On 7January 2013, the Lawyers’ Secular Society, (LSS), was re-launched by Everything Everywhere’s senior legal counsel Charlie Klendjian. The Society “is open to barristers, solicitors, legal academics, legal professionals and law students, either religious or non-religious, who are ‘committed to secularism’”. Whilst the latter condition would be problematic for many of our readers, it could be that there are a number of areas on which they have common cause.
The LSS states its belief that law and the administration of justice should be based on equality, respect for human rights, and on objective evidence with no weight attached to religious doctrine, i.e. essentially reflecting the position of the English courts in this area, of which Laws LJ stated:
“… the law must firmly safeguard the right to hold and express religious belief; equally firmly, it must eschew any protection of such a belief’s content in the name only of its religious credentials. Both principles are necessary conditions of a free and rational regime”: McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd  EWCA Civ 880, at .
In addition to the cases currently before the ECtHR, Eweida & Ors v The United Kingdom (Nos. 48420/10, 59842/10, 51671/10 and 36516/10): i.e. Chaplin, Eweida, Ladele and McFarlane, the LSS has an interest in
“protecting free speech and free expression in the face of religious pressure and intimidation; opposing female genital mutilation; protecting female reproductive rights from religious pressure; opposing faith-based arbitration and mediation that is not compatible with the principles of UK law; supporting the separation of church and state generally – such as supporting the disestablishment of the Church of England and opposing reserved seats for bishops in the House of Lords; and opposing legal exemptions for ritual slaughter that dispense with the need to pre-stun animals.
With such a wide brief, it is unlikely that many will subscribe to all its tenets in all these areas of interest, which poses the question “should those of a “religious” disposition support, albeit selectively, aspects of the LSS agenda, on a “pick-and-mix” basis?” This type of co-operation certainly occurs in the environmental arena, where a waste company joined forces with a prominent NGO against cement manufacturers, and the motor industry used its environmental contacts in lobbying against the oil industry.
As an organisation the LSS does not provide legal advice, but its members may give assistance to individuals “affected by laws which give special advantages to those who assert religious beliefs”. Klendjian states
“Our stance is that behaviour which would otherwise be wrong cannot be justified in the name of religion. Our clear line is that freedom of religion is incredibly important, but that doesn’t mean the freedom to discriminate, [emphasis added].
This appears to be problematic on two levels – who is to be the arbiter of such “wrong” behaviour? and at what point is the freedom of manifest one’s faith perceived to be discriminatory? Tomorrow’s judgement of the ECtHR on Chaplin, Eweida, Ladele and McFarlane will give further insights on the operation of Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and provide additional guidance in this complex area. However, as we suggested in an earlier post,
“… annoying it may be for the non-religious, people insist on continuing to hold intellectual positions that are either unverifiable (eg that Jesus rose from the dead) or irrational (eg that God created the Universe in six days) or both. Or sometimes they want on grounds of conscience to do things that the majority of us find to some degree distasteful – like the ritual slaughter of animals without pre-stunning. But precisely because faith is a matter of belief rather than of reason, the strongly-held religious views of believers are a core part of what makes them who they are. And liberal democracies have tended to accommodate that position.”
I expect this will be one of those issues, like science and faith, where some of us will see no incompatibility, and others will see it as a red rag to a bull. I don’t see any intrinsic problem living as a Christian in a de-facto secular country. As someone from a dissenting tradition, a “Christian” country may not turn out to be quite as conducive.
Indeed, nor do I. I’ve got no strong feelings about the establishment of the Church of England either way – just so long as people remember that the territory of the C of E is limited to England – and, as I’ve observed before on this blog, even as a Quaker I’d rather have bishops in the House of Lords than some of the useless ex-MPs who’ve ended up there (though I should say that I’d rather not have the House of Lords in its present form at all).
But the record of one or two so-called “Christian” countries has been pretty bloody awful. All those devout Calvinists who ran apartheid South Africa? Spain under Franco? And what, precisely, is a “Christian country” anyway? In some respects, “religion” looms much larger in the States than in the UK, notwithstanding the fact that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. And I would contend that, overall, in the last twenty or thirty years we have had a rather better human rights record that the US: for a start, we’ve abolished judicial execution and we haven’t got anything quite like Guantanamo Bay.
I’ve no quarrel with those who are “committed to secularism”. I can see where they’re coming from; and though I’m less concerned about “pure” secularism than they are, far better an open, religiously-pluralist or secularist society than one dominated by any religion, Christian or otherwise.
So, to conclude, good luck to the Lawyers’ Secular Society. Any organisation that encourages rational, non-hysterical discussion of legal/moral issues has got to be worthwhile – even if I don’t necessarily agree with where it’s coming from.