Wednesday 11 February 2009

A threat to freedom of belief

The story of the foster carer who was apparently struck off after a Muslim girl (sorry, girl from a Muslim background) in her charge converted to Christianity, could have been written as a case study in conflicting rights. I say 'apparently' because the report appears in the Telegraph, and one needs to be wary of stories that fit too easily into the Tory papers' narrative of cultural decline.

The carer, a churchgoer in her fifties, was reprimanded by the local authority for preventing the young woman from getting baptised, even though the latter was 16 and decided on the change of religion for herself. Now the poor woman, who has fostered more than 80 children, has lost the farmhouse that she rented to take care of vulnerable teenagers, due to the loss of income.

Predictably, some Christian groups have taken up the foster carer's cause, citing it as another instance (like the recent case of the nurse ticked off for offering to pray for patients) of discrimination against their faith. But rather than this being an example of the secular state crushing the rights of believers, it actually shows the authorities bowing to the irrational demands of a religion - in this case, Islam.

If the Telegraph's report is to be believed, social services attempted to prevent the conversion, advising the girl to stop attending Christian meetings, concerned that she was in danger of betraying her Muslim roots by committing apostasy. If this is true, then those concerned may have been guilty of breaching Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees freedom of religion. Of course, the story is complicated by the fact that this was a vulnerable young woman, probably in search of affection and a sense of belonging, who one imagines was easily seduced by the warm emotionality of evangelical Christianity. Nevertheless, it should have been her decision.

Let's be clear. Foster carers have no business trying to influence or change the religious beliefs of those in their care (though that doesn't seem to have happened in this case). Social services and other state authorities have no business deciding the religious or cultural orientation of the young people for whom they are responsible. And individuals, whatever their background or age, should be free to believe whatever they wish, and not be trapped by the fixed cultural identities imposed on them by others.

Like the school assembly case reported yesterday, this looks like another example of a local authority interpreting 'promoting social cohesion' as 'avoiding conflict by not upsetting religious extremists'.


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