Tag Archives: religion

Religious rights, secularism and the law

There has been a lot of debate in recent months about people’s religious rights and where the law should stand on them. For example, is it acceptable for a Christian couple to refuse to allow two men to share a bed at their B&B? Is it OK to circumcise baby boys for religious reasons? And then there’s the debate about Muslim women wearing the veil in public. So where should we stand on these issues? And more generally, should the UK be fully secular, or should there be religious influence in, for example, schools or government legislation?

Quite simply, I don’t think that religion should be recognised in any official way, and everything else should follow from that. Religious beliefs should be treated no differently from any other sorts of belief, such as political beliefs. Someone following a particular religion should have exactly the same rights – no more or less – than anyone else. Religious organisations should be treated in the same way as any other organisations, with all the same laws applying. Someone might want to set up a religious group; someone else might want to set up a chess club. Exactly the same regulations should apply.

So what about the specific cases I mentioned above? There were two B&B cases (one) (two) involving same-sex couples in the media (although seemingly they were never mentioned together and only the eagle-eyed would have spotted that these weren’t the same case). In the second of these cases, the Christian couple running the B&B said that they turned away the unmarried gay couple because they only accepted married couples, so argued that it wasn’t discrimination based on sexuality but on marital status. The claim was that they would also have turned away an unmarried heterosexual couple. The courts found against them. The fact that a same-sex couple can’t (yet) get married means that there was no way for them to get round the B&B owners’ restrictions.

“Dismissing their appeal, Lady Justice Rafferty said a homosexual couple “cannot comply with the restriction because each party is of the same sex and therefore cannot marry”.”

It seems that this couple was actually turned away due to a combination of the B&B owners’ discrimination on the basis of marital status and the law’s discrimination on the basis of the sex of the people in the couple. So it would be interesting to see what would happen if an unmarried same-sex couple were turned away from a B&B once same-sex marriage is legalised in March and where the courts would stand on it.

I’m digressing slightly here, but to me, whether they were turned away for being gay, for being unmarried, or for having green shoes makes no difference to me. All of these would be wrong. Equality legislation should cater for all people (and at some point I will be posting about what I call discrimination discrimination, because people who wear green shoes currently don’t have the same protection under our somewhat arbitrary discrimination laws). And if you did allow for this couple to use their religious beliefs to turn people away, you would also have to allow for people to turn people away for any reason they like, because religious reasons should have no special place in the eyes of the law.

France has banned the Muslim veil from being worn in public. The law isn’t specifically about religious face coverings, but is about face coverings in general. When considering the rights and wrongs of this, the same logic should apply here as in all other cases. It’s purely a matter of whether people in general should be allowed to conceal their face in public. Currently it’s legal in the UK and it does seem that most people who are against it are against the veil rather than face coverings per se. But we should not consider the veil’s religious status when legislating, in either a positive or a negative way, so these concerns seem irrelevant. There are specific situations, of course, where people are asked to remove face coverings. Shops or banks might ask people to remove motorcycle helmets, for example. In these cases, it would be just as reasonable to ask people to remove other face coverings, religious or otherwise. Similarly a woman was told she had to remove her burka before testifying in court. Here is some further debate about the issue anyway.

Circumcision of baby boys made the news in 2012 after a German court ruled against the practice, although predictably the government waded in to “save the day” and legislated to explicitly allow the practice. Clearly, as before, we have to ignore any religious considerations, and simply ask: is it reasonable to amputate part of someone’s body without their consent, when there is no pressing medical reason? The answer is clearly “no”. There’s nothing else I should have to say. But I will point out that this is the parents’ religious beliefs, not the child’s, and no-one has the right to inflict their own religious beliefs on someone else in such a violent and irreversible manner. There is nothing anti-religious about this. Similarly, piercing or tattooing a baby is also unacceptable. Tattooing someone under 18 is illegal anyway, but you do see a lot of babies and small children with pierced ears in the UK. It may not be quite as severe as circumcision or a tattoo, but it is clearly still wrong, and I don’t know why a parent would feel the need to make this decision for their child anyway.

Currently we have Church of England bishops in the House of Lords, who are there just for being bishops. This gives them power to influence legislation, which is clearly ridiculous. Having said that, the state of the House of Lords in general is ridiculous, but that’s for another day and another post.

Parents can teach children their religion at home, but schools should all be held to the same standards and not indoctrinate children into a specific religion, although for some reason the UK allows religious or “faith” schools to do this. Publicly funded faith schools are allowed to discriminate on the basis of parents’ religion when it comes to admissions, and also against teachers that aren’t of the “correct” religion, something that is totally unacceptable (see here and here). In fact all publicly-funded maintained schools in England are supposed to have a daily act of collective worship. This is clearly outdated legislation that needs to be repealed.

The UK needs to become a fully secular nation. It is wrong to call it a “Christian country” as Prime Minister David Cameron and others like to do. It is no more a Christian country than it is a white country or a female country (on the basis that there are slightly more females than males). This is divisive language.

Some people seem to be worried about “aggressive secularism”, including former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, but secularism is just that the state should be neutral on religious issues. The bottom line is that people should not get any extra rights or privileges, or indeed suffer any disadvantage purely for religious reasons. This is just common sense and something that any reasonable person should support.

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