Poll: Christians fear revealing their beliefs in case they are mocked
Christians are increasingly afraid to reveal their religious beliefs because of fear they will be mocked or labelled bigots, equality chiefs have admitted.
A study of 2,500 people across the UK found many Christians feel persecuted and are reluctant to declare their beliefs to colleagues at work.
There are also fears the Christian faith is being pushed out of its role as a cornerstone of life in the rest of the UK.
The findings were revealed in a study carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Ironically, many who took part felt oppressed by the same anti-discrimination laws supported by the equality watchdog.
Commission chief executive Mark Hammond said of the survey: "What came out strongly was the widespread confusion about the law, leading to some resentment and tensions between groups, and anxiety for employers who fear falling foul of what they see as complicated equality and human rights legislation."
He said the commission would produce new guidance to "help everyone address some of the issues".
The Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland last night welcomed the commission's recognition of the concerns.
Peter Lynas, Evangelical Alliance's director in the region, urged equality chiefs here to follow suit.
The commission is currently embroiled in legal action with a Christian-owned bakery. Ashers is being taken to court by the publicly-funded body after refusing to include a slogan 'Support gay marriage' on a cake ordered by a gay activist.
Mr Lynas told the Belfast Telegraph: "We hope the Equality Commission here in Northern Ireland will follow suit, as the way the Ashers case has been handled has been very damaging regardless of the result.
"We need to balance the right to freedom from discrimination with the freedom of religion and belief rather than create a hierarchy in which one trumps the other.
"Evangelical Alliance have been calling for reasonable accommodation for some time where the law recognises mutual respect rather than forcing someone to promote views or condone practices they deeply disagree with. The Equality Commission need to produce a similar report in Northern Ireland and clarify the law for Christians in the workplace, rather than taking people to court to test the law.
"Equality is the idol of the present age and like all idols is illusionary. It is not a bad idea, but when it becomes the sole lens through which a situation is viewed, it leads to perverse results.
"Instead of recognising the human dignity and individuality of each divine image bearer, equality encourages us to consider people on mass - quantifying, categorising and comparing them. In as much as it eliminates the individual it is a betrayal of every person."
Of those who responded to the survey, 1,030 said they were Christian. The next largest group - 188 - were atheist. People of other faiths made up the rest.
The commission's report said: "A recurring theme among some employees was the pressure they felt they were under to keep their religion hidden and feeling discriminated against when it came to wearing religious symbols or expressing their beliefs. This was particularly felt by Christians.
"People reported being mocked for their beliefs, including Christians, who said their colleagues assumed they were bigoted. Some Christian-run businesses said they felt in turmoil about behaving in ways that they feared might breach the Equality Act 2010, which protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in access to goods and services."
The report found widespread confusion about the law, leading to some resentment and tensions between groups, and anxiety for employers who fear falling foul of what they see as complicated equality and human rights legislation.
There were also protests from some humanists and atheists, the report said, including complaints there were no humanist chaplains at hospitals.
'We haven't had any negativity here'
Neil McBride: He-Brews Coffee House
He-Brews Coffee House in Ballymena is Christian-based and is attached to Living Rivers Church in the town.
Manager Neil McBride said its doors were open to everybody within society, but felt not enough is done to support Christians in Northern Ireland.
"Since we opened about 18 months ago we haven't had any negativity," he said.
"Our approach is totally different. We don't see ourselves as a business, it's not about making money. The coffee shop was set up as an outreach of the church.
"We see it as a good way of reaching into the community, of building relationships.
"We are on neutral ground, nobody is ever quite sure what church we are attached to. The reason for that is so any church group or charity feels welcome.
"If somebody came in and asked me to bake a certain cake, I'm sorry I couldn't.
"People talk about discrimination but I think most of that is actually against Christians. It's not that anybody is preaching hatred. People have their morals to live by. We don't agree with the sin, but we love the person."
'Whatever I do, He would come first'
Jonathan Gault: Robert H Gault menswear firm
Jonathan Gault of Robert H Gault's menswear and gift store in Ballymoney said his strong Christian faith is his priority in life.
Mr Gault said he had never considered his religion to have a positive or negative impact on his business.
He said he too backed Ashers in their case with the Equality Commission.
"Whether I'm in retail, whether I'm a car mechanic, no matter what I would do in life, He would come first," Jonathan said.
"Our faith has never been hidden. We, as a family, are what we are.
"It doesn't affect our business either way. If the Equality Commission want to take a case against Ashers Bakery then, surely for equality, they should be funding Ashers' defence.
"People have to have their free rights. I back Ashers 100% and I would back anybody of any faith to stand by their principles and their faith.
"We have had people work for us who are Christians and some who aren't. That wouldn't deter us, we look to who is good for our business. A lot of people know we are Christians and we are saved but I honestly don't think that would take away from business or add to it."