Religion & Liberty Online

Threats to Religious Liberty in the U.K.

British Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (Image credit: Associated Press)

A new government is likely to legislate further restrictions on the exercise of religious free speech and pose a danger to other areas of concern for the religious in Britain. We should be under no illusion of the threat to our basic liberties.

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There is a real possibility that the next general election in the United Kingdom will take place within a few weeks of the presidential election in the United States. It is fair to say that no one knows what will happen on either side of the Atlantic.

One significant disadvantage of the United Kingdom’s lacking a written constitution is that basic freedoms, including religious liberty and free speech, are not enshrined in a foundational document. Hence such freedoms become much more dependent on the policies and preferences of the incumbent government. There is a very real chance that the British electorate will buck both its recent and historic preference for a Conservative government and take a leftward turn. The reasons are perhaps beyond our scope and complex but ineptitude features quite highly alongside policy prescriptions shockingly out of touch with the electorate that returned the government.

What will this mean for important aspects of religious liberty and Christian moral teaching?

If the British Labour Party, led by Sir Keir Starmer, takes the reins of power, we can be sure that the power of the state will be used aggressively in several areas of religious liberty. The consequences are potentially far-reaching and will affect parents, businesses, churches, and preachers, with widespread implications for Christian witness in society.

The area most likely to attract interest from a new left-of-center government and, of course, generate the deepest concern for those concerned with liberty is free speech, religious and otherwise. We can expect more precise and extensive definitions of both so-called hate speech and the extension of the idea of non-crime hate incidents.

The very concept of a non-crime hate incident seems to many incoherent and bizarre. Why are police resources being wasted on investigating incidents that are, by definition, non-criminal, especially when the police often don’t even turn up to a burglary or ignore hate crimes when aimed at Israel? The origin of recording so-called non-crime hate incidents goes back to the last time we had a Labour government, in the 2000s. Who is to decide the criteria? What protection does the individual citizen have against aggressive police action in regard to public speech and expression?

As Justice Gorsuch said in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, respect for religious expression is indispensable to life in a free society “whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head.”

We have already seen cases in the U.K. of open-air street preachers being arrested because the police don’t understand the law, resulting in allegations of homophobia or hate for preaching from the Bible. These cases have sometimes resulted in the recording of a non-crime hate incident. In the most recent case, a street preacher in Glasgow, Angus Cameron, received damages from Police Scotland for wrongful arrest, and the non-crime hate incident was expunged from the record. Note: “He simply quoted the Bible.”

Recently enacted public-order legislation has permitted the imposition of buffer zones around abortion clinics to prevent public protest. A Roman Catholic woman, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, was arrested for praying, in silence, outside a Birmingham clinic. The arresting officer even cited prayer as the offense.

These types of cases will almost certainly multiply, and a new government is highly likely to legislate further restrictions on the exercise of religious free speech. We should be under no illusion of the threat to our basic liberties.

Another very sensitive area is that of a proposed ban on conversion therapy—that is, programs, which might include counselling or prayer, for those who wish to leave a homosexual lifestyle. The disproportionate emphasis on this matter by politicians, mostly on the left, but also in the liberal wing of the British Conservative Party, is astonishing and a threat to religious liberty way beyond any reasonable provision. Perhaps this is part of the problem of government: administrations feel the need to legislate every aspect of life. Any coercive or aggressive use of any method or technique to persuade an individual to leave one lifestyle for another is already covered by a variety of laws. And, in reality, it is extremely difficult to identify any extensive or widespread use of inappropriate methods. A new Labour government will nevertheless legislate aggressively in this area.

Does it matter? It most certainly does. The threat here is to the basic, ordinary work of churches, including preaching and prayer. Can a person change? Under God’s grace, yes. Will the state intervene to prevent prayer with a person seeking counsel? There will be some Bible passages we may not be allowed to preach. Prosecution and even imprisonment of ministers and preachers are real possibilities. Of course, in all this the biggest offense is to the many faithful Christians who, while perhaps struggling with homosexual attractions, remain faithful to the teaching of Christ, the teaching of the Bible, and the doctrine of the church in celibate singleness.

A third area of concern is education. I fear inappropriate policies in schools around gender and sexual ethics that contradict Christian teaching. A Christian governor of a school was recently removed from the governing body (although subsequently reinstated after court action) after challenging a curriculum that included encouraging children to question their gender identity, which was presented in the curriculum as a scale rather than biologically determined.

Then there is the excessive regulation of homeschooling. The home education sector is not large in the U.K.—perhaps a little over 1% of the school-age population, around 125,000. But the numbers are rising significantly and have quadrupled in a decade. The reasons why parents choose to homeschool are varied but increasingly include Christian parents concerned about the anti-faith policies and curriculum of the state system. There is already a registration requirement, but there is much concern about state overreach, with increasingly draconian registration and monitoring under a new left-of-center government, which would almost certainly view any educational provision outside the state system as a threat to its control. The freedom of parents to educate children at home within a Christian framework is under threat.

A final area of concern is assisted suicide, which is really a euphemism for euthanasia. Starmer has already made clear his support for assisted dying. Prominent celebrities are also joining the campaign. We should not underestimate the danger of this pernicious approach to life and death, which undermines the dignity of the human person as endowed by God and made in his image. The consequence is pressure on vulnerable or disabled people to reduce the burden on their families or on society. The choice to die becomes a duty.

Christian Members of Parliament, including Conservative members Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, have led the opposition, pointing out that the promised protections in countries such as Canada, Belgium, and the Netherlands invariably led to ever more liberal approaches, with disastrous consequences. Deaths from euthanasia have doubled in these three countries in five years, from 11,729 in 2017 to 24,927 in 2022. In Canada, the option was originally offered only to the terminally ill. In 2021, this was extended to serious and chronic conditions even if not life threatening. Belgium has announced its intention to extend the provision to terminally ill children between 1 and 12 years old. Not only is this mission creep; it is also the opposite of Christian compassion. Christians have a responsibility to ensure that society values all life (euthanasia and abortion are inextricably linked), and to offer hope and support for patients and families at the end of life.

Do pray for us. We will also pray for you.

Richard Turnbull

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.