Monday, March 16, 2009

BHA Vice President joins Commons debate on Christianity

source: highlights comments

Mar 122009 BHA Vice President joins Commons debate on Christianity

BHA Vice President Dr Evan Harris MP joined a debate in Parliament yesterday on ‘Christianity in Public Life’, where he called for a ‘line to be drawn’ when people’s religious beliefs interfere with the rights of others.

Dr Harris was the only MP in the debate to speak from a non-religious point of view and he touched on a range on subjects, from shared values to discrimination by Christian public servants.

Dr Harris began with setting out the non-religious position, that there should be no discrimination to prevent people of religion from playing a role in public life. He said, ‘Should Christian values play a role in public life? Yes, they should, of course, in the battle of ideas, just as any others should, whether humanist, socialist or conservative, because we base our policies and moral standpoints on values.
Whether there should be a monopoly for one set of values I very much doubt. Some countries have such a monopoly, whether through political dictatorship or theocracy, and we know that in theocracies some groups, such as women and gay people, do very badly. That is predictable and identifiable.’

Dr Harris then went on to discuss how there is continuing privilege for religion, ‘The privileging of religion, which I oppose, would be to allow religious organisations that deliver public services to discriminate against their employees when they were delivering such a public service… I am talking about the people who provide the soup kitchens, shelters, and so forth. They should not be discriminated against on religious grounds, and we should not give money to organisations that discriminate against gay people or people of religion when delivering public service. They should not discriminate against service users on religious grounds. They should not have the right to do that, and should not be allowed to proselytise on the state, as it were, using public funding, or while delivering a public service.’

After being challenged to discuss the appropriateness of religious service providers offering pray to their service users, Dr Harris spoke on the recent case of Nurse Petrie, arguing that it was inappropriate for someone in her position to offer to pray for her patient. He said, ‘She was a district nurse in a position of responsibility, going into a patient’s home. Doctors and nurses in that situation are performing a function as a doctor or nurse and their primary responsibility is to their patient, who is in a vulnerable position. As I understand it, there had been a series of complaints against Nurse Petrie, not just one. It is very unusual for an elderly person receiving district nursing care to think to complain unless something pretty obvious has happened. What took place had happened more than once. It was inappropriate, and I believe that the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the General Medical Council would also argue that
it is inappropriate for a person delivering care to say, “Would you like to pray with me?”… A medical professional employed by the NHS or any other body needs to have a clear boundary, otherwise there is a feeling of pressure being put on someone.’

Further clarifying the point, Dr Harris stated,
‘There is a balance of rights and freedoms and we have to be aware that people feel strongly about their religion. But a line should be drawn. People should be allowed to practise and manifest their belief as long as it does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others and where it does the state has a role to protect the freedoms of others from discrimination—even well-meaning discrimination in the name of religion.’

Responding to the debate, Iain Wright MP, Minister for Communities and Local Government said,
‘I am not suggesting for one minute that humane values and good works are the preserve of religious people. Humanist non-believers such as Bertrand Russell have a proud record of service, too’.


Read the full text of the debate here.

The BHA briefed MPs ahead of the debate; read the briefing here.

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