Religion and law round-up – 31st May

A week in which the election of the boss of association football’s international trade cartel generated rather more media interest than the election of Pope Francis ever did…

The Queen’s Speech

There was quite a lot of interest in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday – as much for what was omitted as for what was included. Apart from the obvious issue of the in-out EU referendum, probably the most important items for religious organisations were the following:

  • The ‘protection of charities’ proposals in the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill were largely inspired by the Cup Trust case and were the subject of considerable pre-legislative scrutiny in the last Parliament. Their purpose is to strengthen the Charity Commission’s ability to act in cases where it suspects abusive behaviour by trustees and/or managers by directing that a charity be closed down after an inquiry, issuing official warnings to charities and, in certain circumstances, by disqualifying any person deemed unfit to continue as a charity trustee or to serve in a position of influence within the charity. The social investment provisions, suggested by the Law Commission in its report of September 2014, are intended to clarify the powers of trustees – currently in doubt – to make investments that pursue both a financial and a social return.
  • The Scotland Bill will devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament, including control over income tax, air passenger duty and borrowing.
  • The Extremism Bill will extend the powers of Government and law enforcement agencies to tackle what they perceive as extremism. In particular, it will provide for:

    • Banning Orders: a new power for the Home Secretary to ban extremist groups.
    • Extremism Disruption Orders: a new power for law enforcement to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour.
    • Closure Orders: a new power for law enforcement and local authorities to close down premises used to support extremism.

At the time of writing, the only Government Bills on the parliamentary web site were the  Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill [Lords], the European Union Referendum Bill, the Scotland Bill and the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill (carried over from the 2014-15 session as provided for by the carry-over motion of 29 April 2014: HC Hansard 29 Apr 2014 Col 771).

The results of the ballot for private Peers’ bills 2015-16 are here.

As to the “British Bill of Rights, the Gracious Speech included the commitment that “My Government will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”; but whether that was a promise of proposals for consultation or of an actual Bill (whether substantive or in draft for formal pre-legislative scrutiny) is not clear. The accompanying notes merely say that:

“The Government will bring forward proposals for a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. This would reform and modernise our human rights legal framework and restore common sense to the application of human rights laws. It would also protect existing rights, which are an essential part of a modern, democratic society, and better protect against abuse of the system and misuse of human rights laws.”

It remains to be seen what will happen; but Frank, at least, is always very suspicious of appeals to “common sense” – a term he tends to equate with “unexamined prejudice”.

Second Church Estates Commissioner

Last week reported that the Queen has approved the appointment of Mrs Caroline Spelman MP as Second Church Estates Commissioner. It was therefore timely that the Ecclesiastical Law Journal which arrived through our post boxes this week contained an article by the former Second Church Estates Commissioner. Entitled Parliament and the Church, it comprises an edited version of the speech given by Sir Tony as part of the Speaker’s lectures series on 16 December 2014. He was appointed as Commissioner on 21 June 2010 and by the end of 2014 had answered 152 oral questions and one urgent question.

Perhaps an early question to Mrs Spelman might be from Andrew Gwynne, (Lab. Denton and Reddish (including Dukinfield): “To ask the Second Church Estates Commissioner whether the baptism of infants in the Church of England is conditional upon the marriage of the child’s parents?”

The current edition of the Ecc LJ also contains articles by Professor Norman Doe, The Ecumenical Value of Comparative Church Law: Towards the Category of Christian Law, Baroness Hale of Richmond, Secular Judges and Christian Law and Leo J Koffeman, The Ecumenical Potential of Church Polity, and much, much more.

Assisted suicide

In Scotland, on Wednesday MSPs voted against the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill at Stage 1 by 36 votes to 82, which means that the Bill has fallen. You can read the debate here.

In England and Wales, Lord Falconer of Thoroton announced his intention of reintroducing his Assisted Dying Bill that fell at the Dissolution. He came 21st in the newly-introduced Ballot for private Peers’ bills and his Bill it is set down for first reading (ie introduction) on Thursday 4 June. At this stage its chances of making progress are impossible to predict; but because bills will be taken in the order drawn and only on sitting Fridays it is thought highly unlikely that it will have a second reading debate before the early part of 2016.

Media and advocacy

This week the media and advocacy activities of the CofE and Roman Catholic church has been in the news. The Revd Stephen Heard’s guest post for Archbishop Cranmer suggested that “The way the Church does politics is largely ineffective” – on which David commented from an “outsider’s” point of view in “Politics and the CofE“. On Wednesday, the Catholic Herald carried the story “Lord Patten urges Vatican to accept sweeping changes to its media operation” and a link to the full text of his English and Welsh bishops’ World Communications Day Lecture in London. Policy wonks and commentators will have a field day.

Religious discrimination and recruitment

The Daily Mail reports that an Employment Tribunal has awarded a Jewish woman, Aurelie Fhima, £16,000 (almost £8,000 for loss of earnings, £7,500 for injury to feelings and £1,200 in fees) after a car rental firm, Travel Jigsaw, rejected her job application because of her religious objection to working on Shabbat.

After sending in her CV Ms Fhima received a call from the company’s operations recruiter, who explained that shifts were between 7 am and 11 am from Monday to Saturday but that employees always got two days off a week. On being told that she could not work during Shabbat, the company sent her a letter saying that “After careful consideration we cannot offer you a position at this time. We are still looking for people who are flexible enough to work Saturdays.” Ms Fhima told the Mail that because the company ran a 24-hour operation open seven days a week she had offered to work every Sunday and from 5pm to midnight on Saturdays in winter. Evidently the Tribunal decided that the company’s actions constituted discrimination (though whether direct discrimination or unjustified indirect discrimination we can’t tell, because we haven’t yet seen the transcript).

The school run? Not if you’re a follower of the Belzer Rebbe

Earlier this week we reported the decision of the Administrative Court in R (Diocese of Menevia & Ors) v City and County of Swansea Council [2015] EWHC 1436 (Admin), in which a group of claimants successfully challenged the Council’s decision to end discretionary free places on school buses currently used by pupils attending church schools in its area. But the wider issue of the school run came up when Jewish Chronicle reported that the the British leaders of a major Chasidic sect had declared that women should not be allowed to drive.

The Belz Chasidim, followers of the Belzer Rebbe, originated in Ukraine in the early 19th century. In a letter sent out last week, Belz rabbis said that for women to drive was against “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp” and against the norms of Chasidic institutions – adding that, from August, children would be barred from their schools if their mothers drove them there. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan condemned the ban as

“… completely unacceptable in modern Britain. If schools do not actively promote the principle of respect for other people they are breaching the independent school standards. Where we are made aware of such breaches we will investigate and take any necessary action to address the situation.”

The Belz Chasidim responded to the Secretary of State with a statement, inter alia, that

“It was never our intention to stigmatise or discriminate against children or their parents for the sole reason that either of the parents drives a car. We have already made it clear to our community that they need have no reason for concern. We accept that the choice of words was unfortunate and if a negative impression was created by our letter then we unreservedly apologise for that.”

Watch this space. The Office of the Chief Rabbi firmly disassociated itself from the row, saying that “The Belz Chasidic dynasty has contributed significantly to the rich tapestry of our tradition but this particular view is entirely removed from mainstream Jewish practice.”

Engagement rings and attitudes to sexuality

The Canadian Broadcasting Commission reports an interesting incident in Newfoundland that strikes us as being, in some ways, the other side of the coin (or cake-tin) represented by Ashers Baking Co. A lesbian couple from St John’s were upset when the jeweller who sold them their custom-made engagement rings subsequently put up a sign in his shop that seemed to oppose same-sex marriage. The offended couple want to return their rings for a refund; however, the co-owner of the jewellers seems reluctant to accommodate them, saying that “It seems to be a Canadian right to post what you believe”. No comment.

Quick links

  • Magna Carta: Fashionable again: The Charter, its background, popular misconceptions and its current popularity – Robin Griffith-Jones and Mark Hill QC conclude in Counsel Magazine that she did not die in vain…
  • The Queen Mary Human Rights Collegium, a partnership between the British Institute of Human Rights and the Department of Law at QMUL has launched the Queen Mary Human Rights Law Review. The Review will be available free on-line: there is a call for papers here. The first issue includes an interesting paper by Amina Hussain, ‘Realising Children’s Rights in the United Kingdom: Using International Law to give Children a Platform to Justice’, which looks at a subject that has been worrying Frank for some time: the fact that “children’s rights” tend, in reality, to be claimable and exercisable by the parents rather than by the children.
  • Catholic HeraldLast among equals? – John Duddington argues for a more nuanced approach to accommodating religious belief in cases of conflicting rights.

And finally … Letters to the Church Magazine

Rather belatedly, we would remind our readers that the May Edition of Letters to the Church Magazine has been lurking out there in the ether for almost a month. Of particular interest is the contribution of Tom Cobley-Anhall of St Audrey’s, Grilsby, on the extreme sport of “Hassock Jenga” – clearly a potential replacement for “Blind Man’s English Hymnal” at the SS Peter and Paul Choir Epiphany dinner. The June letters should be out soon.


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