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
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
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.