Religion and law round up – 16th November

Not much black-letter law this week but quite a few odds & ends: gay cake(?), the seal of the confessional, gender-selective abortion…

“Bake me a cake / As fast as you can”

There were several media reports about what the BBC described as the “Gay cake row” in Northern Ireland. (We should say that the sexual preferences of cakes is a matter beyond the technical scope of this blog but it could have been worse: someone might have dubbed it “Cakegate”.) In short, the proprietors of Ashers Bakery refused to bake a cake bearing the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” and the Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie; and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is supporting legal action against the bakery for alleged discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and (possibly) on grounds of political opinion.

On 8 November the First Minister, Peter Robinson MLA, posted an article on the subject in the Belfast Newsletter (strapline: “The pride of Northern Ireland”) and the following extract is some indication of its tone:

“This commission has placed Ashers Bakery, a family-run business, under the threat of legal action because they would not act outside their conscience and produce a cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’. The owners of Ashers Baking Company deserve our support. They operate seven shops across Northern Ireland and provide much needed employment in these difficult times. They also happen to be Christians who feel they must refuse orders that go against their conscience and their sincerely held Christian beliefs. No one entering Ashers Bakery is questioned about their sexual orientation, religion or political opinion. Anyone can buy the products on display without hindrance. It is only when a request goes against their conscience that they feel obliged to refuse. That is a right we should all stand in defence of.

I have no doubt that public opinion stands with Ashers Bakery. You do not necessarily need to share their Christian beliefs to support their right to hold those beliefs and to act according to their conscience. The pursuit of this company is unnecessary, discriminatory and wasteful of public money.”

We can just imagine the reaction of the Permanent Secretary at the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which funds the Commission:

I do understand your point of view, First Minister. Of course the problem is that if you have a body knocking around the place called “The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland” there’s always a distinct possibility that at some point it’s going to start taking an active interest in matters of … um, well … equality… I know it’s extremely vexing but…

Gender-selective abortion

In the wake of the previous week’s Ten Minute Rule debate on banning gender-selective abortion, the Telegraph reported on Monday that Dr Prabha Sivaraman has been summoned to appear before Manchester and Salford Magistrates’ Court next month to face an allegation under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 of planning an abortion based on the sex of the unborn baby. The prosecution is being brought privately, with the support of the Christian Legal Centre, after the Crown Prosecution Service decided against charging Dr Sivaraman and another physician, Dr Palaniappan Rajmohan. A court in Birmingham is due to hold a hearing in January to decide whether to issue a separate summons against Dr Palaniappan.

But, as regular readers of this blog will be aware, it is not at all clear that abortion on grounds of the sex of the foetus is illegal. In which connexion, a US site called LifeNews posted a piece entitled British Parliament Votes 181-1 to Declare Sex-Selection Abortions Illegal. Well yes, up to a point. But nowhere does it mention the fact that TMR approval merely gives you leave to bring in the Bill: it’s a very long way from leave under the TMR to Royal Assent. Not quite one for the Stool of Repentance but not exactly the smartest piece of reporting either.

Seal of the confessional

The juxtaposition of the Conference “The Confessional Seal and Pastoral Privacy” in the Vatican on 12-13 November and General Synod’s “take note” debate on this issue on Monday afternoon may not be entirely coincidental. The reassertion of Roman Catholic canon law by members of the Apostolic Penitentiary came as no surprise; but, perhaps significantly, the Catholic News Service, the Catholic Herald and Fr Z all led on the secrecy of a confession remaining “even after the penitent dies”.

Earlier this year, Dr Edward Peters explored this issue in depth following the appearance “on websites around the world” of post-confession revelations of an Ohio Catholic prison chaplain, following the penitent’s execution. Dr Peters concludes his post “[c]onfessions are not merely academic, but arise in real life. I think they require careful examination by qualified Church officials”. Perhaps they have been.

Advancing religious freedom 1

On Tuesday the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan commission of the US federal government, reported that in a ceremony at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo thirty parliamentarians from around the world had signed a joint statement committing themselves to advance religious freedom. The Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief commits parliamentarians to promote religious freedom or belief for everyone through their work and respective institutions.

Countries represented included Argentina, Brazil, Burma, Canada, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Nepal, Norway, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay, together with two Commissioners from USCIRF and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The report says that parliamentarians sent co-signed letters to the Heads of State of Pakistan and Burma expressing concern about religious freedom violations in the two countries.

Which is all very laudable: we’re all in favour of religious/non-religious freedom, aren’t we, and no doubt some of the parliamentarians present at the meeting were entirely opposed to the policies pursued by their own governments. But neither of us would fancy our chances promoting freedom of thought, conscience and religion in some of the countries on the list: not just Pakistan and Burma – what about Malaysia if you’re a Christian, or Turkey if you’re an Alevi, or Sri Lanka if you’re a Tamil?

[With thanks to Religion Clause for the lead]

Advancing religious freedom 2

And while we’re on the subject, on Thursday, in Islam-Ittihad Association and Others v Azerbaijan [2014] ECHR 1220, the ECtHR held in a short judgment that Azerbaijan had contravened Article 11 ECHR (assembly and association) by forcibly suppressing an Islamic NGO formed to repair and maintain abandoned mosques, organise pilgrimages to Islamic shrines,and to provide aid for orphans and the elderly, sick and disabled. We aim to post a full note on the judgment later this week.

Quick links

  • Vatican: Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization Final document from the Synod on the Family 5-19 October 2014, in English.
  • Archbishops’ Council: Statistics For Mission 2013 . New statistics for the Church of England.
  • Javier García Oliva: Catalonia in Spain? The future ahead. An analysis of pro-independence movements within other members of the European Union post-Scottish Referendum, 18th September 2014.
  • Elizabeth Wicks: Dying with Conscience: The Potential Application of Article 9 ECHR to Assisted Dying, The potential application of Article 9 ECHR’s protection for freedom of thought, conscience and religion to the issue of assisted dying; an analysis of the applicability of the right to manifest a belief to individual non-religious beliefs such as a desire to ‘die with dignity’.
  • House of Commons Library Standard Note SN06729: Petitions in the House of Commons since 1987-88 – Commons Library. The number of petitions presented to the House of Commons since the 1987-88 parliamentary session; those presented formally as specified by Standing Order No 154; and the number receiving Government responses (since 1994-95 when figures available). A separate Commons Library Note is available on e-petitions, SN06450. These are administered by the Cabinet Office, not the House of Commons.
  • Westminster Faith Debate 6th November 2014: How can Anglicans of all kinds be engaged in the Church of the future? Podcast. The next event in the series is Diversity – What kind of unity is appropriate nationally and internationally, how can diversity become a strength? will be on Thursday, 20th November 2014
  • John Allen, Crux: Annulment reform and a golden age for canon law Ed Peters agrees with Allen’s prediction on the future of canon law [“If you’re a young Catholic eager to be where the action is in the Church today, studying canon law might be a smart move”] but believes that it will “impact much, much more than marriage nullity petitions”. He also notes certain imprecisions in Allen’s views regarding the validity and sacramentality of marriage.

And finally… Christmas is coming

The Vatican’s Bollettino site provided an unexpected source of inspiration for Christmas presents with its announcement on 13 November of the recording deal between Pontifical Sistine Chapel Choir and Deutsche Grammophon: the 2 CD set Habemus Papam is now available in Italy and goes on sale in the rest of the world on 28 November. David suggests that the discerning listener might also like to consider Walsingham Way which, despite the description on iTunes, does not contain fourteen “explicit” tracks.

2 thoughts on “Religion and law round up – 16th November

  1. Pingback: Religion and Law round-up – 25th January | Law & Religion UK

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