This week, the Queen’s Speech marked the opening of Parliament, highlighting the government’s agenda for the year ahead.
Within the full briefing, there are four areas of legislation that are particularly important regarding the freedom of Christians to live and speak for Jesus.
None of them are entirely new, but it is important to understand the opportunities and challenges of the year ahead, so that we can better pray, act and speak to our MPs.
Bill of Rights
The promise of a new Bill of Rights goes back as far as David Cameron in 2006.
The idea is to revise and replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a new Bill of Rights which changes the way that human rights are interpreted. The courts would only be expected to follow UK case law (not European) and to interpret human rights more narrowly in order to limit what the government calls ‘spurious cases’.
Earlier this year, there was a consultation on this proposal, where we explained that European case law has often protected Christians better than the UK courts.
On the other hand, the government also intends to strengthen freedom of expression. According to the government, one of the chief benefits of this legislation would be:
“Defending freedom of speech by promoting greater confidence in society to express views freely, thereby enhancing public debate.”
We can welcome the commitment to free speech, while remaining concerned about these narrower interpretations of human rights – particularly freedom of religion.
Freedom of expression is also important to another government bill – the Online Safety Bill.
Again, the bill claims to safeguard free speech, with the claim that “tech companies will no longer be able to arbitrarily remove content.”
However, the plans may not be all they seem. Tech companies will face fines for not censoring “legal but harmful” content in priority areas, dictated by the government. Many Christian beliefs are alleged by others to be harmful, particularly when it comes to sex, gender and abortion.
Perhaps this government, or the next, would restrain themselves and use this power sparingly. But there is ample room for this power to be abused to restrict legitimate Christian views online.
On the positive side, this bill pledges to require “providers who publish pornographic content on their services to prevent children from accessing that content.” This long-promised but never-enacted policy is much-needed to prevent children from being sexualised through inappropriate and immoral material online.
Higher Education (Freedom of Speech)
Are we beginning to see a pattern? Again, the government intends to bolster free speech; this bill targeting university settings.
Universities have become dominated by particular ideas and ideologies, particularly on sex and gender. Our Christian Legal Centre has dealt with many cases where people have faced difficulties for their Christian beliefs. One significant battle was for Felix Ngole, a social work student who posted Christian views about same-sex marriage on Facebook and was (initially) found not ‘fit to practise’. This decision was overturned through a long legal process but obviously had a significant impact on his studies.
Similarly pro-life societies have faced difficulties with student unions. People who are questioning or critical about transgender ideology have been prevented from speaking on campuses or pursuing studies into gender transition.
And our own Wilberforce Academy has many times faced difficulties from colleges acting as venues, after students have raised unreasonable complaints about us.
The bill intends to make universities “places where freedom of speech can thrive for all staff, students and visiting speakers”.
This can be welcomed, though we are yet to see the full details of how this will work in practice.
As expected, the government reiterated its intention to legislate to “ban conversion therapy practices intended to change sexual orientation”. The ban will not deal with gender identity, in line with recent announcements.
This promise is wrongheaded, as we’ve explained many times. There is nothing harmful currently being practised that would be banned by the legislation. It would only affect the freedom of people seeking pastoral support or counselling with the aim of reducing same-sex feelings or behaviours.
In other words, it would restrict or ban legitimate, consensual conversations.
We recently released a report that a ban would breach human rights and we will continue working hard to oppose this bill.
Let’s protect Christian ministry
The government’s agenda for the year ahead provides these opportunities and challenges (and many more) for Christians as we seek to love our neighbour.
Although it can be tempting to withdraw – focusing solely on our own lives or, perhaps, our churches – these bills will have significant effects on the freedom to speak and live as a Christian.
What happens in parliament and in the courts can either inhibit or protect Christian ministry. Will you join us as we work to see Jesus at the heart of society?