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21 June 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 7:04am

Trevor Phillips plays God

The trouble with religious discrimination

By Nelson Jones

Trevor Phillips seems to have upset everyone with remarks he made to the Sunday Telegraph about the religious discrimination aspect of his wide-ranging brief as head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

The Evangelical Alliance objected to what it called his “patronising and disparaging” characterisation of traditional Christians (many from an Afro-Caribbean background) as politically-motivated homophobes — “activist voices who appear bent on stressing the kind of persecution that I don’t think really exists in this country.” The Alliance accused the EHCR of “actively taking sides against them”, and forcing “hard-pressed Christians to feel they have no option but to defend themselves.”

Yet Phillips’s remarks about religion itself were much warmer. He suggested that “faith identity is part of what makes life richer and more meaningful for the individual”, asserted that “our business is defending the believer” and criticised “fashionable” anti-religious polemic associated with the likes of Richard Dawkins. He also claimed that “religious identity is an essential part of this society. It’s an essential element of being a fulfilled human being.”

These comments propted a formal complaint from the British Humanist Association, which accused Phillips of of making “heavily biased remarks in favour of religious people and against the non-religious” and “belittling non-believers”. It also suggested that the comments “run counter to the commission’s responsibilities to protect the human right to freedom of speech.”

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So is Trevor Phillips the high priest of illiberal securalism? Or does he want to be a “defender of faith”, like Prince Charles?

The interview was supposedly trailing an EHRC document, described by the Telegraph as “a landmark report on religious discrimination in Britain.” The reference seems to be to a research report hidden away in an obscure corner of the Commission’s website, unheralded by any press release. It was compiled by Professor Paul Weller of the University of Derby, a former Baptist minister who was briefly one of John Denham’s panel of 13 inter-faith advisers in the dying days of the Labour government.

The report is largely concerned with questions of definition and evidence: what does the phrase “religious discrimination” mean, how prevalent is it, is it increasing or decreasing and does the way discrimination law is developing reflect the actual experience of people who feel religiously discriminated against?

This is a relatively new area and implementation of the law — most recently in the Equality Act of 2010 — is in some ways running ahead of a public consensus. Figures quoted in the report suggest a fairly widespread belief that religious discrimination exists and is increasing, but a relatively small proportion of people (no more than 2%) who claim to have personally experienced it.

In the Telegraph, Phillips made the controversial statement that “the most likely victim of actual religious discrimination in British society is a Muslim but the person who is most likely to feel slighted because of their religion is an evangelical Christian”. This does not appear to be true: the report reveals that a considerably higher proportion of Muslims than members of other religions (including Hindus and Sikhs as well as Christians) believe — rightly or wrongly — that they have been discriminated against because of their faith. Possibly they bring fewer cases before the courts under discrimination law. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t tell us. It does tell us is that there are relatively few religious discrimination cases brought, and that of those that go to trial only a handful are upheld.

What is true is that the majority of cases that have attracted a high media profile have been brought by Christians, sometimes on grounds of free expression. Examples include claiming the right to wear or display a cross at work, the right to discuss religion in a professional setting (such as a doctor or a nurse wanting to pray with a patient) or the right to preach against homosexuality. Other well-known cases have been brought against evangelical Christians by, for example, gay couples wishing to stay in Christian-run guesthouses. These cases have sometimes been brought with the support of the EHRC, which is partly why groups like the Evangelical Alliance are so suspicious of the body.

When Phillips claims that it’s his job to “defend the believer”, he seems to be implying that it’s not his job to defend the belief. And indeed it isn’t. There’s a big difference between discriminating against someone because they happen to be a member of a particular religious group and allowing them to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against other people. The law rightly recognises this.

Things aren’t always so neat, however. Religions are belief-systems which entail moral convictions about public as well as private behaviour. It is about far more than mere identity — at least, it is in the mind of the believer.

It’s no accident that sexuality has become the major battleground in all this. Nothing represents more starkly the change in moral attitudes that has come about in society — a change that has left many traditional believers (not only Christians) bewildered. They used to represent the majority. Perhaps they think they still do. Certainly you’ll often find them stressing the Christian heritage of this country, setting it against the new-fangled morality promulgated by a secular liberal elite.

Yet they also claim for Christians a minority status, which they need in order to prove that they are being discriminated against. At times, they seem to be advocating a new sort of identity politics, in which Christians (or just fundamentalist evangelical Christians) as a self-designated minority group demand rights and special privileges.

The problem is that by introducing the concept of religious discrimination the law has handed them a potent weapon. Fringe evangelical pressure groups like the Christian Institute or Christian Concern paint themselves as the victims of the culture of political correctness, and to an extent they are. But where once they had little recourse besides whinging in the Daily Mail, equality law provides them with as many opportunities as threats. Without the anti-discrimination culture they so dislike they wouldn’t be able to bring their vexatious claims in the first place. In a culture of competing victimhoods, religious exceptionalists and their secular, relativising opponents, mutually loathing though they may be, both have much to gain by claiming their share of “rights”.