170 nonconformists went to prison in England in the early 1900s for refusing to pay their taxes. The issue was that the 1902 Education Act had integrated most denominational schools into the state system. As the majority of these schools were Anglican, the nonconformists objected to their taxes paying for a kind of religious education they found unacceptable.
Jump forward to 2010 and we have two issue where churches in England want their consciences (or prejudices) assuaged by the taxpayer. On the whole Christians have a good record in promoting legislation for people’s rights – see the story of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s just that in reality churches don’t want it to apply to them – so the anguish about employment legislation on having to treat women or gay people fairly. The state has to bend the rules, apparently, to allow for the churches’ conscience in such matters. Nowhere in the discussion have I heard it recognised that there might be a price that the churches had to pay in maintaining their conscience, if they wish to do so.
Likewise there seems to be a feeling amongst many religious people that there is nothing wrong in the state funding their schools and religious education. Although it is wrong to call it religious education, more like specific faith nurture very often done by emphasising the quality of one faith against the deficiencies of others. You don’t, I think, build a tolerant society by using taxes to fund divisive education – a lesson still not yet learnt in Northern Ireland. The creeping religiousification of the state school system in England by taking schools out of local community ownership and into the hands of people with particular religious agendas, however benign some of these may be, is dangerous for the well being of society. If your conscience tells you that you want to nurture children and young people in faith or you want to bring new people into your fold, you are free to do it – but you should pay for it yourself.
Having a no-cost conscience is a strange thing to be thinking about in Lent.