Whilst a weekly round-up is not currently a component of this web log, it is timely to review the events of the last few days relating to ‘law and religion’ or more specifically ‘Article 9(2) and the manifestation of religion’. On 8 July, the General Synod of the Church of England approved Fr Stephen Trott’s amended motion:
“That this Synod: (a) express its conviction that it is the calling of Christians to order and govern our lives in accordance with the teaching of Holy Scripture, and to manifest our faith in public life as well as in private, giving expression to our beliefs in the written and spoken word, and in practical acts of service to the local community and to the nation; and b) request the Archbishops’ Council to introduce draft legislation to embody this conviction in the Canons of the Church of England”
– which leaves the Church of England with the task of drafting the appropriate legislation consistent with its own view of the legislative position, GS 1859B, that will satisfy Synod’s agreed position, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights, in a form acceptable to the Ecclesiastical Committee.
On 11 July, the Commission on a Bill of Rights announced a second consultation,
“to provide a final opportunity for people to give us their views on the key issue of whether they believe the UK should have a Bill of Rights and, if so, to ask some further questions about the kind of UK Bill of Rights that people might want to see if we were to recommend one”.
The Commission is apparently still unconvinced with the findings of:
“over 900 responses to this discussion paper…” [i.e. the first consultation in 2011] of which “a quarter advocated a UK Bill of Rights; just under half opposed such a Bill; with the remainder being neither clearly for nor against such a Bill”;
“a substantial programme of consultation on a UK Bill of Rights and on reform of the European Court of Human Rights… in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Oxford, Strasbourg and in London”;
“three major seminars”;
“many meetings with interested organisations, public authorities and academics”.
The level of consideration being given to the Bill of Rights is in strong contrast that relating to changes to the National Health Service [paras. 85 and 85 in Department of Health v Information Commissioner and Rt Hon John Healey MP and Nicholas Cecil] and to the necessity of introducing provisions for same-sex marriage.
Direct reference to religion is limited to paras. 30 and 31 which quote Article 21(1) of the EU Charter and Articles 1 and 2 of Protocol 12 to the European Convention. However, two important issue are raised elsewhere: giving guidance to the courts on the balance to be struck between qualified and competing Convention rights, [para.60, question 8]; and the possible need to amend the definition of “public authority” in section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, [paras.61 & 62, question 9]. Although neither is discussed in relation to their impact on religion, there are clearly issues to be raised in this area.
Finally, during PMQs on the day of the publication of the consultation, the Prime Minister stated:
“I fully support the right of people to wear religious symbols at work; I think it is a vital religious freedom. If it turns out that the law has the intention as has come out in this case, we will change the law and make it clear that people can wear religious emblems at work”.
Whilst this was a response to a question to the Rt Hon David Davies MP rather than a new policy initiative, in all the events of this week there is a common reference to Eweida v British Airways and the other cases to be considered by the ECtHR in September.
In terms of the on-going timeline associated with this week’s events, only the consultation has a definite date for completion – the consideration of new church legislation is a lengthy process for which consideration by Synod is possible only twice per year; and any action on the Prime Minister’s promise to “change the law” would be dependent upon a number of interrelated factors.
Responses to the consultation must be submitted by 30 September, i.e. after the ECtHR is due to commence its deliberations of McFarlane v. United Kingdom (no. 36516/10), Ladele v. United Kingdom (no. 51671/10), Eweida v. United Kingdom (no. 48420/10), and Chaplin v. United Kingdom (no. 59842/10). However, the Commission is discouraging the 900+ respondents to the discussion paper/first consultation, here, from “writ[ing] to us again with the same reply”. These included a response from the Church of England’s which included the statement:
“We find the proposal set out in the first of the Commission’s Terms of Reference puzzling in a number of respects. First, the stipulation that a UK Bill of Rights would ‘incorporate and build on’ all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights raises the question of the meaning of ‘building on’ ECHR obligations and how this would operate. Second, it is unclear what is meant by the function of ‘ensuring that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law’ and how this would be achieved. Third, it is unclear how a Bill of Rights would ‘protect and extend our liberties’.”
Or as the co-editor of this web log put more succinctly
“this entire exercise risks being pointless at best and positively dangerous at worst”.
This would seem equally applicable to the current exercise.