Posted: 2 December 2016
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations..." (Matthew 28:19, ESV)
What laws should our churches be aware of when using social media to broadcast sermons, when advertising services or when speaking from the pulpit about a controversial topic like same-sex marriage? What protections are there for Christians who wish to share their faith at work, distribute leaflets in the town centre or invite non-Christians into their homes to share the gospel? The Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, working in conjunction with the Evangelical Alliance, has produced "Speak Up", a guide exploring gospel freedoms and the law.
Encouragingly, the report was endorsed on Wednesday by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, who said at PMQs:
"I'm happy to welcome the publication of this report and its finding. Of course we are now into the season of Advent, and we have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of. I'm sure that we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith, and also be able to speak quite freely about Christmas."
(The clip of the Prime Minister endorsing Speak Up can be seen at https://t.co/zV7kroJS3r)
As Christian lawyers we must be familiar with these issues to help our church leaders and our brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom do not understand the protection that the law gives. There is a danger that without our support Christians will self-censor, becoming fearful as a result of misleading headlines about the arrest of a street preacher or the dismissal of an employee for sharing their beliefs in the workplace.
Read on if you want to equip the Church to wisely and unashamedly share the good news of Jesus!
Make disciples of all nations
When Jesus met for a final time with his disciples before ascending into heaven he exhorted them to do as he had done and "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). Our saviour's death was as public as could be imagined: laid bare on an exposed tree on top of a hill in front of a hostile crowd. His resurrection was also public: many met with or saw him before he ascended to heaven. In the face of such visible sacrifice from the son of God how could we keep private the forgiveness and freedom that his death and resurrection has brought us?
But if we want our witness to be front and centre of our lives, we must also heed the biblical call for wisdom in how we do this. The aim is not to bludgeon people with the gospel nor to provoke legal challenge by antagonistic moralising. The aim is to see people enter the kingdom of God. Speak Up provides practical tips about sharing the gospel in the workplace, in public and elsewhere, designed to help us generate light, not heat, when sharing our faith.
Insights from Speak Up
To whet your appetite, here are a few insights, sampled from Speak Up:
- The Public Order Act 1986 was amended in 2014 to provide greater protection for freedom of speech. The Act includes an explicit free speech clause which protects "proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system";
- Under Part 3 of the Equality Act 2010 it is unlawful for a private venue to discriminate against Christians by refusing to offer its services or by offering its services on less favourable terms than it would offer them to non-Christians. So a conference facility could not agree to hire a room to a church on condition that the church refrained from discussing controversial topics on the premises if a similar rule was not imposed on others. Even if a similar rule was imposed on others it might still amount to unlawful indirect discrimination;
- In Chambers v DPP  EWHC 2157 (Admin) the High Court declined to censor a twitter message, pointing out that laws regulating electronic communications left "quite undiminished" the right to express "unpopular or unfashionable opinion";
- The European Court of Human Rights has affirmed the importance of the freedom to speak about faith in the workplace. The Court referred to "the value to an individual who has made religion a central tenet of his or her life to be able to communicate that belief to others" (Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom 15 January 2013);
- Religious beliefs have protection that other beliefs do not. If you are expressing an opinion that is informed by your Christian beliefs, you have greater legal protection than if it is simply expressed as your opinion on a topic;
- The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 specifically prevents local authorities from limiting the distribution of free printed material "for the purposes of a religion or belief";
- In re Kirk Session of Sandown Free Presbyterian Church  NIQB 26 the High Court in Northern Ireland re-affirmed the freedom to use, publicly, texts from the Bible, stating that "If the applicant is prohibited or materially inhibited in the advertisement, from articulating their religious conviction and call to bear witness by reference to the very scripture that underpins it, that restriction, from their perspective, can appear like a form of censorship"; and
- The Public Order Act 1986 does apply to words or behaviour in a private dwelling but there are additional exceptions and defences in the Act which mean that something which would be an offence if stated in public may not be unlawful if stated in the home.
1. Read Speak Up: http://www.eauk.org/current-affairs/speak-up-a-brief-guide.cfm
2. Tell your church leadership about Speak Up.
3. Put it into practice. Why not invite friends and colleagues to carol services this Christmas season?
Romans 10:14 says "And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?". C H Spurgeon pithily summarised that "a Christian is either a missionary or an imposter". As Christian lawyers we, more than any, know about the freedom our laws provide to share the good news of Jesus Christ. We should also know well the importance of presenting our beliefs persuasively, gently, cogently and lovingly. When opposition is faced we can say with the early Christians: "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness" (Acts 4:29).