Humanist Society Scotland publishes Religion in Scots Law

Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) has published Religion in Scots Law: Report of an Audit at the University of Glasgow, with an accompanying summary: the result of research commissioned by it in November 2014 and carried out by Callum Brown, Professor of Late Modern European History, Thomas Green, a Scots ecclesiastical and legal historian and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Law and Jane Mair, Professor of Private Law.

HSS explains that its motivation came from the increased public and political awareness of the changing role of religion and belief in Scottish public life:

“Our history, our institutions and our society have been shaped by religious and non-religious believers over centuries. At a time when Scotland remains in deep conversation about where we are going, it is necessary that we first understand where we are now and how we got here.”

The report ranges systematically across a wide scope of Scots law: the Church of Scotland and the nature of establishment; education; marriage and civil partnership; schools, religious and moral education, teacher training and chaplaincy; armed services law; blasphemy; broadcasting and communications; charity law; criminal law and prisons; equality law; family law and adoption; immigration, asylum, refugees and extradition; oaths; conscientious objection; religion or belief; the Sabbath in Scots law; and tax law.

The authors summarise their conclusions are as follows:

“Scotland has been transformed since the 1960s by the presence of ‘other’ churches and religions, many as a result of immigration and free movement. A multi-faith society has brought areas of change in relation to human rights, and may bring new areas of demand for those religious groups which conceive of the need to establish legal processes and accommodations in agreement with their faith positions.

Beyond a move from dominant church to pluralist religious beliefs, there is a further striking shift from ‘religion’ to ‘religion or belief’. This is a trend which is most obvious in Scots law within the context of the solemnisation of marriage. The precise parameters of the ‘religious or belief’ groups have yet to be agreed but nonetheless this is a very significant example of the way in which law reform can come about to reflect changing social needs and demands.

Much reform of Scots law has tended to be piecemeal in nature: much change happens bit by bit and often it is reactive. While being responsive clearly has benefits, there can be dangers too, in reform which is too quick or too political. This project has not touched upon the wider moral landscape in Scotland and the influence of individual beliefs in the law-making process – in areas, for example, such as sexual practices, sexualities, medicine, censorship. The direction of travel in the law’s dealings with moral issues in the West – ranging from same-sex marriage, assisted dying, advances in medical genetics and teaching – is generally towards taking account of pluralism, the rights of the individual to freedom of speech and action, and the prevention of hate crimes. The Scottish Parliament has committed itself to a system of law-making which places great emphasis on the process of consultation with the public. While Scots law no longer reflects the dominance of one single religion or religious institution, it does offer considerable scope for the influence and protection of individual religious, or non-religious, beliefs.”

This is an extremely comprehensive guide and, I imagine, destined to be the standard  source on religion in Scots law for the foreseeable future.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Humanist Society Scotland publishes Religion in Scots Law" in Law & Religion UK, 29 February 2016,

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