What place does religion have in social work?

What happens when religious beliefs – in this case some Christian interpretations – collide with social work practice and law, asks Maria Ahmed

(See our discussion forum for full debate on this topic)

In his 1933 account of being down and out in London, George Orwell recalled meeting a Christian woman in a small, tin-roofed shed who offered tea, buns and prayers to homeless men. “She talked upon religious subjects – about Jesus Christ always having a soft spot for poor rough men like usand what a difference it made to a man on the road if he said his prayers regularly. We hated it,” he wrote.

The sketch provides a glimpse into the early roots of many social care organisations in the UK, when faith was a driving force and dared to speak its name – whether service users liked it or not. But today the role of religion in the caring professions is causing increasing controversy.

Several cases involving Christians have hit the media this year, including community nurse Caroline Petrie, who was suspended from her job for offering to pray for an elderly patient. Her employer, North Somerset Primary Care Trust, claimed she had failed to “demonstrate a personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity”.

Later reinstating Petrie, the PCT said that, although it recognised she “felt she was acting in the best interests of her patients”, nurses’ personal beliefs should be “secondary” to the needs and beliefs of the patient.

Christian Legal Centre

Petrie’s case was backed by the Christian Legal Centre, an organisation that supports believers to “defend their freedom and promote biblical standards” and is extremely vocal in the media. Andrea Minichiello Williams, a barrister and director of the CLC, says the centre is dealing with an increasing number of similar cases involving social workers, none of which have yet been made public.

Williams claims such cases are evidence of how equal opportunities and human rights legislation have made Christians in the caring professions “more vulnerable” if they bring their faith into the workplace, adding that some employees are being compelled to “choose between the rules of their job and contravening their conscience”. “In 21st century Britain, there should be true diversity,” she argues. “Christians should be able to operate in the public sphere without compromising their beliefs.”

Many of the centre’s inquiries from social workers centre on the controversial area of fostering and adoption by same-sex couples. In another case supported by the CLC earlier this year, Northamptonshire paediatrician Dr Sheila Matthews was dismissed from an adoption panel for asking to abstain from voting to recommend children be adopted by same-sex parents. Northamptonshire Council later allowed Dr Matthews to continue in her role as medical adviser to the adoption panel, but said she could no longer act as a full member with voting rights.

Sex therapy

Last month, an employment appeal tribunal heard the case of Christian Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor employed by Relate who was sacked because his Christian beliefs prevented him giving sex therapy to homosexual couples. McFarlane, who won his wrongful dismissal claim at an earlier tribunal, questioned whether having a Christian faith would act as a bar to employment in the government and private sector organisations. The judgement was pending as Community Care went to press. The CLC describes this as a “crucial case for Christian liberties”, warning that many Christians could be driven out of employment because of rulings requiring them to adhere to equal opportunities policy and support sexual conduct “that they believe is sinful”.

“Christian social workers who believe that the concept of marriage means a man and a woman are discriminated against,” William argues. “Human rights and equal opportunities legislation sound good in principle but it has created a hierarchy of rights where Christians are marginalised.”

Stuart Sorensen, a nurse and contributor to Community Care’s discussion forum Carespace, says personal religious practice should be left outside the workplace.

“Social workers are public servants, just as other publicly funded health and social care professionals are,” Sorensen says. “Presumably, then, the duty of care is to provide socially sanctioned interventions, not to pick and choose what is appropriate based upon the beliefs of a particular religion or religious leader.”

He also warns against “predatory” evangelism, adding: “Vulnerable people are more likely to clutch at straws when offered easy solutions as promised by many evangelical groups.”

Social workers’ remit

However, Sorensen says that it is within the remit of social workers and other caring professionals to help service users express their own religious beliefs. This is set out in legislation including The Children Act 1989, which states that local authorities have a duty to consider the religious persuasion of children under their care.

Peter Gilbert, professor of social work and spirituality at Staffordshire University, says conflict over religion in the workplace arises because of a lack of discussion and professional guidance within social work. “Although it has its roots in religious foundations, social work has been slow to address the issue of spirituality compared with other caring professions including nursing, psychiatry and occupational therapy,” he says.

Gilbert attributes this to a “suspicion” of religion during the early days of social work in the 1970s, when the ideas of Freud and Marx formed the basis of thinking.

Although he views spirituality as the “forgotten dimension” in social work, he says it is encouraging that research into this area is growing. But Gilbert believes social workers need to be able to judge when it is appropriate to express their beliefs. He emphasises the importance of context, arguing that it is reasonable for social workers to reveal personal beliefs and experiences if they are beneficial to the service user’s situation.

“Social workers are not robots and should be able to express their beliefs if it helps them to step on to common ground with the people they are trying to help,” Gilbert says. “If someone said they were in a crisis and asked the social worker to light a candle and say a prayer for them, it would be appropriate to do so.”

Gilbert says that, although the “emphasis falls on the service users’ right to spirituality”, social workers should also feel able to challenge their beliefs in some circumstances. “In some communities, a child’s disability could be viewed as a punishment from God, for example,” he says.

Gilbert believes that strengthened guidance for social workers on expression of religious faith will be needed “at some stage” but not before full discussion with frontline staff.

With more cases like Petrie’s waiting to hit the headlines, perhaps this cannot come soon enough.

Join the debate on religion at Carespace

Conduct and personal beliefs

The General Social Care Council code of practice states that social workers are required to respect diversity, different cultures and values. They are also required to declare any issues “which might create conflicts of interest and ensure that they do not influence their judgement or practice”.

A GSCC spokeswoman adds: “It is important that, when carrying out their work, any personal value system or religious beliefs do not impact on the requirements on social workers to respect diversity, to promote equal opportunities, and to respect the dignity and privacy of people who use services.”

The Nursing and Midwifery code of conduct states that staff should respect people from different background and beliefs.

After the Caroline Petrie case, her employer, North Somerset Primary Care Trust, issued a statement clarifying that it was “not acceptable within the code to project personal beliefs unless invited to do so by patients and families”.

Published in the 1 October 2009 edition of Community Care under the heading ‘Should I pray or should I go?’

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