Law and religion round-up – 10th April

A week in which the Pope published his long-awaited Apostolic Exhortation on the family, the Church in Wales took its first tentative steps to accommodate its gay and lesbian members – but there were other things going on…

Abortion in Nothern Ireland

The Irish Times reports that on Monday a woman was given a three-month sentence of imprisonment suspended for two years after she pleaded guilty to charges of procuring her own abortion by using a poison and of supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. The woman, whose identity was protected by a court order, had bought the drugs on-line after contacting an abortion clinic in England for advice. Belfast Crown Court heard that she had told her housemates that she had wanted to travel to England for a termination but could not raise the money to do so.

According to the report, the Recorder of Belfast, HHJ McFarland, said that there were no guidelines or similar cases and that, in his experience, there had been no other prosecution under s 58 Offences Against the Person Act 1861 – which prescribes a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Acknowledging that as a UK citizen the defendant could legally have travelled to England for a termination, he said that the advice given by the clinic that she contacted “without knowledge of her background and details was perhaps inappropriate”.

The BBC website has a very helpful account of why the laws on abortion are different in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Religion in the workplace – again

On Thursday the Employment Appeal Tribunal handed down judgment in Wasteney v East London NHS Foundation Trust (Religion or Belief Discrimination) [2016] UKEAT 0157 15 0704: we noted it here. The case was about Ms Wasteney’s alleged misconduct in praying with EN, a Muslim junior colleague of Pakistani heritage, giving her a book about a Muslim woman who converts to Christianity, and inviting her to church events. Ms Wasteney lost her appeal.

In a not entirely dissimilar case, Mbuyi v Newpark Childcare (Shepherds Bush) Ltd [2015] ET 3300656/2014 the claimant, Ms Sarah Mbuyi, had been dismissed for allegedly homophobic remarks to her colleague Laura P, a lesbian in a civil partnership; but the Tribunal held that she had been discriminated against, seemingly on the grounds that it had been Ms P who had asked Ms Mbuyi about her churchgoing and what she thought of her own sexuality and lifestyle – so she could hardly complain about the answer.

We wondered at the time about the disparity between the two judgments: whether it was because Mbuyi and Wasteney were distinguishable on the facts; whether the Tribunal in Mbuyi was prepared to give more weight to Article 9 rights than the Tribunal in Wasteney; whether the injured feelings of a devout Muslim woman were given more weight than those of a woman in a civil partnership; or whether one or other Tribunal had simply got it wrong. We’re still wondering.

Expropriation of church property

Readers may remember that in Rozalia Avram v Romania [2014] ECHR 945, the Ceaușescu regime had expropriated a building in Arad belonging to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oradea. In 1997 the Government had sold them on to the tenants, including Ms Avram; but in 1998 the Bishop of Oradea had sued for return the property. After various hearings title was returned to the Romanian Government. In October 2006, the Timisoara Court of Appeal had cancelled Ms Avram’s contract to purchase her apartment, reversing its own final judgment delivered on 17 December 1999 in which it had dismissed the Bishop’s claim; and Ms Avram complained of a violation of the principle of legal certainty contrary to Article 6 ECHR (fair trial). The Third Section agreed but concluded that the issue of just satisfaction under Article 41 was not ready for decision.

Last week, the issue was resolved: Ms Avram was awarded €34,000 in pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages. The case is another reminder of the general murkiness of the hangover property issues that still bedevil church-state relations in some of the former Warsaw Pact countries. Romania, where the property of the Greek-Catholic Church was handed over to the Orthodox, is probably the worst offender.

But not, it seems, the only one. WorldWatch Monitor reports that the Turkish Government has expropriated property in the historical centre of Diyarbakir in the south-east, where there has been a long-running conflict between the Turkish armed forces and the militants of the Kurdish Workers’ Party. The property taken over under Article 27 of Turkey’s Expropriation Law includes all the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches in the city and, according to the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, the action was taken as a “last resort” to protect the area from further damage. However, representatives of the Churches concerned are hopping mad. The Diyarbakir Bar Association is filing an appeal against the decision and Ahmet Guvener, the pastor of Diyarbakir Protestant Church, is considering a lawsuit and is prepared to go all the way to Strasbourg if necessary.

Thomas the Tank Engine

Amongst the week’s bumper crop of consistory court judgments – ten in all – was Re St Bartholomew, Wick [2016] ECC Bri 3 in which the Chancellor refused to grant a faculty to allow a coloured engraving of Thomas the Tank Engine on a memorial to a three year old child; although clearly a departure from diocesan Churchyard Regulations, the Chancellor was wrong-footed by the registry in its failure to include his January 2014 clarificatory amendment to the on-line version of regulation 4.6 which banned “any images or carvings that are not explicitly consonant with orthodox Christian belief”. Chancellor Gau noted that “matters of sentiment and aesthetic judgment are fraught areas” as identified by the petitioners’ letter which identified several headstones in the graveyard are, in their view, “vulgar to look at”. He noted that “[those] same headstones, vulgar to strangers, must have given comfort to the deceased’s families when they were erected (but only presumably, to them) however, inappropriate they now appear to those who did not know the deceased”.

Elsewhere, the Daily Telegraph reported, Thomas the Tank Engine producer insists new foreign engines not down to political correctness”. The Great Race, to be released next month, features thirteen new international engines, including Yong Bao, a red engine from China, Ivan of Russia, and Ashima, a hand-painted engine from the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. We are anxious to see how the sizeist issue of the Fat Controller has been addressed.

Oxford drops Christianity, shock horror

Much ink has been spilt and many electrons agitated over the announcement by Oxford University that undergraduate theology students will no longer be required to study Christian theology after their first year. As the University subsequently pointed out:

“All students … will be given a solid foundation in theology and religion during their first year. In addition to a classical language, this part of the course will introduce to the study of the Bible, Christian doctrine and the study of religion”.

Some of the media reactions, while not exactly predicting the breakdown of society as we know it, exuded quite a lot of doom and gloom, (although the Church Times had a positive spin with its headline Christianity to remain compulsory at Oxford).

Which leads us to ask, “Why all the fuss?” If students wish to study Christian theology they will still be able to do so: if they wish to study (eg) Judaism or Islam, why not? The phenomenon of “religion” goes far wider than Christianity, so why shouldn’t it be the subject of rigorous academic study in the widest sense? A university Faculty of Theology is surely there to teach and study the subject as an academic discipline, not to train future clergy or, still less, to convert unbelievers.

APPG on Religious Education

In direct contrast to the decision of Oxford’s Theology Faculty, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education has changed its purpose statement to exclude a reference to non-religious world views, here. The change was agreed at its meeting on 8 March and followed a January decision to part company with the Religious Education Council of England and Wales for the provision of its secretariat services. A former Chair, Stephen Lloyd, has suggested that “the fundamentalist wing of the Tory party is pushing out non-religious values” – though that is hotly contested by the new Chair, Fiona Bruce. Unsurprisingly, the NSS, the REC and others have been critical of these moves; we suspect that, by overtly pursuing “fundamentalist” religious views about RE, the recent changes by the APPG may prove counterproductive.

Quick links

  • Foreign Affairs Select Committee: Foreign Office needs to raise the profile of human rights: the Committee found that the words and actions of FCO ministers have generated a perception that their work on human rights has become less important, despite funding for the FCO’s dedicated human rights programme, the Magna Carta Fund, having been doubled to £10.6 million: “The FCO needs to do a better job of selling its human rights work by evaluating it more effectively and presenting it in a more user-friendly fashion”.

And finally…

Hits on the blog come from some very unlikely places. One that caught our eye last week was from Autumn Blessings: A club for knitting enthusiasts – which you might think was about as far away from the law (or, indeed, from religion) as you could get.

But, of course, you’d be wrong: at any rate about religion. Legal knitters we don’t know about; but we do know of one celebrated religious knitwear enthusiast: Richard Rutt, Bishop of Leicester from 1979 to 1990. Not only did he write A History of Hand Knitting (Batsford, 1987) but he knitted at least one mitre.

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