Law and religion round-up – 23rd October

A week in which most of the news was political: a 19 per cent swing to the Lib Dems in Witney, a Scottish Independence Referendum Bill – and French politicians competing to be “plus laïc que vous”…

Draft Scottish Independence Referendum Bill published

The Scottish Government has published its Bill for a second independence referendum. The proposed question is the same as that asked in 2014: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. Under the Scottish Government’s proposals, which are very similar to those under which the 2014 referendum took place:

  • British, Commonwealth and EU citizens resident in Scotland, including 16- and 17-year-olds, would be eligible to vote.
  • As in 2014, Scots living abroad would not be eligible to vote.
  • The result would be decided by a simple majority, with no required turnout level.
  • There would be increased scrutiny of postal votes compared to 2014.
  • As in 2014, counting would be conducted by local authority area and a chief counting officer would oversee all 32 local counts and announce an overall result.
  • As in 2014, there would be a 16-week “referendum period”.
  • The Scottish and UK governments would be barred from publishing material “that would have a bearing on the election” during the 28 days running up to the poll.
  • The Electoral Commission would ensure that campaign rules were followed and report to the Scottish Parliament.
  • Anyone spending more than £10,000 on campaigning would have to register with the Commission as a “permitted participant” and campaign spending limits would be broadly the same as they were in 2014.

The Herald reported a swift reaction from No. 10:

“The Prime Minister and the Government do not believe that there is a mandate for one. There was one only two years ago. There was an extremely high turnout and there was a resounding result in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK.”

But that, of course, was before the UK as a whole voted for Brexit and Scotland voted to stay in the EU. However, as Professor Iain McLean suggested to a Faith In Europe meeting in Oxford on Thursday, there is likely to be less interest in Scottish Independence on account of a number of factors: the price of oil is now $40-50 per barrel rather than $110 in earlier calculations, effectively reducing oil revenue to zero; government spending in Scotland is 15% ahead of that in the UK, whereas the GDP is 5% less; and a special deal for Scotland with the EU is unlikely.

Ashers Baking

The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal is to hand down judgment in the Ashers Baking case tomorrow, 24 October. We commented on the earlier proceedings here.

Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The saga of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse continues to unfold. We posted two updates on its progress: here and here.

Religious dress in France – again

A couple of weeks ago we mentioned that The Local fr had reported that former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking re-election, had suggested that he was in favour of banning the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in public. According to the report, he had told Radio Classique that

“On French soil, we don’t accept inequalities between men and women. No headscarves, no burkinis, no specific swimming times at the public pools, and strict equality when it comes to the rights and of men and women – that is the French Republic.”

On Tuesday, the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, jumped on the bandwagon, telling New Europe that she would extend the 2004 law banning all “ostentatious” religious dress in schools to all public spaces:

“It is clear that kippahs are not the issue within our country. But for the sake of equality, they should be prohibited. If I requested to ban solely Muslim attire, people would slam me for hating Muslims. I know it’s a sacrifice, but I think the situation is too serious these days … I think every French person, including our Jewish compatriots, can understand that if we ask them for a sacrifice in order to help fight against the advance of this Islamic extremism … they will make the effort, they will understand. I am absolutely convinced because it will be in the best interests of the nation.”

Whether observant Jews and Sikhs would be as willing to give up kippot and turbans as she seems to think is doubtful – and whether or not such a ban would survive an Article 9 challenge at Strasbourg is an open question. But given the Grand Chamber’s judgment in SAS v France [2014] ECHR 695, the suspicion must be that the odds would be on the side of the Government. [With thanks to Howard Friedman.]

Chancellor of the High Court

The Queen has approved the appointment of Sir Geoffrey Vos as Chancellor of the High Court (ie, as head of the Chancery Division).

Limited pardons planned under ‘Turing’s Law’

On 20 October, Ministry of Justice and Sam Gyimah MP announced that thousands of gay and bisexual men convicted of now-abolished sexual offences would be posthumously pardoned. However, the Press Release also stated that the Government would not support the separate Private Member’s Bill on the subject – the Sexual Offences (Pardons) Bill brought forward by John Nicolson MP – which proposed a blanket pardon for the living without the need to go through the disregard process. It was believed by Government that this could lead, in some cases, to people claiming to be cleared of offences that are still crimes – including sex with a minor and non-consensual sexual activity.

On Friday, the PMM was debated for three hours but was talked out by the Minister. The debate stood adjourned until 16 December (Standing Order No. 11(2)) although there is little chance of progress without government support.

Private Member’s Bills

Coincidentally, three days before the Sexual Offences (Pardons Etc) Bill was talked out, the Procedure Committee published a further report on private Members’ bills (PMBs), following an unsatisfactory Government response to its April 2016 report. A summary entitled “Committee rails against ‘handouts and talked-out’ Private Members’ bills” comments: “the private Member’s bills process appears ‘broken and discredited’, with dissatisfaction mounting both inside the House of Commons and outside”. Mr Charles Walker MP, Chair of the Procedure Committee, said:

“The private Member’s bill process as it stands is too often an exercise in futility that manifestly misleads the public. The Government is defending procedures and practices which would not have looked out of date in the nineteenth century, let alone the eighteenth. It is rare for a truly backbench bill to make it past its initial debate, let alone pass into law; they’re either handout bills or talked-out bills.”

A link to the Committee’s full report is here.

Sir Sigmund Sternberg RIP

Jewish News reports the death of Sir Sigmund Sternberg, founder of the Three Faiths Forum, at the age of 95. Born in Hungary, he came to the UK in 1939. A tireless worker for interfaith dialogue and better relations between the Abrahamic faiths in the United Kingdom, he was knighted by the Queen in 1976 and became a papal knight nine years later.

For whom the bell tolls

The sacking of York Minister’s 30 volunteer bell ringers on 11th October resulted in the publication of a statement from the Dean and Chapter, which we reproduced here. Whilst the circumstances in York are a matter for local resolution, the circumstances haves highlighted the necessity for PCCs and cathedral authorities to ensure that adequate measures are in place for the activities of volunteers &c, and aspects of these were addressed in our post Volunteers, Safeguarding and the CofE. The bells will remain silent until new arrangements for bell ringing at the Minster are in place in the New Year, although a Minster spokeswoman is quoted as saying “On Remembrance Sunday there will, as always, be a muffled peal of the Great Peter bell – traditionally performed by our vergers – not the ringers. In terms of Christmas and New Year, nothing more to add.”

Meanwhile, the Catholic Herald reports that in mainland Europe a church in Spain may be fined over its “noisy bells”. This small Spanish town of Mostoles is considering imposing a fine of ‎€16,000 on the medieval church of the Our Lady of the Assumption. Local officials have recorded the sound at 30 decibels above the (very low) 55dB level permitted by town regulations. The UK’s Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR) has produced informative guidance Sound Control in Bell Towers, but the application of the principles outlined is of limited value where unrealistic sound levels are imposed, i.e. 55dB, and there is a determined effort by the relevant authorities to silence the bells.

On a more positive note, Reuters reports that churches across the world are joining a Helsinki parish in ringing their bells daily to commemorate civilians killed in the battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo. The bell tolls started on 12 October at the Lutheran parish of Kallio in Helsinki, following the intensified Russian and Syrian bombing of besieged rebel-held parts of Aleppo. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland set up a “Bells for Aleppo” website which indicates that more than 500 churches from 20 countries, including Britain, United States and Australia, have signed up. The bells will continue to ring daily until 24 October,  United Nations Day.

Quick links

  • Home Affairs Committee: Anti-Semitism in the UK: in the cross-party report agreed unanimously, without division, the Home Affairs Committee calls on all political leaders to tackle the growing prevalence of this pernicious form of hate. It notes that “the failure of the Labour Party consistently to deal with anti-Semitic incidents in recent years risks lending force to allegations that elements of the Labour movement are institutionally anti-Semitic”, but stresses that all parties must examine whether the Committee’s recommended reforms should be applied to their own processes for training and disciplining their members and activists. [16 October 2016]
  • Mine Yıldırım, Forum 18 News ServiceTURKEY: Freedom of belief and security threats: “Turkey’s failed coup attempt, ongoing and new security threats and government actions have long-term implications for the rule of law with the freedoms of religion and belief, assembly, association and expression.”
  • RightsInfo: How A Man Called Jeffrey Dudgeon Changed The Law On Homosexuality. “…the offence of ‘gross indecency’ [was] the law used to convict and imprison Oscar Wilde amongst many thousands of others. One man affected by that law was Jeffrey Dudgeon, a Northern Irish politician, historian and gay political activist. 35 years ago [this week], he took his country to court for treating him like a criminal, because he was gay. He won. See here for the full story.”

And finally…

… a wry comment by the Latvian Public Broadcasting English-language service on the decision by the Justice Ministry to refuse registration to the Riga Congregation of Pastafarians, on the grounds that the Pastafarians’ objective to “preach the light of meatballs and spaghetti” lacked logical and reasonable substance. Enjoy – maybe with ragù and a generous helping of Parmesan.

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