The Christian group that backed an electrician in his battle to display a crucifix in his company van says it now has more than 50 similar cases on its books.
The Christian Legal Centre, which represented electrician Colin Atkinson, says it is receiving up to five calls a day from Christians seeking to take action against their employers whom they feel are failing to respect their faith.
The dispute over the crucifix, between Atkinson and Wakefield District Housing, was transformed into a front-page row and hijacked by the far right. Wakefield and District Housing found itself vilified, with death threats made to staff and more than 1,000 abusive emails sent to them. The British National party picketed its offices.
The matter was finally settled last week when it was agreed that Atkinson could keep a cross in the van, but out of the public eye. Supporters of the housing association expressed surprise that a policy prohibiting staff from displaying all personal items in company vehicles had sparked a religious row. "This is a quintessentially modern story of a voluntary sector organisation trying to do the right thing by its staff and tenants only to be misrepresented by the tabloid press and attacked by shadowy groups and rabble rousers from the BNP," said David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation.
But Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, said that her organisation would continue to contest policies it viewed as anti-Christian.
"Christians across the centuries have been prepared to lose their lives for their faith by standing up for what they believe in because they love Jesus Christ," she said. "The Christian Legal Centre will not allow Christianity to be eliminated from the public sphere or to be silenced or sidelined."
Questions have been asked about from where the centre – and its sister organisation, Christian Concern For Our Nation – obtain funding. Accounts show both organisations have little in the way of income.
Williams said all of the centre's work was done on a pro bono basis by committed Christian lawyers and that what money it had came in small donations from more than 30,000 people who received its regular email updates. "We never ask clients for money," she said. "Very often they fear losing their case and having to pay the costs of the other side. Part of our ministry is to ensure they are not burdened with that."
Close observers of the centre believe it is adopting the tactics of wealthy US evangelical groups, notably the powerful Alliance Defence Fund, which, through its Blackstone Legal Fellowship, trains an army of Christian lawyers to defend religious freedom "through strategy, training, funding and direct litigation".
The ADF, which according to filings had an income of almost $40m last year, is funded by prominent benefactors including Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater private security giant, the Covenant Foundation, which is financed by a leading member of the Texas Christian right, James Leininger, and the Bolthouse Foundation, a charity that rejects evolution, insisting "man was created by a direct act of God in His image, not from previously existing creatures".
The ADF has joined forces with the Christian Legal Centre and Christian Concern For Our Nation to launch the Wilberforce Academy in the UK, which aims to train delegates "for servant-hearted, Christ-centred leadership in public life" having equipped them "with a robust biblical framework that guides their thinking, prayers and activity in addressing the issues facing our society". Several of its delegates have already gone on to work for the legal centre and Christian Concern.
"The ADF are a fantastic organisation," Williams said. "We have been inspired by their work and that of the Blackstone programme, which seeks to raise a new generation of lawyers to defend Christianity in the public sphere. They've got some of the best attorneys in this field and we have the great privilege of hosting them, but they don't pay anything towards the academy."
Those who attend the academy programme, held at an Oxford college each year, say it increases their enthusiasm for using the law to defend the Bible. A typical comment on its website reads: "For the past four years I have sensed God calling me to the legal profession and during the Wilberforce Academy I was humbled to realise that, although we may feel like David facing Goliath, given the right weapons we may step boldly up to the task ahead."
But critics of the Christian Legal Centre suggest it rarely wins any of the legal battles it fights and claim its views are offensive to homosexuals and people from other religions. "They don't seem so keen to support religious liberty for Muslims or atheists," said Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society.
However, Williams said her organisation had struck a chord with many people. "What we are finding is that people with traditional biblical views, particularly when it comes to sexual ethics, are being excluded from the public sphere, and they are not getting jobs or are finding it difficult to stay in their jobs. If you censor Christians, you end up with the first signs of tyranny."PROMINENT CASES
Electrician Colin Atkinson was represented by the Christian Legal Centre in his dispute with Wakefield District Housing over whether he could display a crucifix in his van.
Owen and Eunice Johns from Derby became emboiled in a dispute over an application to be foster carers after a social worker questioned their views on homosexuality.
The Christian Legal Centre took up the case of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee who was told she could not wear a small cross around her neck.
Nurse Shirley Chaplin, an employee of Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, in her battle to wear a cross on a necklace on the wards.that superiors said was a health risk.
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