There have been more developments since my recent post about nurse Caroline Petrie. Cath and I have exchanged some discussion on our respective blogs, but I feel that there is enough new material to merit a separate post - largely to clear things up a little.
So here's where we stand:
There is the case of the nurse, Caroline Petrie, who offered to pray for a patient and, as a result, faced disciplinary action. And more recently, there is the case of a school receptionist, Jennie Cain, whose daughter was told off for discussing her religion with a classmate. (There are other incidents mentioned alongside these, but it is these two news items that seem central to the current discussion, so I'll limit myself to them.)
On the fact of it - with just those claims - Cath is right that these seem to be outrageous cases of religious discrimination.
But then you dig deeper.
According to the Telegraph, Caroline Petrie has a history of promoting her religion at work. Before a previous reprimand, she used to leave prayer cards with patients. Now, a clear case of overstepping the line would be pushing religious tracts on patients. Do prayer cards count as religious tracts? I'd say yes, but that may be a matter of taste. Also, as I mentioned in my previous post, she is not being asked to check her religion at the door. She is just being given guidelines - which seem reasonable to me - about when it's appropriate to bring religion into her role as a medical carer. For example, wait for the patient to ask for prayer, rather than pro-actively offering it.
I understand that prayer is important to Mrs. Petrie (and Cath and other Christians who identify with her). And I'm willing to concede that perhaps the employer's rule is more restrictive than it really needs to be to protect the patients. But calling it religious discrimination - particularly, saying that Christianity is being singled out - is unsupported by the available facts. The course of the case is nicely summed up in a sequence of clips from BBC here, where it is made clear that the trust has also acknowledged the need to respect the spiritual needs of patients. Mrs. Petrie has been fully reinstated with no further disciplinary action.
The Jennie Cain case also takes on a different tone when we look deeper. The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Christian Institute all claim that the catalyst in the case was a young girl "talking about Jesus". Innocuous enough, but the Express and Echo paper points out that the girl was threatening her classmate with hell if she didn't believe in God. Now, there are a lot of ways that even that topic might have come across, but you have to acknowledge that eternal suffering is a pretty horrible idea to be sharing with a young child - particularly one who hasn't been exposed to all the Christian background that is said to soften and justify it. Furthermore, those crying discrimination are deciding to ignore head teacher Gary Read's take on things - both that he felt the girl's claim was hurtful to the other child, and that his response was gentle and proportionate. The Express and Echo also reports that parents are supporting Mr. Read on this issue. Check out this BBC video, presenting both sides:
Mr. Read says, "Whether it's considered to be private or not, the fact ... that a member of our staff was making quite serious allegations about the way the school was dealing with things which weren't true." Weren't true. Could it be that Mrs. Cain is actually in trouble because she was slandering the school? That certainly changes the tone of things. And here's what he says he told the girl: "What you said has upset another child and frightened her, so I don't want you to say that." Which seems reasonable, and in no way anti-Christian (or even generally anti-religious). Cath points out that belief in hell is pretty basic to most Christians' belief. Fair enough - but one's beliefs do not give one licence to threaten or upset other children. It's okay for a teacher to ask a child not to frighten other children. To say that religious statements should have a special exemption from this - that would be religious discrimination.
Of course, there is more to this case. Mrs. Cain sent a personal e-mail to friends at her church, not from a school computer, which was apparently obtained by the head teacher and is being used as justification for disciplinary action. The head teacher says that Mrs. Cain was making inappropriate allegations against the school in the e-mail, but the Christian commenters claim (or, in some cases, simply insinuate) that it was obtained inappropriately; if so, they are right in saying that its content is irrelevant.
So, in sum, we have what may be an innocent comment from a child that was mercilessly suppressed, or may be an insensitive comment from a child that was dealt with gently. We have a private e-mail that may have been obtained through shady means (though we aren't given enough details to know this), which may have been a simple plea for help and prayers, and may have been a slanderous diatribe. Out of this mess (which I have spent a reasonable amount of time sorting through), I do not think we can confidently assert persecution.
I am trying very hard to avoid the dismissive and completely unsympathetic tone set by another non-religious commentator. I take very seriously my "Friendly Humanist" name. But the balance of evidence in these two cases - Caroline Petrie and Jennie Cain - does not seem to justify the claims of systematic anti-Christian prejudice that are being made.
It may be that, as more facts emerge, the current uncertainties in these cases will be resolved in the direction of discrimination. It may be, but I doubt it.
Because the UK is a Christian country.
Demographically, more people identify as Christian than anything else. Politically, we have a parliament that privileges Christian beliefs and practices above others. Socially, we have a landscape dominated by Christian holidays, Christian landmarks, and Christian language.
I'm not trying to claim here that I'm being discriminated against. (Except for the political bit - but that's a topic for another time.) I'm just trying to let my Christian colleagues out there in the ether see why these cases are less than compelling as evidence that the world, or particular instances of British bureaucracy, are against them.