The big news of the week was the response to the EHRC consultation on religion in the workplace – but freedom of religion and conscience was also on the agenda elsewhere…
Equality and Human Rights Commission on religion & belief
On Thursday the Equality and Human Rights Commission published the results of its call for evidence on the laws protecting freedom of religion or belief: Religion or belief in the workplace and service delivery: Findings from a call for evidence, which we summarised here. The next step is for the Commission to produce guidance on the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998, which it intends to publish later in the year.
So far, press reaction has been variable:
- BBC: Religious employees ‘under pressure’ to hide faith.
- National Secular Society: Christianity has “lost status” because of equality and human rights legislation, say evangelical Christians.
- Mail: Christians ARE too scared to admit beliefs – because they fear being mocked or treated like bigots, say equality chiefs.
- Telegraph: Law firm renamed ‘Christmas party’ to avoid Christian connotations.
- Personnel Today: Religious discrimination: half of workers believe laws inadequate.
- The Sun: Sexy Jess is full of the joys of spring [shome mishtake, shurely: Ed]
And while we’re on the subject…
Freedom of conscience in Northern Ireland
In December the Democratic Unionist Party (not, it should be noted, the Northern Ireland Assembly itself) published a Consultation on the Northern Ireland Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill. The background is that Paul Givan, MLA for Lagan Valley, announced his intention to introduce a private Member’s Bill in the NIA to amend the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006: in short, “gay cakes” and all that.
On 27 February the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission published its own advice on the proposal. The Commission feels that the underlying premise of the proposed Bill is unfounded, that the proposals about providing businesses with an exception based on religious belief is retrogressive and would undermine a fundamental principle of human rights and that the proposed exception for a voluntary adoption agency or fostering agency is incompatible with Article 8 ECHR (private & family life) read together with Article 14.
Most importantly, however, it is the NIHRC’s view that the Assembly cannot pass such a law in any event:
“In accordance with the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot enact laws that are incompatible with any of the ECHR rights. This being the case, the proposed Bill, in the Commission’s view, is outside the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
Section 6 of the Act (Legislative competence) provides, inter alia, that:
“(1) A provision of an Act is not law if it is outside the legislative competence of the Assembly.
(2) A provision is outside that competence if […] (c) it is incompatible with any of the Convention rights; …”
So the whole thing might just be a non-starter.
[With thanks to Maria Strauss for the alert]
Headscarves in German schools
On Friday in Religion–Weltanschauung–Recht, Dr Georg Neureither reported that the First Senate of the Federal Constitutional Court had ruled that a blanket ban on headscarves for teachers in public schools was not compatible with the Constitution because it violated their freedom of religion and belief. Two teachers in North Rhine-Westphalia had appealed against their treatment by the local educational authorities: one had been dismissed from her job, while the other had received a written warning.
The Court concluded that Article §57 para 4 of the North Rhine-Westphalia Education Act was unconstitutional insofar as it limited religious expression; moreover, it privileged Christianity over other religions by excepting manifestations of ‘Christian and Western educational and cultural values or traditions’ from the ban on overt demonstrations of religious affiliation in schools.
The CofE in Westminster
Taking less than a minute, the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill passed its third reading in the House of Lords, thereby completing the last of its parliamentary stages. It now awaits Royal Assent and will come into force “on the day Parliament first meets following the first parliamentary general election after this Act is passed”. After consulting the first entry in the House of Commons Journal of the present Parliament, Frank (who in a previous life used to compile bits of Journal) reckons that this appears to be the first “swearing day” – when parliamentarians take the oath of allegiance to the Crown – and not the State Opening which, intuitively, seemed the more obvious occasion.
Thursday was also the last session of questions to the “assiduous, accomplished & avuncular” Second Church Estates Commissioner, Canon Sir Tony Baldry, (Banbury) (Con), here and here. Although covering: the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Letter; St George’s Jerusalem; the rural church; faith leaders and citizenship values; church buildings; the living wage; Lichfield Cathedral; and ethical investment, the questions were more of a congratulatory nature than substantive.
Also, in the previous week’s debate on the Government’s ambition to create a new garden city at Ebbsfleet, he observed [3 Mar 2015 Vol 593(117) Col 853]
“Ebbsfleet is blessed in that there is already a Bishop of Ebbsfleet, which must be the first time that the bishop has come before the city, rather than a city creating a bishop.”
Now, there’s one for the pub (or year-end) quiz.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Charity Tribunal
We noted that the First-tier Tribunal (Charity) had ruled that the challenge by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society to the Charity Commission’s decision to open a statutory inquiry into various issues within the denomination was out of time. But oral argument in the separate appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Manchester congregation was heard on 10 March and we await the outcome with interest.
Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill
On 13 March, the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill was considered in committee by the House of Lords and reported without amendment.
- Theos: A Very Modern Ministry: Chaplaincy in the UK.
- National Secular Society: Government breaks promise over consultation on caste discrimination. Baroness Garden of Frognal has written to NSS honorary associate Lord Avebury, stating that the Government “have no plans to launch the consultation imminently, since it would not be appropriate to run [a] public consultation of this sort in the period immediately before an Election”.
- Madeline Davies, Church Times: Chartres sets out plan for ‘Bishop for church-plants’: A plan which involves reviving the see of Islington, vacant since 1923, to be given final consideration by the Dioceses Commission later in March.
- BBC: New four-person panel named in child abuse inquiry.
- Adam Wagner: An update on my new human rights project, RightsInfo
Appointment of Scotland’s Inspector of Crematoria
The Scottish Government has announced the appointment of Robert Swanson, QPM, a Scotland’s first Inspector of Crematoria. This fulfils one of the recommendations from the Infant Cremation Commission led by Lord Bonomy. His work will include undertaking an inspection visit to every crematoria in Scotland at least once a year – there are 27 crematoria in Scotland, 14 of which are operated by local authorities, with 13 privately operated and one operated jointly by a local authority and a private company. As Inspector of Crematoria he will:
- ensure Cremation Authorities in Scotland are adhering to current legislation and best practice;
- respond to complaints or queries from the public about cremations;
- inspect cremation registers and other statutory documentation to ensure they are being completed and maintained appropriately;
- provide direction to crematoria managers and staff to ensure they are operating in line with the recommendations of the Infant Cremation Commission;
- support the development of future primary legislation on burials and cremations.
With regard to this last point, on 26 February 2015, the Scottish Government published a consultation inviting views on various proposals for a new Bill relating to burial and cremation. This is due to close on 24 April and we will post a review later in the week.
Hospital chaplains and parochial fees – Update
In our last round-up, we reported that on 24 February the Remuneration and Conditions of Service Committee, (RACSC), of the Archbishops’ Council circulated Guidance for Church of England Hospital Chaplains, Incumbents, Diocesan Boards of Finance, and Hospital Trusts in relation to Funeral Services and Church of England Parochial Fees to the hospital chaplains network. This has now been followed by a more widely circulated letter from the Bishop of Manchester, reflecting earlier email correspondence with the chaplains, and by the publication by the RACSC of a document on twenty-three Frequently Asked Questions which further explain the guidance, its basis and application. These documents will be reviewed in a post next week.
Pope Francis to retire soon, or not?
Friday 13 March marked the second anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy. Pope Francis is now 78 and in an interview with Valentina Alazraki, a correspondent from Mexican broadcaster Televisa, he is reported to have said: “I have the feeling that my Pontificate will be brief … 4 or 5 years; I do not know, even 2 or 3. Two have already passed.” Under the headline “Pope Francis hints at ‘brief papacy”, the BBC reports this interview as “Pope Francis has suggested he may resign his papacy like his predecessor, rather than remain at the Vatican for life.” However, Andrea Tornielli at Vatican Insider interprets the same interview differently under the headline “Francis doesn’t plan on resigning”. Her fuller report of the interview is more nuanced, giving additional context to these comments and indicating the Pontiff’s views on: the concept of papal resignation, (“I think what Benedict so courageously did was to open the door to the Popes emeritus”); an age limit of 80, (“I would not support the idea of putting an age limit on it”); and on his own situation, (“I feel that the Lord has placed me here for a short time, and nothing more … But it is a feeling. I always leave the possibility open”).
On a less speculative note, John Thavis reviews Pope Francis’ Early achievements and persistent obstacles including: financial reforms at the Vatican; reform of Roman Curia offices; the pope as a communicator; “synodality” and collegiality; and Papal popularity.
And finally …
This week the BBC reported Indian bridegroom dumped over failed maths test –which adds an entirely new dimension to “just cause or impediment”.
“A police official of Rasoolabad village where the incident happened told BBC Hindi that local resident Mohar Singh had fixed his daughter Lovely’s wedding to a man called Ram Baran. However, ‘But just before the marriage ceremony Lovely came to know that Ram Baran is illiterate and she refused to marry,’ he said”.
In this case, the inability of the groom to add 15 and 6 was enough for the bride to walk out of the wedding, although his answer, (i.e. 17), was an indication of his innumeracy not illiteracy. But what subtle shibboleths do most brides or groom apply to their prospective partner, albeit before their reach the altar?