Baroness O’Neill, chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, has recently given a speech, hosted by the Theos think tank, on freedom of expression and religion of religion. There is much that is good in the speech. In particular I agree wholeheartedly with her view that:
There is no way of securing freedom of expression if we also maintain that there is a right not to be offended. Speech acts that incite hatred, or that intimidate, or that defraud, or that abuse, can be regulated without putting freedom of expression at the mercy of others. But if there were a right not to be offended, this would put everyone’s freedom of expression at the mercy of others.
Baroness O’Neill counsels:
What then should one do if one hears, reads or sees something that one considers offensive, perhaps deeply offensive? The basic thing is to remember is that unless the offending speech act was wrong in some further way (e.g. it was defamatory, or incited hatred, or was fraudulent), no right has been violated, and no remedy of the sort that respect for rights requires is needed.
But, there is one major area where I want to argue that Baroness O’Neil is misguided. And this is the fundamental matter of what we mean by “freedom of religion”. The Baroness says that: Continue reading
With only 50 days until a UK General Election I’m running out of parties to vote for. On solely economic concerns I’d likely vote centre-right Tory, but Cameron’s government has been giving full rein to evangelical Christians such as Local-Government Minister Eric Pickles, who seem to regard the non-religious as second-class citizens whose feelings don’t matter.
The Conservatives’ whole pitch is aimed at UKIP-voting Christians with no sign that they want the vote of the non-religious. They rejected humanist marriages, which would cost them nothing, just because they see it as a minority concern. Behaving to type, they are pushing through a bill enabling Christians to impose prayers on Local Council meetings, even though 55% of the public don’t want such prayers, with only 26% in favour.
Labour are little better of course. They could readily sink the council-prayer bill if they wanted to. And in 13 years of office up until 2010 they did much to promote and entrench “faith” schools. With Opus-Dei-member Ruth Kelly as Education Secretary, they renewed the legislation that compels school children to worship the Christian god, while their flagship legislation, the 2010 Equality Act, contained a specific exemption allowing state-funded schools to continue to discriminate over religion. Continue reading
This was written for Scientia Salon, and partially repeats some of my previous posts.
In the all-time lists of Good Ideas the principle of religious freedom ranks high, preventing much strife and war and thus being responsible for saving more lives than penicillin and vaccination combined. 
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”, wrote Thomas Jefferson, who rated his Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom as his finest accomplishment. 
Yet, despite the fact that the principle of religious freedom is now universally accepted in the civilised world,  there is much less agreement on how to interpret it. Indeed, my thesis here is that the principle is widely misunderstood.
On Baroness Warsi’s resignation from the UK government, David Cameron would have done best to drop the “Minister of Faith” role that he had created for her, but instead handed it over to Eric Pickles. Pickles, we recall, is another minister who thinks that Christians should still have special privileges in the UK. Informing us that Britain is a “Christian nation” and that atheists should “get over it”, he gloated that he has “stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings”.
As ever, anyone who believes in church–state separation and a secular, religiously neutral government is a “militant”, while handing ever more state schools over to be run by churches, awarding them an exemption from the Equality Act, thus allowing them to discriminate against non-religious families, and passing laws violating religious liberty by requiring school kids to worship the Christian god, is merely defending “traditional British values”.
Thus The Telegraph, defending compulsory religion in schools, against the wishes of the majority of parents, and school governors (and indeed the Church of England!), states that “There can be few things in life less harmful than the gentle Christian values learnt by children during school assemblies” and that “the British values of which we hear so much are based on ancient Judeo-Christian beliefs and the teachings of the Bible”. Continue reading
In the United States, the Supreme Court tells us, corporations have the status of “people” and thus have attendant constitutional rights including freedom of religion. That allows corporations to decline to participate in aspects of Obamacare if it considers that doing so would be against the corporation’s religious beliefs.
This landmark “Hobby Lobby” ruling followed predictable lines, with five Catholic judges out-voting the Court’s four moderates. Much of the commentary has focused on the doctrine of awarding personhood to corporations. An equally important issue, however, is the role of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, whose effects are seen for the first time.
That Act would have been better named the Religious Privilege Establishment Act. It requires that the:
“Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability”, with allowed exceptions only where the burden “furthers a compelling governmental interest”, and in addition “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest”.
This privileges the religious since it grants greater import and status to a religious motivation for doing or not doing something than to a secular motivation for the same thing. Through this promotion of religious belief it is a law “respecting an establishment of religion” and thus it violates the First Amendment. Continue reading
The suggestion of a “conscience clause” opt-out from equality legislation has been floated by no less a person than Lady Hale, Deputy President of Britain’s Supreme Court, and the most senior female judge in the land. The idea is that if treating people equally goes against your conscience then you get to play the “conscience” trump card entitling you to treat people unequally.
Unsurprisingly, some Christians have welcomed the suggestion, which they see as preserving their “religious freedom” against what they see as the encroachment of equality legislation.
“It is obvious that there is a growing conflict between religious freedoms and equalities legislation, and that a new balance has to be struck” opines The Telegraph. So, for example, the Christian hoteliers who famously turned away a same-sex couple, and lost the resulting court case, could in future be indulged by a clause that makes “special provisions or exceptions for particular beliefs”. Continue reading
The UK-based Theos think tank have published a paper by Nick Spencer on How to think about Religious Freedom.
Theos Director Elizabeth Oldfield says:
This guidebook is unapologetically Christian, meaning its foundation and internal logic rest on a commitment to Christian scripture and theological reflection.
Given that society-wide rights need to have a widely-based foundation (i.e. a secular one, it might be better to develop an approach that could be widely agreed, rather than an “authentically Christian approach to religious freedom”. Still, this paper is well worth reading, and indeed in its 76 pages there is much that non-Christians can agree with. But, first, some notable issues that are nowhere addressed.
In commentary on the work, Jonathan Chaplin (Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics) writes:
British citizens have long taken it for granted that they enjoyed as much religious freedom as they wanted and as much as anyone anywhere the world.
I suggest that this actually means that British Christians have long taken it for granted that they enjoyed as much religious privilege as they wanted. What Christians regard as “infringements” on their “freedoms” are often just a withdrawal of privileges and an insistence that other people matter as much as they do. Continue reading
This piece was commissioned for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and is reproduced here.
With the approval of Britain’s Supreme Court you can now be married in England by the Church of Scientology, the cult founded by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. What next, Jedi or Doctor Who-themed marriages? Well, actually, you can already have a Jedi-themed marriage, so long as you don’t claim it is religious. That’s because of a rather bizarre divide in British law that says you can have a secular marriage (themed however you like) so long as there is no religious content; or you can have a religious marriage, for which you need to go to a place of religious worship on the approved list.
Prior to 1837 there was only the religious option, with a choice of Church of England, Quaker or Jewish (Catholics and the non-religious had to pick one). When the rules were extended to allow a secular alternative the churches flexed their muscles and insisted on the “no religious content” rule in order to preserve their monopoly over religious matters. Thus, when the new-fangled cult of Scientology came along, the High Court judges turned up their noses and said, no, it couldn’t get its churches onto the approved list because there was insufficient “reverence for God or a deity” going on in them. Continue reading
Reading the British newspapers each morning I’m often irked by the reporting of religious-freedom cases. I’ve posted before about how misunderstood the concept of “religious freedom” is — it shouldn’t grant anyone extra rights, that would violate the equally important principle of equality under the law. In a nutshell religious freedom means this: you should not be imposed upon for religious reasons. That’s it.
Of course society can have every right to impose on you for good, secular, non-religious reasons, even if these impositions affect your religious practice. Such restrictions, if they apply to everyone, are not a violation of religious freedom. But no-one may impose on you for reasons motivated by religion, either their promotion of their own religion or their dislike of yours.
Treating people equally, regardless of their religious views, is as important as religious freedom. Indeed the concepts of religious freedom and religious equality are entwined and inseparable. In the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of the first and finest declarations of the concept, Thomas Jefferson declared:
That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry […] opinions in matters of Religion […] shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.
The word “enlarge” is as important there as the word “diminish”. Continue reading
One would have thought that UK universities would hold fast to principles of equality, and reject the notion that “separate but equal” can ever be truly equal, and thus reject the idea that seating arrangements at university events be segregated by sex.
But Universities UK, the umbrella body for UK universities, is willing to compromise this principle in a misguided attempt to — bizarrely — promote freedom of speech. This is so utterly wrong-headed that it needs rebutting. Thankfully many people have already done so, but being a professor at a university that UUK supposedly represents I’m joining in.
The UUK advice is wrong, wrong morally and wrong on the legalities and wrong about what “freedom of speech” entails. Continue reading