Religion and law round up – 23rd June

A week dominated by the first two days of the same-sex marriage debate in the House of Lords

House of Lords

The first two days of the House of Lords committee stage examination of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill took place this week, and we reported on the debates here, here and here Media reports and others tended to focus on what individual peers said rather than the context of their comments in relation to particular amendments.  We were also puzzled by the appearance of an advertisement in The Times which gave ten general reasons to reject the Bill, but nothing specific on what the peers were voting on – i.e.the list of over 60 marshalled amendments, here, of which 6 were debated in 17th June, and 17 on 19th June, the others being “not moved”.  The majority of amendments were withdrawn after debate but in a number of cases the proposer reserved the right to raise the issue again at the Report Stage.  Nevertheless, important aspects of the Bill were examined in detail and certain aspects clarified.

Wednesday’s debate continued until the early hours with Baroness Butler-Sloss’s probing amendment into adultery (Amendment 40).  Her forceful and informed speech against the government position was lightened by the following exchange at 12.15 am,

Baroness Thornton:  . . . . . . . I do not accept the biological descriptions and solutions suggested by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, [i.e. using section 1(1) Sexual Offences Act 2003 as a template]. The Government have probably ended up in the right place.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: My Lords, I was wondering earlier how BBC Parliament would cope if this group of amendments came up before the 9 pm watershed. However, we are clearly okay.

Baroness Thornton: They could turn the lights down.”

The third day of debate on the Committee Stage of the Bill in the Lords will take place on Monday 24th June, for which the current list of marshalled amendments is to be found here.  We will publish a summary the major points raised, in advance of the Report Stage which is scheduled for 8th and 10th July.

Presentation Bills

For completeness, we should perhaps refer to last week’s Presentation Bills and the 42 proposed by three Conservative MPs [1], many of which would have an impact in the area of law and religion if only they ever had a chance of reaching the statute book.  The BBC describes the Bills as “a combination of hard policy, political wish-fulfilment fantasy and tee-hee jibes at the Liberal Democrats” but “[w]hat Mr Hollobone and allies have done is to reserve a place close to the back of the parliamentary queue . . . . . but they’re still behind the latest set of private members’ bills, which means that they’re left with the fag ends of the Friday sittings, when the Commons debates PMBs.”  A full list of the Bills is here

A UK Bill of Rights?

On 20 June, Members of the House of Lords, including three members of the Commission on a Bill of Rights, a former Attorney General and a former Justice Minister debated the Commission’s report, which was published in December 2012, here, here and here.  However, the motion before the House was “[t]hat this House takes note of the report of the Commission on a British Bill of Rights” and no further parliamentary action is currently in prospect.  The full report of the debate is available here, and Parliament’s summary here includes short reports of the three Commission members, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, Lord Faulks and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, and Lord Woolf, QC and former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, who oppose the Bill of Rights.  Responding for the government, Lord McNally “spoke of human rights and civil liberties as principles which are ‘deeply rooted in the history of the people of this country’ and reassured the members of the Commission that their report would prove valuable for ‘any political party looking forward and working on its policy on this issue’ ”.

Sentence reduced for late abortion

In September last year we reported on the case of a woman who was given an eight-year jail sentence for aborting her own baby in the final phase of her pregnancy. Sarah Catt had pleaded guilty at Leeds Crown Court to administering a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage: taking an abortifacient when near or at full term – 39 weeks pregnant – to induce an early delivery. Although her guilty plea resulted in a reduction of her sentence by one-third, we noted that several commentators had queried its severity and, in the circumstances, the appropriateness of a custodial sentence at all. We suggested that she needed help rather than punishment, given that her previous history – which included trying to terminate an earlier pregnancy and concealing a further pregnancy from her husband before the child’s birth – indicated that she had some serious mental health issues.

The judgment is not yet on BAILII; but the BBC reports that the Court of Appeal has reduced her sentence to three-and-a-half years. Heading the panel of three appeal judges, Lady Justice Rafferty said that though it was a difficult sentencing exercise the eight-year term was “manifestly excessive”.

Forced marriage in Ireland

Under Ireland’s Family Law Act 1995 the minimum age at which a person ordinarily resident in the State may contract a marriage valid in Irish law is 18, whether the marriage takes place in Ireland or elsewhere. This provision also applies where one party to the proposed marriage is over 18 years of age and the other is under 18 and to all non-residents who wish to marry in the State. Under-eighteens who wish to marry must obtain the prior permission of the Circuit Family Court or the High Court.

The admirable Human Rights in Ireland reports an interesting case on the 2011 annulment of a marriage in 2010 between R, a 16-year-old Irish Muslim girl of Egyptian origin and a 29-year-old man, on grounds of  R’s  lack of capacity to give true consent. The judgment has not yet been made public; however, the Irish Times reports that a Circuit Court judge had made orders made in chambers in May 2010 exempting the girl from the statutory requirement minimum age for marriage and the requirement to give three months’ notice of marriage. In his final ruling as a High Court judge, MacMenamin J suggested that it might be appropriate to review the practice under which exemption applications might be heard in private and without any notice to the relevant State authorities.

Mairead Enright remarks that the case “reminds us of the very limited remedies available to a person forced into marriage under Irish law”; however, she is sceptical about the practical value of creating criminal offences around forced marriage. But it’s not for us to plagiarise her post: do read it for yourself.

GirlGuiding Promise

On 18 June, GirlGuiding UK announced the conclusion to its consultation on the wording of the Promise made by its members, and a consequence the 1994 version, (the 11th in the history of the movement), is changed from “I promise that I will do my best: To love my God, To serve the Queen and my country, To help other people and To keep the Guide law.” to “I promise that I will do my best: To be true to myself and develop my beliefs, To serve the Queen and my community, To help other people and To keep the (Brownie) Guide law.”

GirlGuiding UK describes the consultation as “an open process with no predetermined outcome [which] gathered the views of 44,000 people – girls and adults, members and non-members. These opinions have helped us shape the new wording”; and the updated Promise is intended to continue “to emphasise the spiritual development [GirlGuiding offers and] will open up the guiding family to many potential members”.

The background to this change is summarized in a set of FAQs.  The new Promise will be effective from 1 September this year and the Chief Guide says that they hope that “the new wording will help us reach out to girls and women who might not have considered guiding before, so that even more girls can benefit from everything guiding can offer”.

Christina Odone strongly disapproves (no surprise there, then). Scouts’ revised Promise due soon?

“Be Prepared”

The GirlGuiding motto, which has been retained, provides a convenient segue to an item carried in Fr Z’s excellent blog concerning US advice on emergency situations in churches, here.  Issued by the Obama administration, the 38-page document Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship, contains wide-ranging advice on natural hazards, technological hazards, and adversarial and human-caused threats, some of which are relevant in the UK.  We have often stressed the importance of risk assessments, and the need for PCCs to adopt a professional approach to health and safety.

However, Fr Zuhlsdorf’s post focusses on the 9 pages relating to “Active Shooter Situations”, an issue of relevance in the US following a recent incident in Utah.  In his on-line poll, he posed the question, “Provided that laws of a state permit, should people bring concealed or open carry weapons to church?”, to which 41%, of the 2,383 [2] respondees voted “Yes, definitely” with a further 11% voting “Yes, I guess so”.

Inevitably, this post was followed by one entitled Are priests allowed to carry handguns? and whilst favouring the biretta over the Beretta, (“it is a little hard to get at your handgun when you are wearing vestments”) suggests as an alternative  “perhaps an electronic gadget is a better option, perhaps pepper-spray”.

[1] Strictly 40 Presentation Bills and two 10 Minute Rule Bills (SO No 23), put forward by Philip Hollobone, Peter Bone, and Christopher Chope.

[2] At the time of writing.