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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Public services

Public services that are intended for the whole community, especially those funded by public money, should be provided in a secular context, open to all, without discriminating against anyone on grounds of religion and belief – either the people who are served or employed.

The trend towards handing such services over to religious control must be stopped, and the NSS is working to ensure that Faith Based Welfare does not impose religious conditions on service provision.

Public services have traditionally been provided by secular local authorities and other public bodies that served everyone. These public bodies are subject to equality laws and may not discriminate against the people they serve or the people they employ. Despite claims that religion will not impinge on welfare or employment, religiously-backed organisations have already shown that they will demand exemptions from discrimination laws – and they did during the passage of the Equality Act.

We acknowledge that some faith-based groups have carried out social service provision without proselytising, discriminating or imposing values but we have two main concerns about religious groups taking over public service provision: proselytising and discrimination.

Organisations that run a local homeless charity, youth group or health initiative (for example) could claim that the service offered is purely to help the local community and has no religious ambition while at the same time promoting their beliefs and values, whether at a low-level (for example posters, leaflets, religious texts, conversations) or more aggressively.

Religiously-based moral judgments around, for example, drug use, sexuality or start and end of life issues must be prevented from infiltrating the provision of services or the treatment of both those served and employed. In addition, religious views in the area of sexual health and fertility – contraception, morning after pill, HPV vaccine and abortion, for example – must not be imposed on people using the groups' services.

In some cases, people may not feel able to object in case they lose the services or they may not be able to express their objection (for example, there may be language barriers, cultural pressure, literacy or mental health issues).

People who need a service may not approach an organisation if it has the reputation of promoting a religion; if this group is the only one providing a service in that community, people who feel excluded, judged by, or even fearful of, the group's ethos, will be seriously disadvantaged.

There is an additional threat to community cohesion. Religious communities themselves are not homogenous but represent a spectrum of beliefs and practices so allowing a religious group to run a service could even disadvantage members of its own religion.

The second concern is for people who may not be hired or promoted or may be otherwise discriminated against if they are of the 'wrong' religion, not 'religious enough' or not religious at all, or if their lifestyle doesn't fit the organisations' ethos (gay, divorced, single parents, for example).

We are concerned that the Localism Act will greatly increase the number of public services provided by religious groups and that this has the potential to increase discrimination, disadvantage certain sections of society and be a threat to social cohesion, particularly on a local level.

The Act is part of the Government's Big Society agenda. It gives voluntary and community groups – including religious groups - the right to challenge local authorities over the provision of their services. These could include services for homeless people, youth groups, women's centres, community drop-in or advice centres, health initiatives or services for addicts. The aim of the Big Society is to decentralise power but, by handing it over to religious groups, the Government would effectively be re-centralising it and making religious community leaders the gatekeepers of public funding.

Also see: Faith and social provision don't mix

What are we doing?

In 2011 we expressed our concerns regarding the Localism Bill and local services being handed over to religious groups in meetings with the Department of Communities and Local Government Minister Andrew Stunell.

We will continue to monitor the situation and lobby the Government to remove exemptions given to religious organisations, particularly in the context of the Equality Act 2010.

Find out more