Religion and Law round up – 19th May

A very busy week for law and religion: activity in the courts and the Commons, and the LARSN Conference in Cardiff

Assisted dying

In the week that saw Lord Falconer introduce his Bill on Assisted Dying and a “right-to-die” application begin in the Court of Appeal before Lord Judge LCJ, Lord Dyson MR and Elias LJ, the European Court of Human Rights issued its judgement on Gross v Switzerland [2013] ECHR 429, in which it held that Swiss law was not clear enough as to when assisted suicide was permitted and was in violation of Article 8 ECHR (right to respect for private and family life).

The applicant was an elderly woman who wished to end her life but was unable to obtain the Swiss authorities’ permission to be provided with a lethal dose of the drug sodium pentobarbital in order to commit suicide. Alda Gross was not suffering from a clinical illness but submitted that, being over 80, she was unwilling to continue suffering the decline of her physical and mental faculties. In particular, she explained that she was becoming increasingly frail, had difficulties concentrating and was unable to take long walks.

The Court held in particular that Swiss law, while providing the possibility of obtaining a lethal dose of a drug on medical prescription, did not provide sufficient guidelines to ensure clarity as to the extent of that right. This uncertain situation was likely to have caused Ms Gross a considerable degree of anguish. However, the Court did not take a stance on the question of whether or not she should have been granted the possibility to acquire a lethal dose of medication allowing her to end her life.

There is a helpful post on the case at UKHRB.

Census update

We reported that the Office for National Statistics had released further data on religion in England and Wales from the 2011 Census. Perhaps the most significant (though unsurprising) finding was that Christianity had the oldest age profile of the main religious groups and Islam the youngest. The data tables are available here.

Other recent statistical news includes an analysis of the 2011 data relating to the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, here, and the 2011 statistics for Mission of the Church of England, here.

Clergy employment

We noted the Supreme Court’s conclusion in President of the Methodist Conference v Preston  [2013] UKSC 29 that Methodist ministers are office-holders rather than employees: a decision which has implications that go far beyond Methodism. The Daily Telegraph reported the judgment under the headline “Supreme Court rules that God is above the law”. As it happens, the SC said no such thing – but you can’t seriously expect subs to read the sources, can you?

Interestingly, three judges in the Court of Appeal and one judge in the Supreme Court found for Ms Preston, while four judges in the Supreme Court found for the President of Conference. Which goes to show, if nothing else, the intellectual complexity of the issues involved.

Draft European Union (Referendum) Bill

The draft European Union (Referendum) Bill was published on the Conservative Party website rather than being introduced as part of the Government’s own legislative programme or even announced in the Queen’s Speech116 Conservative MPs backed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech “expressing regret” that plans for an EU referendum were not included in the Government’s programme for the coming year. Though the amendment was lost, James WhartonEurosceptic” Conservative MP for Stockton South, subsequently came top in the ballot for private Members’ Bills and announced that he would introduce the Conservative Party’s draft Bill. Its chances of becoming law, however, are very slim.

In relation to the UK’s membership of European institutions and human rights more generally, on Friday a group of lawyers and academics, including the President of the Supreme Court and the Master of the Rolls, held an interesting discussion on a UK “without Convention Rights”: see Jim Duffy’s post at UKHRB.

Law & Religion Scholars Network

Both of us were at the conference of the Law & Religion Scholars Network at Cardiff on Tuesday. The conference attracted people from as far afield as the US, Brazil and Singapore – which, considering that there was no funding for participants, probably exceeded the organisers’ expectations.

The papers ranged over an extremely wide field: from Adina Radicanu of Karl Franzens University on the debate in the Orthodox Christian community about bar-codes (the problem being that they include in their sequence 666, the number of the Great Beast in Revelation 13:18) to Bob Morris of UCL on the Succession to the Crown Act and David Kirkham of Brigham Young U on natural rights. Frank read a paper on European and UK developments on adoption by same-sex couples – a topic probably at the outer limits of the subject area.

If you haven’t already heard of LARSN, do have a look at its website. Membership is free and there is no qualifying test for applicants: simply e-mail Russell Sandberg giving your consent for your name to be added to the site and for your e-mail address to be added to the list. “Law & religion” is still a fairly small academic specialism, so the better its practitioners know each other, the better (we reckon) for the development of the subject.

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill: progress

Report and Third Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill are scheduled for 20–21 May. We noted that the Government had tabled an amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill to ensure that chaplains employed by secular organisations, such as hospitals, the armed forces and universities, would not be obliged to conduct marriages of same-sex couples unless the governing authority of the religious organisation of which they are a part had opted in.

The Government has also tabled an amendment to the Bill to provide for a review of whether or not to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples – but not until 2019. Which leaves us wondering whether ministers have given any thought to the likely outcome of a possible challenge at Strasbourg from an opposite-sex couple aggrieved at the original package’s discriminatory provisions for civil partnerships.

Cardinal O’Brien

On 15 May, the Holy See Press Office issued the following press release:

“His Eminence Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, archbishop emeritus of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, for the same reasons he decided not to participate in the last Conclave, and in agreement with the Holy Father, will be leaving Scotland for several months for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer, and penance. Any decision regarding future arrangements for His Eminence shall be agreed with the Holy See”.

From this it is clear that Pope Francis has been directly involved. Vatican Insider comments

“It is recognized in Rome and in the UK that the cardinal, by his sexual misconduct, had done immense damage to the Catholic Church in Scotland and wider afield, and Church sources say it is proper that he should do a period of prayer and penance to atone for this, and to rebuild his own life as a Christian.

Since the Cardinal has openly admitted his wrongdoing, there was no need for a formal judicial process. The penalty he is undergoing is in accordance with Church discipline and aims ‘to repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender” (Canon 1341 CIC)’.”.

Whilst “several months” suggests “more than three”, his absence from Scotland does not appear to be permanent. He also retains the style “His Eminence” and title “archbishop emeritus”.

Vatican Bank transparency

Also on 15 May there was a further press release from the Holy See Press Office:

“The Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR) [a.k.a. the Vatican Bank] intends to open, before the end of the year, a website where it will make public, among other information, the “Yearly Report” of its activities. According to Vatican Radio, the announcement was made by the President of the IOR, Mr Ernst von Freyberg, during a meeting with that Institute’s personnel. Also, consultation with a new international certification company has been undertaken by the IOR in order to ensure full compliance with international standards for combating money laundering”.

On a more practical level, in February CNN reported that “[t]he Vatican has sidestepped EU banking rules by turning to a Swiss company to restore card payments in its museums after they were suspended over concerns that the city-state was not doing enough to prevent money laundering”.

Vexilla regis prodeunt

During the week we posted on the case Re St. Mary the Virgin Selling [2013], which concerned the church’s desire to provide a more suitable location for two flags from the Battle of Trafalgar that had been donated to it by a local family. Although no new principles of ecclesiastical law were developed, the 65-page hearing provides a good example of conflict resolution in such cases [2], a skill sometimes lacking within churches and other voluntary organizations.

What does one call the Pope(s)?

Vatican Insider reports “a media frenzy”(?) following the publication of the 2013 Pontifical Yearbook in which there was a misunderstanding over one of Pope Francis’ titles, and the suggestion by some sources that Bergoglio had renounced the title of “Sovereign of the Vatican City State”. For those whom the “media frenzy” passed by, but are anxious to adopt the correct form when referring to His Holiness, Pope Francis’ official titles are: Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Servant of the Servants of God and Sovereign of the Vatican City State.  Benedict XVI’s title is “Supreme Pontiff Emeritus”. So now you know.

[Well if I ever bump into either of them in the street I’ll now know better than to say “Hello Pope…” FC]


[1] A draft Bill is published to enable consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny to take place, after which it may be introduced formally in House of Commons or the House of Lords. Most draft Bills are examined either by a select committee in the Commons or Lords or by a joint committee of both Houses. The Government announced a number of new draft Bills in the Queen’s Speech 2013: a Consumer Rights Bill, a Deregulation Bill, a National Insurance Contributions Bill,  a draft Bill on the National Assembly for Wales and a draft Bill on amendments to the Riot Damages Act 1886.

[2] It should be pointed out, however, that Morag Ellis QC made it clear that “[her] approach to this exceptional case cannot, and is not intended to, set a precedent as to my or other Chancellors’ approaches in other cases to the identification of “interested persons”.

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