12/12/2016 10:28 GMT | Updated 13/12/2017 05:12 GMT

Time To Put The Christian Persecution Myth To Bed

For years a small yet vocal minority of committed Christians have sought to perpetuate the myth that Christians in the UK are being persecuted for their beliefs and that UK equality law 'marginalises' them.

So successful have they been in promulgating this myth, that the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched a major program of research to assess the effectiveness of the legal framework relating to religion or belief.

Its findings have been published in a new report, which concludes that the existing legislation is generally effective. It dismisses calls for a so called 'workplace duty of reasonable accommodation", reasoning that the existing legal framework provides sufficient protection for people manifesting their religion or belief.

The report's findings give lie to the claim that Christians in Britain are treated unfairly in the workplace or in any way 'persecuted' for their beliefs. It does highlight a "lack of understanding of the law", which has led to "misinterpretation and confusion". Much of this confusion is down to the media's willingness to sensationalise cases involving Christians, ignoring the facts for the sexier 'persecution' narrative.

It would be nice to think that the findings of the EHRC, which followed many months of extensive consultation and over two years of research, would put the Christian persecution myth to bed. But there's little chance of that. The same week the report was published, the Respublica think tank called for the law to be changed to require employers to accommodate the religious beliefs of employees, even if that results in discrimination against others.

Neutral workplace rules relating to the wearing of jewelry, religious symbols or special clothes; employees' rights to time off work for religious observance; opting out of work duties and proselytism can only be perceived as discriminatory if you think your particular beliefs entitle you to special treatment.

Crying 'persecution' to lobby for special privileges is limited to a small and unrepresentative bunch of believers who no doubt embarrass many of the more secular-minded faithful. In 2013 then archbishop Rowan Williams said Christians complaining of persecution in Britain needed to "grow up". "When you have any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word persecuted very chastely," he said. Quite.

But there are warning signs that Prime Minister Theresa May could give the myth mongers a more sympathetic ear. This is worrying given our probably exit from the European Convention on Human Rights and the prospect of a new British Bill of Rights means many of the battles secularists have won may have to be fought all over again.

Speaking in Parliament recently, the Prime Minister welcomed a new a report from the Evangelical Alliance and the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship which aims to equip Christians to proselytize and evangelise the "good news of Jesus" in the workplace.

May was responding to an intervention from evangelical Christian MP, Fiona Bruce, who raised the spectre of Christians becoming "fearful" of speaking about their religion in public.

This the PM agreed was an "important issue", despite the Church of England's own research showing over 70% of Christians feel "comfortable" talking about their faith to a non-Christian - although they often find their efforts to convert non-believers are counterproductive.

The PM also stressed that Christians should "feel able to speak quite freely about Christmas". The so called 'war on Christmas' is the festive strand of the Christian persecution myth which makes the bizarre and unsubstantiated claim that Christians are somehow prevented from celebrating Christmas.

It must be blinding obvious to most people that Christmas is both a Christian and secular cultural festival. Just because many people aren't celebrating Christmas religiously, it doesn't mean they're doing it 'wrong' or in any way preventing others from celebrating it however they prefer. In fact, many secularists I know are serial midnight mass goers. When my daughters perform in their school nativity play, I'll be filming it, not protesting against it.

But according the press release accompanying the before-mentioned EHRC report, "Can I arrange an office Christmas party?" is a "common question" that businesses want answering. The negativity and resentment generated by this completely false narrative creates divisions where none need exist.

The simple truth is that Christianity is massively privileged in the UK. The taxpayer funds around 4,700 Christian 'faith schools'; 26 Church of England bishops are granted seats as of right in Parliament; sittings in both Houses begin with Christian prayers, as do many school days (by law). Christianity dominates our national ceremonies, not least the coronation of the monarch - who also happens to be the Supreme Governor of the Church. Despite its significant wealth, the Church is handed millions of pounds of public money to repair its places of worship. Church leaders are routinely given a platform by the national media to pontificate on all aspects of public life.

Many people in modern Britain have little interest in Christianity - or religion generally. Most are neither bigoted nor ignorant and they don't need remedial 'religious literacy' classes. They just have another way of seeing the world that doesn't involve or revolve around supernatural beliefs. Most are happy for others to hold whatever beliefs they want, so long as the way they manifest these beliefs has no unfair, detrimental or discriminatory impact on others. This is the essence of secularism.

For any business owners out there struggling to navigate issues of religion or belief, I recommend the EHRC's new employer's guide to religion or belief in the workplace. And for any faithful out there still convinced that they're being persecuted here in the UK, I'll leave you with the words of comedian Jon Stewart; "You've confused a 'war on religion' with not always getting everything you want."