Religious Liberties Must Not Be Lost in the Quest for Tolerance
Freedom of speech is certainly not dead in Britain, but it appears it may be in danger of coming down with a case of something nasty.
The Independent reported via its website yesterday the story of a 57 year old Christian street preacher who was awarded £50,000 in costs and compensation after being held in police custody for 15 hours without food or medication. Most of the money was for costs, with £13,000 being compensation.
What was his supposed crime?
When provoked by two teenagers into giving his views on homosexual lifestyles, he said simply, "God hates sin but loves the sinner." The teens had, it seems, intended to set him up, with their in-your-face attitude, words and actions.
In the Times earlier yesterday, Melanie Phillips reflected on the growth in paganism and other alternatives to traditional religion.
The public's taste for spiritual experience, she observed, is growing as its interest in institutional or traditional religion is shrinking. The modern seeker prefers, she suggested, a "godless" form of belief which does not make any moral demands of us.
If the experience of this street preacher is anything to go by, the authorities may be of the mind that the public's tolerance of traditional religion is also wearing thin.
At the very least, it appears that some sections of the police service prefer to err on the side of intolerance when it comes to enforcing laws which supposedly protect tolerance.
There is no question here of religious persecution or, I think, even victimisation by officials. Yet it would be a sad day for Britain if even a small section of its generally respected police service were to succumb to the political line take by ultra-liberal lobbyists who, in their zeal for their cause, pursue liberalism in very illiberal ways.
Tolerance, in this view of the world, is only to be extended to those whose views align with an ultra-liberal outlook.
I say ultra-liberal because there are doubtless be many people of liberal persuasion who would find police actions in this case heavy-handed and unhelpful to their cause.
For some people of mainstream or traditional religious faith, this case is likely to inspire insecurity and mistrust law makers and enforcers. This at a time when many are already uneasy or even suspicious about the long-term intentions of policy-makers when it comes to freedom of religion.
It is not Christians alone who will feel this way. If this story in any way represents the future, people of all the overtly theistic faiths may feel that their beliefs are effectively on notice.
The preacher in this case was supported in his claims against the police by a charity that specialises in defending apparent abuses of religious freedoms - particularly those relating to Christianity.
What happens, though, when mistreatment goes unreported or is not pursued? This is a very real possibility at a time when modem faith communities begin to wrestle with the vexed question of how to demonstrate submission to authority, which faith so often mandates, while defending their rights. This is, after all, not something they've had to face for a very long time in British society.
Arguably religious communities have, through the years, established a proud though not unblemished record for standing for the rights of others, often at the expense of their own rights.
It's high time liberalism put its house in order. A bigot is not simply someone who disagrees with one's own point of view.
Law makers must reflect more rigorously on the long term impact of the regulations they introduce and in how these will be applied, ensuring that they represent fairness for all and not merely the lobbyists who shout the loudest.
The law should not be invested in the cult of political correctness, which denies the opportunity for reasonable debate.
It's also time sections of the law enforcement community learned to apply common sense to their work.
Theirs is not an easy task, particularly in an increasingly urbanised and multi-heritage community. However it will not be made any easier if they lose the trust and respect of some of the least troublesome - and at times most helpful - members of local communities - that is, people whose faith compels them to try their hardest to lead good and helpful lives.