December 2014
  • Pluralism, Equality and the Challenge of Faith-Based Services

    Carl F Stychin

This article interrogates the increasing role of faith groups in the delivery of public services in England pursuant to the Big Society agenda. Specifically, it examines the potential impact on competing values such as equality between citizens. After a historical survey of the role of faith communities, the article reviews an example of protracted litigation in which the clash between faith-based service provision and equality was at the forefront. It then adopts a comparative approach, turning to the extensive American experience of Charitable Choice. Finally, the issues are situated within a broader theoretical frame. The author concludes with recommendations for policymakers in what will likely be a field of growing importance.

faith communities; Big Society; public services; equality; charities; Charitable Choice.
Click here to read extracts of the article

The delivery of public services in England today is in a state of change and, some would argue, crisis. Government austerity has resulted in the scaling back of what were perceived by many to be core services, the receipt of which were thought to be central elements of modern citizenship. Closely related to the cutbacks are ongoing changes to the mode of delivery. Increasingly, the state has shifted its role from the provider of services to an intermediary located between the citizen and a range of actors from both the profit and non-profit sectors. This phenomenon is growing in importance and has been harnessed to an ideological commitment to the Big Society agenda of the current coalition government.

This article focuses on a particular element in this policy matrix — faith communities — when the state empowers them to provide services. This development challenges the public/private divide in the liberal polity and raises broader questions concerning pluralism and diversity in a society committed to liberal norms of equality. I interrogate why faith groups are thought to be well suited to a public role. The article examines the impact, not only on the citizen “consumer” of services but also on the faith “provider”, which may find itself increasingly embraced by the state in a new relationship not of its choosing.

This investigation is timely given the current political climate. The influence of the church on public policy is, of course, central to English constitutional history. But my focus is on recent developments which became apparent under the Labour Government beginning in 1997. Change has accelerated and has been somewhat redefined under the coalition’s Big Society theme. Faith communities have a newfound importance as key civil society players in the government’s agenda which centres on localism, devolution of power, citizen choice and community-based service delivery. The government has repeatedly emphasised that people of faith are valued by the state. In this way, the government (or at least the Conservative Party section of the coalition) attempts an ideological break from what it describes as the dominance of secularism under which the state was assumed to have a monopoly on the answers to intractable social problems and the delivery of solutions.

The article begins with a historical overview of faith communities and public service delivery. This is inevitably bound up with the role of charity and the rise (and retrenchment) of the welfare state. Turning to the legal domain, I explore a protracted example of litigation directly involving faith and equality. The article then adopts a comparative approach focusing on the United States. In the US, faithbased social services have become significant in recent years, leading to wideranging debate about how this new pluralism in service provision can be reconciled with the separation of church and state. Although the American constitutional context is unique, the analysis is nevertheless informative beyond the US. Finally, I situate the issues theoretically and conclude with some provisional answers as to how the state might best engage with faith.