Over the past month, there has been a series of independent but bizarrely similar news stories regarding the castigation of evangelical Christians in the UK, for advocating the belief in their religion. Each incident has involved a self- professed Christian attempting to convert or discuss their religion with a friend or relative, and each has culminated in a court ruling and/or appeal.
On 27th March, a British father, who cannot be named for legal reasons, went to the media after a court order by Derby County Court banned him from bringing his son to church and feeding him non-Halal meat. The father is a British-Pakistani convert from Islam to Christianity, who was taken to court by his devoutly Muslim ex-wife and son's mother, who wished for her son to be raised strictly Muslim. The father has now launched an appeal to have the order overturned.
A few weeks prior, Social Work student at Sheffield University, Felix Ngole, was expelled from his university course for posting on Facebook "I stand with Kim Davis"- the US county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. The University "fitness to practise" panel expelled him on the basis that his post "may have caused offence to some individuals". Ngole is now appealing the ban.
Then, a couple of days ago, NHS Occupational Therapist Victoria Wasteney lost her appeal against East London NHS Foundation Trust who suspended her for giving a Muslim colleague a book about a Muslim woman's conversion to Christianity, and inviting her to church. Wasteney was found guilty of "harassing and bullying", although the Muslim colleague never gave any evidence about her allegations to the NHS or subsequent employment tribunal.
These consecutive incidents raise some fundamentally important questions about our socio-legal position as a country. Are Christians breaking the law by trying to convert vulnerable civilians? Or is the legal system discriminatory against evangelical Christianity? There are two principals at play in these complex socio-legal cases: the right to proselytise and the right to offend.
The Right to Proselytise
Two of the above cases involve Christians attempting to convert others to belief in their religion- something that has clearly offended people to the point of litigation. Should Christians have right to try to convert people to their religion?
I think that the affirmative case is compelling. As part of the medical profession, I have spent much time in writing, conversation and on picket lines, trying to inform members of the public about why Junior Doctors are striking, and why the new contract the Department of Health is threatening to impose is both unfair on doctors and dangerous for patients. My aim in these conversations is to persuade people to come to the same conclusion as me, and support the Junior Doctors.
In a sense, Christians attempting to convert people around them to Christianity is very similar to me trying to persuade people to support the Junior Doctors. I think the vast majority of the British public would defend my right to champion the cause of the Junior Doctors, and my right to try to persuade willing listeners. People may not agree with me, and may choose not to engage with me on the picket line. However, providing one is not coercing or intimidating others, and providing one does not incite violence, the right to publically proselytise is an immensely valuable right that many take for granted. The right to publically proselytise allows political parties to campaign in the media and on the doorstep, pressure groups and trade unions to champion causes even when they are opposed to government policies, and for ordinary people to enforce change to their country. If we did not have the right to publically proselytise, there would have been no abolition of slavery, no ending of apartheid, no votes for women, no weekends, no NHS and no democracy (to list just a few). And given the Christian message is one of eternal life in Heaven available to everyone, it seems logical to at least want to hear their beliefs out.
Therefore, I would avidly defend the right of Christians to proselytise without fear of castigation. Providing they are not coercing or intimidating others, and not inciting violence, I believe that everyone should have the right to champion beliefs and attempt to persuade others of them, including religious beliefs. To deny that right to a section of society simply because others do not like their beliefs would be discriminatory at best and detrimental to society at worst.
The Right to Offend
The case of the Sheffield student involved the allegation that his Facebook status was homophobic and thus offensive. Should Christians have the right to offend others and use their religion as justification? I think prosecution is difficult to defend.
On 7th January 2015, following the tragic terrorist shootings at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the world came together in emotional solidarity with the people of France, and also in united defence of the freedom of speech. With respect to the satirical cartoons that Charlie Hebbo published that were deemed offensive to the Muslim terrorists, the view of many was to echo the words often attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". Many people in this country and around the world disapproved of the offense Charlie Hebdo caused to Muslims (as well as other religions) in their magazines. However, I think the vast majority would also passionately defend their right to freedom of expression and speech, even if offensive is caused to some. I agree with Sir Salman Rushdie when he said "Nobody has the right to not be offended. That right doesn't exist in any declaration I have ever read. If you're offended it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people".
And so, if we as a society would defend the right of a magazine to print cartoons that were deemed offensive by some, we should surely defend the right of a student to post a Facebook status that others found offensive. I may find his views wrong and offensive- but I would firmly defend his right to hold and voice them.
Christian Evangelism: Should the Law Intervene?
I therefore think that if we want to live in a liberal, democratic and free country which defends the right of freedom of speech, we need to stop punishing Christians who voice views that offend and try to convert people to their beliefs. I do not want to live in a society where the law enables organisations and courts to discriminate against people simply on the grounds of their religious beliefs. Rather, I passionately believe that everyone should have the right of freedom of speech- including Evangelical Christians.