Last week a representative of the Evangelical Alliance Wales wrote a long and rather sinister comment on Caebrwyn's blog (here) in response to a story about Carmarthenshire County Council's decision to vote through yet more funding to prop up Towy Community Church's bowling alley project - a project which could before long see council taxpayers in Carmarthenshire going into the church building business..
There is no doubt that the highly critical analysis of the county council's involvement with the church both on Caebrwyn's blog and here has angered the church and the various organisations to which it has links. It appears that both of our blogs have attracted a great deal of interest from the Evangelical Alliance in particular, with many hours spent combing our posts, presumably trying to find evidence of defamation.
Mr Stewart, speaking on behalf of the Evangelical Alliance, makes some very big claims for the evangelical movement. He boasts that there are now probably more evangelical Christians in Wales than there are Anglicans, and he says that worldwide there are 600 million people who share this religious outlook. He also points out that evangelicals have a long history in Wales, although it is fair to say that in the long run of Welsh history the hundred or so years when Welsh life was dominated by this brand of religion was a mere blip.
Although there were some positive by-products of the religious revivals and the chapel culture, such as literacy and the survival of the Welsh language; the social repression, tyrannical sour-faced deacons and small-mindedness which characterised life for many people in Wales during that period are, thank God, things of the past. Attendance at places of religious worship has been in sharp decline for a long time, and the latest figures from the British Social Attitudes Survey (link here) show that nearly two thirds (64%) of people in the 18-24 age group do not belong to any religion. Across the UK as a whole, only 14% of people from all religions attend a place of worship regularly, and according to Gweini, another evangelical organisation, the figure for Carmarthenshire is now just 9%.
So contrary to the picture which Mr Stewart paints, evangelicals are a minority within a small minority in our society. But there is no shortage of evangelical groups, many of which have links to Towy Community Church, which are dedicated to increasing their influence in all levels of government. Gweini recommends using known Christian council chief executives as one the the most effective routes to influence within a council, for example.
Mr Stewart says in his comment that he finds some of Caebrwyn's comments defamatory and adds, "of course churches that provide public services, which will be the case with Towy Community Church, now have legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of such beliefs."
It is not clear from Mr Stewart's statement whether he is here making a veiled threat to bring action against Caebrwyn for making remarks which he considers to be discriminatory, or whether he is referring to a court ruling which upheld the rights of religious groups to continue to discriminate against groups they don't like.
Either way, his comments are alarming to anyone who believes in free speech and that it is wrong to discriminate against people on the grounds of religion, sex, race or "lifestyle".
On its website, the Evangelical Alliance makes no bones about its political ambitions, and it is involved in campaigning on a range of issues, including opposition to civil partnerships and same-sex marriage in Scotland, and in favour of teaching creationism and "intelligent design" in schools. It asks its readers to report instances where they believe councils have rejected applications for funding by faith groups, and it highlights a ruling by the Court of Appeal this year in which the court decided that volunteers in activities run by religious groups were not protected by equalities legislation. Here is what the Alliance has to say, in welcoming the ruling:
Of course, Christian charities will seek to do all they can to treat fairly and in an honourable way those people who voluntarily give considerable time and energy in support of their work. However, sometimes difficult issues and questions arise. What if volunteers don't share your faith? What if you don't agree with their lifestyle choices? What if they have a disability which makes it impractical to allow them to volunteer?
Subsequent to the above case [involving a disabled woman, ed.], the courts have again confirmed that genuine volunteers are not protected by discrimination law and do not have the right to bring claims for unfair dismissal. This does not imply a green light for discrimination against volunteers however. Solicitors Anthony Collins recently defended a claim against a Christian charity by a man who had been rejected from volunteering on the grounds that they understood he was in a sexually active homosexual relationship. He argued that he was working under a contract to personally perform work because he received accommodation and food as a result of his volunteering, and therefore was protected by employment legislation. The charity argued, among other points, that these were provided to enable him to perform the functions he had volunteered for, not as a benefit. In the light of the earlier decision by the Court of Appeal the charity felt reasonably confident of its position and the claims against it were eventually withdrawn.
The Alliance goes on to warn its members to be very careful not to create contractual relationships with volunteers unwittingly because contractual relationships are protected by the law. What nice people. It would seem that the unnamed Christian charity heard rumours that one of their volunteers was in a gay relationship and not only banned him from volunteering, but also threw him out onto the streets.
And it's OK, these ambassadors of Christ say, to discriminate against people from other religions, against people who are disabled or because the way they live their lives does not accord with the rule book (single parents, women who have had abortions or who "live in sin" might all fall into this category).
So the Good News is that equalities legislation is being used by evangelicals and other religious fundamentalists (who all claim to be "mainstream") as a double edged sword both to attack their critics and clamp down on perceived discrimination against euphemistically named "faith groups", while continuing their centuries old tradition of persecuting other minority groups.