A coalition of Christian groups this week launched a petition asking the UK Parliament to protect hard-won religious rights that are at risk.
They claimed that religious freedom is being significantly eroded and a new law is needed to protect fundamental religious rights.
The coalition of organisations said that at risk, or in need of protection are freedoms which it took centuries to gain in Britain. They pointed to the freedom to read scripture in public and interpret scripture without government interference and the right to change religion as freedoms which had been questioned recently.
They also said that the freedom from being required to affirm a particular worldview or belief in order to hold a particular job (except where this is a genuine occupational requirement such as chaplaincy posts), stand for election or study at university, were under attack.
“It is very easy to feel safe and secure as a Christian in the West compared with our brothers and sisters elsewhere. But our religious freedom came about as a result of brave believers standing up to repressive authority. We believe it is time to enshrine those hard-won rights in UK law, for followers of all religions and none,” said former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey (Patron of Barnabas Fund) and the Marquess of Reading (Chairman of Barnabas Fund) in a joint statement launching the petition.
The Coalition point to recent developments in which people have been prosecuted for preaching in public or required to affirm certain beliefs in order to hold public office. Turn the Tide, a booklet produced as a background briefing for the petition, cites examples of diktats by public authorities which effectively ban certain views about marriage, for example.
Graham Nicholls, Director of Affinity, a network representing some 1800 evangelical churches, said: “This is not a demand for special rights for Christians, but arises out of a concern that the space for religious freedom is shrinking as an increasingly muscular and intolerant secularism takes hold.”
The Coalition argued that, while freedom of religion is guaranteed under UN and EU law, specific aspects of this freedom are not always respected when they clash with other rights and interests.
Dr Martin Parsons, Head of Research for Barnabas Fund, said: “Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights theoretically guarantees religious freedom, but we need specific laws to implement all aspects of it in British law. We also need to enshrine in law several other aspects of religious freedom which are not specifically covered in the UN Declaration.”
The coalition state that all religious freedoms must be subject to existing laws on violence and incitement to violence.
The organisations backing the petition include: Affinity, a network of 1800 UK churches, Anglican Mainstream, Barnabas Fund, Christian Education Europe; Grassroots Conservatives; Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. The organisers hope to to gain the backing of organisations representing all religions and none.