Western Europe is thought to be the only part of the world where Christianity is in decline, and Christians within its borders face pressure to hide their faith to degrees not felt in even nominally Christian countries elsewhere. The reason lies not in open persecution, but in privatization. In Europe, a sharp dividing line has been drawn between religious belief and religious practice, so that Christians are frequently reminded that they can believe whatever they like and do what they like inside their churches—they simply cannot speak about or act on those beliefs in public. Christians are being told to keep their faith quiet, out of the workplace, and out of the marketplace.
Clearly the best way to keep Christianity private is to keep Christians quiet. Europe now has dozens of laws to stop Christians from speaking out on controversial issues, not just in public spaces but in pulpits and private conversations as well, enforced vigorously through the criminal code.
A few years ago, Swedish pastor Ake Green was sentenced to one month in prison for preaching on the biblical teaching against sexual immorality from the pulpit of his small church in Borgholm. Green’s offense was expressing disrespect for homosexuals, a relatively new crime that carried a maximum four-year prison sentence.
When the case was heard by the appellate court, the prosecutor pushed for a lengthier sentence, arguing that Green’s sermon was extreme. Although the court overturned the conviction, the prosecutor would not let the case drop and appealed the decision to the country’s supreme court. Fortunately, Green had the benefit of publicity, and as a result he received the legal and financial support he needed to defend himself—a privilege that not everyone who suffers a similar fate can be guaranteed.
The supreme court acquitted him more than two years after he delivered his sermon. Green’s case was reported around the world and was a watershed moment for Europe, but rather than turning away from censorship, many European countries embraced it.
Last year in Ireland, a police file was opened on Bishop Philip Boyce after one of the country’s leading secularists, John Colgan, complained about an “offensive” homily in which the bishop stated that the Church is being “attacked from the outside by the arrows of a secular and godless culture.” Colgan said, “I believe statements of this kind are an incitement to hatred of dissidents, outsiders, secularists, within the meaning of the Incitement to Hatred Act.”
Rather than ignore the complaint, the Irish police took it seriously and prepared and forwarded a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who in turn opened an investigation. Although no further action was taken against the bishop, he could have faced up to two years in prison if convicted of inciting hatred.
In Spain last year, Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Pl was threatened with police action after preaching a Good Friday homily in which he spoke of the nature and effects of destructive sinful behavior. Although he also mentioned adultery, theft, and failure to pay wages to workers, homosexual lobby groups were outraged by his mention of homosexual behavior. While a formal complaint to Spain’s Prosecutor General did not go any further, the Madrid city council approved a motion requesting that the bishop be removed from his post, transferred from the diocese, and no longer invited to any official events in the capital.
Even private conversations between citizens can become the grounds of a criminal complaint in many European countries. A couple of years ago, British hoteliers Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, who are Christians, were charged with the criminal offense of using “insulting words” after a Muslim guest complained about their breakfast conversation on the merits of their respective faiths. The guest complained to the police, and after a yearlong investigation that brought the family-run business to its knees, the case eventually reached the courtroom.
One senior prosecutor and two high-ranking police officers appeared to testify against the Vogelenzangs. Behind them sat a team of six officers from the specialist “hate crime unit” who had been assigned to the case. The Vogelenzangs were supported by a Christian charity that covered all of their legal fees.
Although the hotel owners were eventually acquitted, the investigation and trial ultimately destroyed their business, as one of its main customers, a local hospital that used the guesthouse for patients, withdrew its business and never returned. Sharon Vogelenzang explained that “many people thought that when we won in court, everything would be OK. In reality, it has brought us to the brink of destruction, so it has not been a victory at all.”
Christianity is also being kept out of the workplace. Four high-profile cases from the United Kingdom are currently making their way through the European Court of Human Rights.
Two of the claimants, Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele, were fired for refusing to condone same-sex relationships. Ladele was a registrar of births, deaths, and marriages. When same-sex civil partnerships were introduced by the government in 2005, she saw that registering such relationships would clash with her faith. There were many registrars in the registry service and the same-sex ceremonies constituted a fraction of her duties, making the accommodation of her beliefs on marriage easy to achieve.
She was bullied and harassed by her colleagues, who accused her of “homophobia,” and her supervisor disclosed details of her case to other employees. The service ignored her concerns and the mistreatment she endured. In court, her supervisor summarized the employer’s position, stating, “I don’t believe that we should be accommodating people’s religious beliefs in the Registry Service.” Ultimately she was forced out of her job.
McFarlane worked as a relationship counselor for a charitable organization. He had previously raised concerns over providing counseling services to homosexual couples, as he thought it might imply endorsement of relationships he conscientiously believed to be wrong. However, after discussing the issue with his supervisor he decided that simply counseling such couples did not involve endorsement.
He did, however, raise objections to counseling homosexual couples suffering only from sexual dysfunction. In October 2007, he “confirmed he had difficulty in dealing with same-sex sexual practices and fulfilling his duty to follow the teaching of the Bible.”
Although he never turned away clients, merely raising the question with his supervisor ultimately led to his dismissal for gross misconduct. Suggestions of ways to accommodate him, such as an internal referral system, were dismissed by the court, which stated that his employer was “entitled to treat the issue as one of principle, in which compromise is inappropriate.”
The other two claimants, Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, were seeking the right to continue wearing a small visible cross in the workplace, something they had both done for years. In Eweida’s case, British Airways introduced a new uniform policy that only permitted employers to wear non-uniform items for “mandatory religious reasons.” After a public backlash against the airline, it amended the policy but refused to reimburse Eweida for the wages she lost for the time she was sent home without pay for refusing to hide her cross.
Chaplin’s employer, a state hospital, changed the nurses’ uniform by introducing a V-neck tunic, making the wearing of a cross more overt. The employer cited “health and safety” reasons as justification for insisting that she remove the cross, but never provided evidence to suggest what exactly the health and safety issues were.
In January, the European Court found in favor of Eweida, holding that the airline did not have a good reason to limit her right to freedom of religion. However, the court dismissed the cases of the other three claimants, accepting that “health and safety” in the case of Chaplin and “providing a service without discrimination” in the cases of Ladele and McFarlane were legitimate reasons for limiting their freedom of religion. Their cases are now being appealed to the Grand Chamber of the Court.
Similar battles between religious believers and their employers are being fought all over Europe. Doctors in Norway face pressure to participate in abortion procedures against their consciences. As Norwegian health minister Robin Kass recently explained, “If you deny a patient contraception or a referral for an abortion, you can’t be a general physician. Doctors have to be ready to do their duty.”
The same is true in Sweden, where the Swedish parliament voted 271 to 20 to condemn a resolution passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that supported the right of conscientious objection for physicians. It noted that the resolution “implies that health care workers should have the possibility to choose not to perform abortions” and stated that the standing committee rejected the resolution and instructed the Swedish delegation to work to change it. The situation is so bad in Sweden that a collective complaint has been launched against Sweden with the European Committee of Social Rights.
In Scotland, two Catholic midwives have taken their hospital employers to court after their manager insisted that they supervise abortion procedures against their will. The court held that the statutory conscience clause for health care providers in the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply to midwives. Their case is now on appeal.
In addition to being privatized in personal relations and in the workplace, Christianity is being privatized in the marketplace. Although this is a relatively new development, several European countries have now passed laws making it unlawful to discriminate in the provision of goods or services.
In the Netherlands, following amendments to the Equal Treatment Act, a company was sued for refusing to make bath towels that advertised an organization which promoted homosexual behavior. The company had made it clear on its website that it would not do any work that it considered blasphemous or offensive to the morals of the company. Although the company eventually won its case, business owners in the United Kingdom have been less successful.
Following the introduction of various pieces of anti-discrimination legislation—which, among other things, prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation—guesthouse owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull were successfully sued by a same-sex couple for refusing to provide a double-bedded room. Since 1986 the Bulls have had a policy that “as Christians we have a deep regard for marriage (being the union of one man to one woman for life to the exclusion of all others). Therefore, although we extend to all a warm welcome to our home, our double-bedded accommodation is not available to unmarried couples—Thank you.”
The British courts found this policy discriminatory, and their small guesthouse, operated from within their own home, now faces closure. Other guesthouses have also been successfully sued for taking a similar position.
While the privatization of faith in the marketplace is still developing, a draft piece of European Union law known as the Equal Treatment Directive will, if passed, drastically increase pressure on business owners, forcing them to provide goods or services that contravene their consciences on threat of being hauled before the courts if they don’t.
Some of the provisions are highly controversial, even for Europe. For example, the proposed directive prohibits “harassment” in the provision of goods and services, which has the vague definition of “unwanted conduct . . . with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person and of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment.”
The directive also mandates that the nations create “bodies for the promotion of equal treatment” to bring about this “equality.” In the United Kingdom, which has voluntarily adopted many of the provisions of the directive, it was an equality body that launched the litigation against the Christian guesthouse owners mentioned above.
Although the proposal has been stalled for nearly five years, it could be resurrected at any moment. Future litigation is therefore very much a possibility.
So difficult is the situation becoming that the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have now recognized the trend and have held workshops on the subject of intolerance and discrimination against Christians. It may not be too long before persecution is the word being used to describe the phenomenon.
Paul Coleman is legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom at its office in Vienna, Austria.