We’re no witch-hunters

The president of the National Secular Society responds to Nathalie Rothschild’s article on the suspended Christian nurse.

Terry Sanderson

Topics Politics

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Nathalie Rothschild is in a bit of a quandary (see A secular witch-hunt in western England). She doesn’t know whether to be a radical spiked journalist or Melanie Phillips. She comes galloping with all guns blazing to the defence of Nurse Caroline Petrie (just as Melanie did) and jumps heavily on the ‘new atheists’ who are crucifying Christians (just as Melanie did in the Daily Mail).

The only problem is that secularism and atheism are two different things. The National Secular Society, which Ms Rothschild excoriates so wittily, has nothing against people praying and has nothing against nurses being pious. What it supports is a level playing field. We want everyone to be treated the same at work, with no discrimination, either positive or negative, between co-workers.

So, we have an NHS Trust in North Somerset, England, that has a code of practice to ensure its nurses know what is expected of them and what is not. Ms Rothschild quotes one paragraph from it – which reads: ‘You must demonstrate a personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity’ – and from there it is total condemnation.

But I’d like to quote another clause from that same code which Ms Rothschild seems to have overlooked: ‘You must not use your professional status to promote causes that are not related to health.’

Now that wasn’t written exclusively for Caroline Petrie; it applies to all nurses working for the Trust. The fact that Mrs Petrie believes that it shouldn’t apply to her because she is a Christian is indicative of a larger problem that is developing in the workplace. Religious people are seeking exemptions from workplace practices all over the country – whether it is Muslims in supermarkets refusing to handle alcohol or pork, or Christians wanting to compromise uniforms by wearing religious symbols over the top of them, or Jewish policemen not wanting to work on Saturdays.

Each individual case may seem harmless in itself, but the cumulative effect is to give zealous people special privileges that are denied to others. Want to take a quarter of an hour out to go to the prayer room five times a day? Want to leave work early on Friday for prayers at the mosque? Want to ensure that you are never asked to work during religious festivals?

In the case of Caroline Petrie, I am prepared to believe that she meant no harm and would have taken a refusal of an offer to pray calmly and left it there. But what if some other Christian nurse, with a more aggressive proselytising approach, had been involved? What if she had said to this chair-bound, captive old lady: ‘Why? Why don’t you want me to pray for you? Don’t you believe in God?’

That is what the code of practice is there to stop. And in order for it to be effective, everyone has to abide by it.

Nathalie Rothschild may see the National Secular Society as a persecuting body, ready to lead lovely Christian folk to the stake. But one day she may come to realise that unless there are protections in the workplace against special privileges for religion, we will find our workplaces developing into sectarian battlegrounds.

We have seen samples of it already over prayer rooms. A Manchester hospital porter – a Catholic – was sacked from his job after he got into an altercation with Muslims who had claimed the ‘multi-faith prayer room’ for their own exclusive use. There have been other such cases.

The greater the influence of religion in the workplace, the more upset we are likely to see. And it won’t be the secularists who are causing it.

Oh, and a little aside: the National Secular Society welcomes the news that the North Somerset NHS Trust has offered to lift the suspension on Mrs Petrie and welcome her back to work. But it will be on the same terms as before. The code of practice remains in force. Mrs Petrie has made it clear that if she returns she intends to continue to offer prayers to patients who haven’t asked for them.

And so the next workplace battle over religion is shaping up nicely.

Terry Sanderson is president of the National Secular Society.

Read ‘A secular witch-hunt in western England’, by Nathalie Rothschild here.

What do you think about the case of Nurse Petrie and about religion in the workplace? Send us your thoughts here.


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Topics Politics


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