By Matthew Barrett
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Eric Pickles' brief can be a deceptively broad one. It seems rather incongruous that he should spend half of his time on seemingly narrow tasks like trying to get local councils to cut out waste and be more efficient at providing public services, and the other half of his time on "Communities" – ie religion.
However, his department has taken note of the latter set of responsibilities. I recall Bob Neill, who left the DCLG in the reshuffle last week, responding to a trouble-making Labour question about Christmas celebrations in 2010, saying "the new Administration is committed to celebrating Christmas, including its Christian heritage. We should not allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christmas and the importance of the birth of Christ.".
So it is that the responsibility of defending Christianity in Britain has fallen to Eric Pickles, who writes for the Daily Telegraph this morning. He has two fronts on which to fight: firstly, European courts attacking the right for Christians to wear symbols like the crucifix at work. This fight is not helped by the Government's own lawyers arguing that Christians do not have their rights violated by having religious symbols banned, because they can simply find another job. Mr Pickles writes:
"Banning discreet religious symbols for reasons of political correctness is not acceptable. We should challenge the nonsense that religious displays could “cause offence” and therefore should be hidden from view. The Government’s opposition to a European Court of Human Rights challenge on crucifixes should not be misinterpreted as supporting secularism: rather, we are resisting Brussels interference and gold-plating of what should be a matter for common sense."
However, Mr Pickles rejects language about the oppression of Christianity in Britain, which he sees as overblown, saying: "To suggest that Christians in our country are literally persecuted would be to demean the suffering of those around the world facing repression, imprisonment and death."
The other front on which Eric Pickles must defend British Christians is against Nick Clegg, whose plans to redefine marriage have many Christians feeling marginalised. Mr Pickles calls on Mr Clegg to "explicitly address" Christian concerns about his marriage plans:
"I recognise that the Government’s consultation on equal civil marriage has created a strong reaction from many in religious circles. In particular, there are legitimate fears of European Court of Human Rights challenges and churches being forced down the line to conduct such ceremonies against their wishes. These concerns need to be explicitly addressed in any legislative reform to provide safeguards against such coercion."
Elsewhere in his article, Mr Pickles says Christians "have the right to be heard by policy-makers", and lists the pro-Christian measures the Government has taken:
- "We have funded the Near Neighbours programme, working with the Church Urban Fund and its parish network to build stronger communities."
- "We have resisted a legal challenge by the intolerant National Secular Society to ban town hall prayers."
- "We have changed the law to safeguard and entrench the right of councillors to pray at the start of council meetings should they wish, as has been the British tradition for centuries."
Overall, Mr Pickles sounds like he is trying to reach out to Christian voters and assure them that the blue half of the Coalition shares their values. He doesn't equivocate or confuse things by attempting to seeing both points of view – he simply addresses Christian concerns. Perhaps this is a subtle post-reshuffle shift – attempting to shore up conservative-minded Christians, a group the Tories desperately need if they are to win in 2015. If so, Mr Pickles could have a word with William Hague and Justine Greening, to press the case for "those around the world facing repression, imprisonment and death".