which would be the perfect vehicle for underlining the UK’s commitment to reasonable accommodation of religious belief. I encourage the Government  to consider these recommendations carefully.”

The Chief Executive of Care (Christian Action Research & Education) Nola Leach said: “Religious freedom can be seen as a luxury – but it is an essential human right that must be protected. This report highlights some concerning trends which show how faith is becoming sidelined in the public square and could lead to a greater privatisation of religious beliefs.

“We need to be aware that these trends will lead to questions about how people of faith can contribute and engage in all aspects of society. This report highlights the vital role that people of faith already play in our communities; we must not put ourselves in a position where we disregard and neglect the role these groups play in our society – for example religious groups are often in a position where they can distribute welfare must more effective than local government can.

“As the Government considers the British Bill of Rights, we hope this report will help them to consider the many issues facing people of faith as they seek to participate fully in society.

“We must allow for reasonable accommodation for religious belief in UK law so that policymakers and judges can balance the rights and freedoms that different groups and individuals are entitled to in the UK most effectively.

“With the tension and division of the Brexit campaign and result still raw this report offers a timely reminder of the need to allow for difference of opinion and free expression of belief.”

The report recommendations include:

1. Incorporate a duty of reasonable accommodation in the Bill of Rights: Employment in the public sector should no longer compel individuals to behave in ways that a member of their faith would reasonably perceive to contradict their sincerely held religious beliefs. Furthermore, policy-makers should take steps to mitigate the damaging effects of recent legal decisions on the freedom of those who wish to conduct businesses in accordance with their reasonably held beliefs about human sexuality and the institution of marriage. The proposed Bill of Rights provides a unique opportunity to include a positive duty on employers and regulators to demonstrate reasonable accommodation towards those that wish to express their religious convictions in the public sphere.

2. Commit to introducing a draft British Bill of Rights in the next Queen’s Speech: Because the reasonable accommodation of religious practice would provide such a valuable boon to society, the Government should commit to introducing the Bill of Rights at the earliest possible opportunity, which is probably the Queen’s Speech in early 2017.

3. Ensure the EHRC introduces a Religious Freedom Code of Practice: Integrating a duty of reasonable accommodation into a legislative framework for protecting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion based will not be possible if it is not also practicable. Specific, targeted support should be given to train employers and service-providers to anticipate and prevent disputes from becoming acrimonious. To that end, a Religious Freedom Code of Practice should be devised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to help employers resolve tensions between religious belief and other protected characteristics. The Code would emphasize the value of seeking practical solutions, including making appropriate accommodations in the distribution of work responsibilities and underlining the importance taking reasonable efforts to identify which employees would be prepared to execute tasks that are likely to compromise the sincerely held beliefs of other employees.

4. Establish a Religious Policy Review Council in central government: Steps should be taken to ensure that public bodies responsible for implementing the Equality Act 2010 understand fully the scenarios in which the manifestation of religious freedom and other protected characteristics might collide. A practical means of achieving this would be create a Religious Policy Review Council in central government, that would cut across departments, which would advise on the implications of certain policies on religious communities. Should both increase religious literacy amongst policy makers and reduce the incidence of conflict between religion and non-religious interests.

5. Enforce existing statutory duties on universities on freedom of speech: Parliament has imposed unambiguous statutory obligations on colleges and universities to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law for their members, students, employees, and visiting speakers. They must also ensure that academic staff have the freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.

6. Create a Religious Freedom Index to monitor infringements of religious liberty: The Office for National Statistics should establish and index that would measure and document chronic or egregious failures by businesses and public-sector bodies to make reasonable accommodation for the religious beliefs of its employees. This would foster working environments that uphold and protect the free expression and exercise of religious belief.

Notes to the Editor:

1. In October 2006 Nadia Eweida was told to cover up a Christian cross by her employer British Airways and was suspended when she refused. Eventually, after interventions by then Prime Minister Tony Blair and others, the company said it would allow religious symbols on a chain. Ms Eweida was also awarded damages by the European Court of Human Rights.
2. In May this year Juliane Kokott, an Advocate General to the European Court of Justice, issued an opinion which said employers within the EU could ban Muslim staff from wearing headscarves as long as other religious symbols were forbidden as well.
3. Also in May, Ofsted was accused of targeting Jewish institutions when it found more than 100 suspected illegal schools in England, many of them faith-based.
4. A report published this year by Brian J. Grim and Melissa E. Grim, “The Socio-economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis.” in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion found contributions by religious individuals and organizations in the United States alone amount to around US$1.2 trillion annually.
5. For further details please call Oruj Defoite on 07866 685130 or email her on oruj@sogold.co.uk

Press enquiries to press@respublica.org.uk.

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