Westminster Law School, Law and Religion Cluster launch: The Place of Religion in Secular Society

In this guest post, Sylvie Bacquet, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Westminster, reports on the launch of the University’s new Law and Religion Cluster.

On Tuesday 28 February 2017, the Westminster Law School celebrated the beginning of a new Law and Religion venture with the launch of the Law and Religion Research Cluster. The Law and Religion Cluster was set up in response to a growing interest in the topic and an appetite for debates from both students and academic staff. The Law and Religion module which the Law School has run for the past six years has been a great success and it is always a pleasure to see students thrive in their oral presentations and develop throughout the module. Students are being challenged with sensitive topics and some of the discussions have brought them out of their comfort zones – but once we build rapport and create a safe environment we are able to have a constructive dialogue and embrace our diversity. Some of our alumni are still actively engaged with the topic and some are pursuing a career in the area, which is very pleasing.

The Research Cluster which is hosted by the Westminster Law and Theory Lab brings together diverse aspects of law and religion with an emphasis on multidisciplinary studies. The cluster is designed to promote open dialogue and encourage working relationships in the fields of law and religion, drawing from expertise and knowledge within the wider societal context.

The Launch was timely part of the Difference Festival organised by the University of Westminster School of Social Sciences to celebrate our international diversity. To launch the Cluster, we chose a theme which captures the essence of what the Cluster aspires to be about: Dialogue and Tolerance. The inaugural panel we invited for the event provided an excellent start to the ethos of the Cluster and the associated new Postgraduate degree, which will soon start recruiting students for September 2017. The new LLM/MA in Religion, Law and Society at Westminster Law School will provide a platform for critical debates around the relevance of religion in modern pluralist societies and the challenges that democratic states face in dealing with religion in the public sphere. The programme will draw on interdisciplinary perspectives and offer students a wide range of options from the social sciences such as law, politics, sociology and media.

We were very honoured that the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel from St Paul’s Cathedral, David Pollock from the British Humanist Association and Frank Cranmer and David Pocklington from the Law and Religion UK Blog were able to join us to mark the beginning of these new ventures. The panel provided us with a fascinating ‘Question Time’-style debate which addressed questions prepared by the Law and Religion Students on such issues as religion and tolerance, secularism and the extent to which Church and State should be separated, religion and LGBT rights as well as religious defamation. Different views were put forward and some were beyond expectations and prejudice. There were a few disagreements but also refreshing consensus on issues which were sensible and reasonable. David Pollock described the event as “remarkably enjoyable and unpredictably equable”.

The panel was challenged with a question on the extent to which religions ought to become more tolerant in order to be more compatible with liberal democracies. Michael Hampel quoted David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, who famously said that “Religion is a bad advertisement for God” – highlighting that religions often get too caught up in their own affairs and domestic issues making them less concerned about other matters. It was also pointed that religious institutions per se are “intolerant”: not necessarily in a negative sense but often through a sense of duty to reach and influence their followers. The truth-claims inherent in religions may also foster a perception of intolerance among them; but that sense of imposed moral values is inherent to the nature of religion itself. This inevitably produces a situation of clashing rights, where religions want to be free to hold on to their religious views and values which others will perceive as producing inequalities.

In that context, the panel discussed the Ashers Baking case in Northern Ireland, in which a local Christian-run business refused to decorate a cake with a message supporting gay marriage and the owners were found guilty of direct discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. There were disagreements among the panel – and what was particularly interesting was that the views of the respective members on the issue were not what one might have predicted. While some agreed with the Lord Chief Justice in the Court of Appeal that Ashers should have baked the cake, others felt that freedom of conscience should have been respected and that the Bakery’s owners were entitled to hold to their religious opinion.  This was a good example of the kind of dialogue that can go a long way towards removing misconceptions and prejudices. It was suggested that, perhaps, in a world of inevitable clashing rights, good will and mutual respect should be the driving force of human relationships.

There were also questions about the place of Bishops in the House of Lords and Establishment in general; but we were reminded by one of the speakers, quoting Lord Justice Laws in McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd, that law is ultimately a secular exercise. In that case, Gary McFarlane, a Relate counsellor, had refused to provide sex therapy to same-sex couples as it was contrary to his Christian belief and lost his claim for wrongful dismissal. As Laws LJ pointed at [22], “the precepts of any one religion, any belief system, cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other”.

We ended the debate with the very topical issue of religious sensibilities and the controversial trend of censoring material that offends religious sensitivities: a trend that is increasingly common amongst universities where some speakers are not welcome or where the material is censored. The panel questioned the tendency to over accommodate religious minorities and pointed to the apparent effort to avoid offending religion. There was a consensus that the line that should be drawn was where hate speech is involved.  The discussions continued with questions from the floor on topics such as the place of sharia law in English law – and before we knew it, it was time for a glass of wine and a pancake!


Cite this article as: Sylvie Bacquet, “Westminster Law School, Law and Religion Cluster launch: The Place of Religion in Secular Society” in Law & Religion UK, 6 March 2017, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/03/06/westminster-law-school-law-and-religion-cluster-launch-the-place-of-religion-in-secular-society/.


Further details from M.Holdsworth1@westminster.ac.uk or s.bacquet01@westminster.ac.uk.


4 thoughts on “Westminster Law School, Law and Religion Cluster launch: The Place of Religion in Secular Society

  1. What Sylvie does not say is that – perhaps counter-intuitively – it was I who argued that the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal had come to the right decision in the Ashers Baking case and my good friend David Pollock, of the British Humanist Association, who defended the McArthurs on grounds of freedom of conscience.

    I suggested to Sylvie afterwards that if the Law and Religion Cluster were ever to repeat the exercise, she needed to find at least one hardliner for the panel in order to generate a bit of controversy!

  2. Maybe I should be the hardliner!

    Though I am a Life Member of the BHA, I would probably have found myself disagreeing with David Pollock on the Northern Ireland cake-baking case. The collective law must inevitably triumph over individual conscience in any trial.
    This can only change when – collectively – societal conscience changes.

    In the mean time, the rights of consumers are set down in law and whatever individuals may believe in all good conscience, they have to abide by the law.
    The law could be perceived as being wrong, in which case concerned individuals should organise themselves in such a way as to get the law changed. Until it is changed, anyone operating a business which offers goods and services to the general public must adhere to the letter of the law. End of!

    In the McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd case, it may have been useful for the students and others attending the event to know that McFarlane did his case no good at all by publicly appearing on television to enter special pleading for his own case while the case was sub judice. I am not surprised he lost the case, not just on legal grounds but for trying to bias public opinion in his favour at the same time he was making a claim against his former employer.

    I wonder if the event also considered the topic of lawfare – designed to bring about change in the law without persuading the general public to support the beliefs involved in any democratic way? Maybe lawfare could be a particular topic for a future event?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *