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Over a recent years the Christian Legal Centre have gained a level of prominence by bringing forward high profile cases of alleged discrimination against Christians. In April, they took up the case of electrician Colin Atkinson, who had been told to remove a crucifix from the dashboard of his van, and now they are working with Dr scott, a GP brought before the GMC for discussing his faith with a patient.
It is perhaps understandable that many on the left react to these cases with a degree of cynicism. The Christian Legal Centre doesn’t do itself many favours with its overegged narrative of victimhood, at the hands of what it calls a “politically correct” establishment. Meanwhile, the tabloid press are prone to exagerating and distorting the matters in question. Yet it is a mistake to see these cases simply in terms of secularism versus religion. These cases raise bigger, and far more interesting, questions about the nature of work, and the rights of the employed.
The electrician, Colin Atkinson, found himself in trouble after a tenant – presumably a rather sensitive sole – complained about having to see the crucifix in his van. His employer- a housing association – rejected clams of discrimination arguing that Colin “had failed to comply with company policy, which bans employees from displaying personal items in vans”. Well, why shouldn’t they? After all middle class service sector workers get personalise their workspace. And this van is where Colin spends many of his working hours. Yes it could be displayed more discreetly – and indeed that was what was agreed. But is it so bizarre, or unreasonable, that somebody should want to express themselves while ”on the job”? Must work involve a negation of the personality?
Admittedly, some people might not like what the crucifix symbolizes. But if, like one tenant, they feel compelled to file a complaint about it, then they should really consider whether they are fit to be part of a pluralistic adult community. After all, in an open and democratic society, encountering ideas that grate on you is part of life.
The case of Dr Richard Scott is a little more complex – the doctor accused of “harassment” for talking about god, after asking permission to do so. There are obviously situations of intense vulnerability in which lines ought to be drawn. If a doctor sought to convert me on my deathbed I would probably urinate in his face, and blame it on my degraded kidney function. Yet I cannot acceptthe blanket assertion by the General Medical Council that “doctors should not normally discuss their personal beliefs with patients unless those beliefs are directly relevant to the patient’s care” – a statement reminiscent of schoolteachers asking chatty students what last nights Eastenders has to do with their work. It is not reasonable or necessary that the provision of services should be so divorced from normal human interaction – wherein people talk, people have values and ideas, and people sometimes talk about their values and ideas.
The vision of work promoted by the national secular society reads like a clock-watching industrialists wet dream. “A doctor’s personal religious beliefs, however deeply held, are not medical care and clearly should not become part of the service they provide to the community…The duty of care that a doctor or other medical practitioners have towards patients does not include proselytising.” Neither the doctor, nor anybody else, have claimed that discussing god was part of his “duty of care”. Thus one can only conclude that in the NSS’s view, workers on the job should be expected to abstain from any conversation that doesn’t directly constitute work.
Not only does this approach dehumanise work. It also infantilises service users – deeming them unable to cope with words they don’t want to hear, in other words, with the normal debris of human interaction. When I encounter a public servant – whether on a visit to the doctor or whatever – I might want to engage in a conversation which isn’t scripted by the GMC. If this means opening myself up to the possibility of hearing about Jesus, then this is a risk that I, and I would imagine most people not in a position of particular vulnerability, are prepared to take.
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