When the church runs welfare

Freedom of religion is a noble ideal. Historically, it is the freedom from which other freedoms flowed: freedom of thought and conscience was first defined, by philosophers like John Locke, as freedom to believe, in opposition to the age-old supposition of kings and governments that they could require the religious adherence of their subjects. Establishing freedom of religion in law, originally in Virginia, was Thomas Jefferson's proudest achievement, and when the US Bill of Rights came to be drafted the freedom of religious observance from government control was given pride of place. Today, the list of countries where religious freedom is most curtailed is a close match for those least free in other ways, with Saudi Arabia and North Korea vying for the top spot.

Like all freedoms, though, it is one that properly belongs to individuals. When institutions demand freedom for themselves there can be a danger that it comes to the detriment of the rights and freedoms of others. We should be particularly concerned when churches and other manifestations of organised religion insist, in the name of religious liberty, on exemptions from laws that apply to others. Conscience must be respected, but not unfair privilege. In the United States, Catholic bishops used the freedom of religion argument to campaign against a measure giving their employees access to contraception as part of workers' health insurance packages. Because the Roman Catholic church officially disapproves of contraception, they argued (largely successfully) that the rights of even non-Catholic employees should count for less than that of the institution. The argument did not even concern the consciences of individual bishops, priests or school or hospital administrators. It was about the "conscience" of the church itself.

And it's not just in the United States, a country which for all the constitutional separation of church of state remains by European standards highly religious, that such problems can arise. Modern Germany, like the UK, is largely secular. Nevertheless, churches continue to wield huge interest in many areas of life and do so largely funded by public funds. It's not "establishment" in the C of E sense of bishops in Parliament, but something in many ways stronger and more far-reaching. Germans who don't formally declare themselves non-religious have to pay taxes to support of their church. If they choose to opt out, they lose any right to a religious wedding or funeral. And even then they may find themselves using public services paid for by the state but supplied by churches and subject to religious authority.

The Roman Catholic Church alone is the second-largest employer in the country, after the government, involved not only in education but in some cases in the provision of basic healthcare. In some parts of Germany, according to a report in Der Spiegel, the Catholic Church operates a near monopoly on social provision, catering for people from kindergarten to nursing home. Spiegel describes this world of church-run institutions as "a state within a state; a cosmos subject to its own rules, which are monitored by the pope and his bishops; and a world in which federal, state and local governments have little say."

It dictates the kind of life its doctors, educators, teachers and cleaning women are allowed to lead. It determines how children are raised. And it also decides -- on its own authority -- how patients are to be treated or, in some cases, turned away.

Your local hospital might well be one of the 420 run by the Catholic church. In one shocking case from Cologne, doctors at two hospitals run by an order of nuns turned away a rape victim, apparently because it was feared that she might need the morning after pill (thus tampering with evidence, perhaps). In fact, the medication had already been prescribed by her doctor. The action was in accordance with the church's principled opposition to anything that might be construed as abortion, but as a source from a women's emergency hotline put it, "a woman who has been raped needs comprehensive assistance right away. She can't simply be turned away for religious reasons in the middle of treatment and consultation." If a hospital can't provide the full range of services its patients might require, it's not doing its job properly. If the Catholic Church can't in conscience cater to rape victims in need of treatment, it should get out of the health business.

But far from being a relic of a bygone era, like faith-based education in Britain, faith-based social provision is expanding in Germany. There are almost ten times as many Germans directly employed by church institutions as there were in 1950, even as the proportion of the population attending services has declined, as it has in the rest of Europe. To a large extent this is the result of a policy of government outsourcing, which in the UK has tended to favour large companies like Serco and Capita. The report notes that "since doctors, educators and caregivers often have no alternative to working for Catholic organizations, they are forced to comply with their guidelines." Employees of church organisations who get divorced, who use IVF or even merely "express sympathetic views toward homosexuality" can find themselves out of a job; German courts "have repeatedly upheld the historical special status of religious orders." This seems very different to the approach of UK courts, who have for example repeatedly ruled against Catholic-run adoption agencies who wished to decline same-sex couples.

Do we really want to see German- or American-style "faithfare" in Britain? Thus far, leaving aside the recent expansion in faith schools (though that is an issue in itself) it has largely been avoided. But for how much longer? This week Demos, once New Labour's favourite think-tank, brought out a slim report urging local authorities to make more use of the "faith sector" in areas such as employment, drug rehabilitation and youth work. Jonathan Birdwell's report Faithful Providers laments the "squeamishness" shown by some councils, complaining that despite the government's Big Society rhetoric, "faith-based providers have seen little uplift in opportunity, often being overlooked due to local authorities’ fears that they might discriminate or proselytise to service users."

Birdwell accepts the assurances offered by the groups he spoke to that they are motivated by humanitarian concerns rather than a desire to proselytise, even though some admitted that they didn't proselytise because local authority rules strictly forbade it. In fact, he thinks the rules are too strict: there is "nothing wrong with service providers openly discussing their faith" with clients who are willing to listen. As for discriminating in employment, for example by favouring co-religionists, Demos seems entirely comfortable with this: "while some organisations spoke about hiring members of their own faith exclusively as employees, we argue that this practice is not discriminatory."

The report is part of a project by a committee chaired by the former Labour minister Stephen Timms and funded by the Bill Hill Trust, an evangelical organisation whose primary objective is "the advancement of the Christian religion." On the right, meanwhile, the same line has been pushed strongly by the likes of Eric Pickles and Baroness Warsi. Part of it comes down to money. In an era of funding cuts, there's an obvious temptation to use people prepared to work long hours for less, or even no, pay to provide social services. If God will provide, after all, the taxpayer has less need to.Demos makes much of the "value for money" and potential "cost efficiencies" offered by faith providers , whose "faith service ethos" it compares to the altruistic motivation fondly attributed to public sector workers in the Leftie imagination. (But public sector workers need pensions and employment protection, and certainly aren't doing it for the love of God.)

Faithfare worked in the 19th century, when groups like the Salvation Army emerged to provide services that the state did not. But society then was much more religious, and few people saw a conflict between religious indoctrination and social welfare provision. If religious charities distingiuished between the deserving and undeserving poor, at least the deserving poor were getting some help. That was progress. Today? Well, perhaps there are some areas where the use of "faith providers" might be justified by pragmatism if not by principle. Drug rehabilitation may be one such. Drug users are typically damaged people with addictive and self-destructive personalities; God can provide a good substitute for the crutch offered by narcotics, and born-again Christians, on balance, are less socially problematic than junkies. Charismatic religion and drugs can produce similar highs. But acknowledging this would require, not just permit, full-scale proselytising of addicts; and this is something that not even Demos seems to envisage.

Interestingly, the strongest criticism of Birdwell's proposals has come from the Left-wing Christian think-tank Ekklesia. Simon Barrow criticises the report's "predominantly functionalist language and assumptions" and worries that Christians might find themelselves "sucked into the role of patching up and rendering workable a system that is based on accepting some fundamentally unacceptable inequalities and imbalances." He would prefer them to exercise a "prophetic" role by condemning government cuts.

Barrow also fears that the religious discrimination already allowed to faith schools could be extended to welfare services. "Imagine a hospital run by groups that reserved the right to give priority treatment to members of their own communities," he writes. That's unlikely, but you don't have to imagine the possibility of a hospital refusing basic treatment to patients based on the theological opinions of its religious overseers. You just need to go to Germany.


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