Law and religion round-up – 12th March

Social media (mis)use in the news, hate-speech – and another round in the saga of The Donald’s Executive Order…

News from Trumpton

Obiter J reports that legal action has been commenced against President Trump’s new Executive Order of 7 March on the entry of certain aliens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The new Order will replace EO 13769 on 16 March. The case is State of Hawai’i and Ismail Elshikh v Donald J Trump & Ors: Mr Elshikh is Imam of the Muslim Association of Hawai’i. It will be heard in the US District Court for the District of Hawai’i: the State’s Second Amended Complaint, seeking an Order invalidating portions of the Executive Order, is available here.

The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported that the Attorneys General of the States of Washington and New York had announced that they, too, will challenge it. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is to ask US District Judge Robart to apply his temporary restraining order to the new Order. According to a subsequent report, Oregon and Minnesota will also join the suit when an amended complaint is filed.

Brexit Bill returns to Commons

The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is returning to the Commons on Monday 13 March for consideration of two amendments inserted by the Lords. One is on the status of EU/EEA citizens in the UK, and the other is on a “meaningful” parliamentary vote at the end of the negotiation period. Similar amendments had previously been voted down in the Commons, who now have the option of agreeing or disagreeing with each Lords amendment, or amending or proposing alternatives to it.

A detailed analysis of the amendments made by the House of Lords (48pp) has been prepared by the House of Commons Library. In particular, the analysis provides comparisons in tabular form of the terms of the Government’s commitment and the Lords’ new clause side by side and some of the main differences between the Government’s commitment, the Lords’ new clause, and Parliament’s existing statutory role in relation to treaties under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, both on page 30.

Social media: Twitter in the High Court…

The BBC reports that the “food blogger”, Jack Monroe, has won £24,000 damages plus legal costs in a libel action against Katie Hopkins, a columnist for the Mail Online, after a row over two tweets. Ms Monroe sued the writer over two war memorial tweets she said caused “serious harm” to her reputation. Ms Hopkins posted tweets in May 2015 asking her if she had “scrawled on any memorials recently”. Mr Justice Warby also ordered Ms Hopkins to pay an initial £107,000 towards Ms Monroe’s legal costs within 28 days; the final costs figure has yet to be assessed. He ruled that the tweets had caused Ms Monroe “real and substantial distress” and she was entitled to “fair and reasonable compensation”.

Some commentators have suggested that Monroe v Hopkins [2017] EWHC 433 (QB) is of significance in relation to s 1 Defamation Act 2013, and the detailed discussion of Twitter in the 4-page Appendix to the Judgment is likely to be a mainstay of social media litigation.

… Facebook…

On 10 March, the Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson, issued the following statement concerning Stephen Sizer: “I have become aware that Dr Stephen Sizer has again contravened the agreement he made in February 2015 just five weeks before his planned retirement on Easter Sunday, 16 April 2017. Needless to say I am very disappointed by Dr Sizer’s actions. Dr Sizer admits that material shared on his Facebook page in the past two weeks has breached our agreement, and so I have required him to cease all preaching, teaching and leading of services with immediate effect. He will also desist from all use of social media until his retirement takes effect. To allow the parish of Virginia Water to say a proper goodbye, I have conceded that Dr Sizer leads ministry over the Easter weekend.” The Jewish Chronicle provides further background to recent events.

… and before Plymouth Crown Court

The Plymouth Herald reports the case of Robert Skynner, who had been jailed for eight weeks in November for harassing a Christian couple by posting videos on YouTube and subjected to a restraining order preventing him from contacting them or referring to them on social media. A Criminal Behaviour Order has now been imposed on him which extends the ban to prevent him from making allegations of paedophilia about anyone, whether by message, Twitter, YouTube or any other form of social media.

He has also been barred from churches and places of worship – but Skynner says he “would not be seen dead” in one anyway. [Thanks to Paul de Mello Jr]

Comments policy

Independent of the above events, we revised our Comments Policy this week: as before, it is an absolutely basic rule that comments are not published if, in our opinion, they are abusive, racist, homophobic, potentially defamatory or otherwise capable of offending the laws against hate speech or common decency. A separate issue is when to cease to accept comments on a particular post; as a rule of thumb, we have decided not to accept comments received more than fourteen days from the original day of posting.

Street preachers convicted of religiously aggravated public disorder

The Crown Prosecution Service reports that Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell, an American from Selden, New York, were found guilty at Bristol Magistrates Court on 28 February of religiously aggravated public disorder contrary to the Crime and Disorder Act 1988. They were each fined £300 and ordered to pay a victim surcharge of £30 and will be jointly liable for court costs of £3372. An application for a Criminal Behaviour Order against Mr Overd will be heard in May. The two men were charged after an incident that on 6 July 2016 in Broadmead, Bristol; both were engaged in street preaching, using a microphone to amplify their voices and to deliver their message to passers-by. A third man, Major Adrian Clark, was found not guilty of the offence.

CPS South West District Crown Prosecutor Chris Holland said “Shoppers and traders on that day had a right not to be at risk from the fear of disorder breaking out as a result of what was being said. The court has ruled that these men used their platform to comment on other religions using offensive language.”

Both men have now appealed their convictions.

CPS to re-examine hate-speech complaint

The BBC reports that the Crown Prosecution Service is to re-examine a decision not to prosecute Jeremy Bedford-Turner, a far-right activist, after a speech at the Cenotaph in 2015 in which – according to a transcript of the video of the occasion – he told his followers that the French Revolution and both world wars were massacres perpetrated by Jews, and demanded: “Let’s free England from Jewish control.” The Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA) says its chairman, Gideon Falter, witnessed the July 2015 speech and applied for a Victims’ Right to Review after the original decision five months later not to prosecute Mr Bedford-Turner, but was “told by the CPS that he was not a victim”. The CAA took then issued judicial review proceedings against the CPS decision not to prosecute. A spokesman for the CPS said:

“We have agreed that the prosecutor’s original decision not to charge should be reviewed by a more senior lawyer within the CPS. This decision follows the receipt of new advice from counsel concerning the way in which ECHR issues were considered as part of the decision-making in December 2015.”

He added:

“Tackling hate crime is a priority for the CPS. In 2015-16 we prosecuted a record number of cases and made sure that more offenders than ever before had their sentences increased for crimes relating to race or religion. We work closely with leading organisations from the Jewish community to ensure that prosecutors are aware of the changing nature of anti-Semitism in the UK.”

Bishops in the House of Lords again

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has responded to the call for evidence by the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House by suggesting the removal of the Lords Spiritual,  In its response, the BHA argues that:

“Their presence is unfair, in privileging one denomination of one religious group over those of other religions and beliefs. It is unjustified, in that there is no logical rationale for such provision. And it is unpopular, with over 70% of the public, including of Christians, believing they should be removed.”

Well, possibly: but that will only reduce the size of the House of Lords by 26. And, as we have noted before, at least the bishops retire at 70, while the rest of the members of the Lords can go on until they drop. Which many do.

Just a Minute” in the Lords

There was no time for “hesitation, repetition or deviation” in the short debate on assisted dying in the Lords on 6 June when, due to the large number of peers wishing to contribute, their speeches were limited to one minute. Baroness Jay of Paddington asked Her Majesty’s Government “what assessment they had made of recent legislation on assisted dying in North America; and whether those laws provide an appropriate basis for legislation in England and Wales”. Given the limited opportunity to comment, we restricted our post to picking out some of the pertinent contributions for and against assisted dying, in addition to the Government summary given by Lord Keen of Elie, the Advocate-General for Scotland.

The full debate is reported in HL Hansard, 6 March 2017, Vol 779, Col 1175; and a House of Lords briefing published prior to the debate sets out the law in Canada and selected states in the US. It also provides an overview of the law as it currently stands in England and Wales, as well as a brief legal history of the changes and attempts to amend it further.

The Parliamentary position following the rejection of assisted dying in 2015 seems unlikely to change; although the Assisted Dying Bill (HL Bill 42) was given a formal first reading on 9 June 2016, its second reading is still to be scheduled and its chances of becoming law in what is left of the current Session are zero. Nevertheless, there are two ongoing campaigns related to the debate.

In February, Compassion in Dying launched its campaign, Make It Your Decision, “to urge people to think about and record their wishes in an Advance Decision, should injury or illness leave them unable to make these decisions for themselves in future”. A second campaign concerns Noel Conway, who has terminal motor neurone disease and is seeking to change the law on assisted dying. Mr Conway, supported by another pressure-group, Dignity in Dying, is instructing lawyers at Irwin Mitchell to seek permission for a judicial review on the grounds that the current law in the Suicide Act 1961 is incompatible with his basic right to be able to die with dignity.

Furthermore, these issues will be considered at a meeting on Saturday 29 April organized by the University of Cardiff which is to be held at the Quaker Meeting House, Oxford: “Christian Perspectives on Death and Dying“, a day of conversation, reflection and debate. A copy of the poster is here.

Music in the Church

Sunday 5 March marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Second Vatican Council’s Musicam SacramInstruction on Music in the Liturgy, which included the statement:

[60] The new melodies for the vernacular texts certainly need to undergo a period of experimentation in order that they may attain a sufficient maturity and perfection. However, anything done in churches, even if only for experimental purposes, which is unbecoming to the holiness of the place, the dignity of the liturgy and the devotion of the faithful, must be avoided.

However, an article by Joanna and Stephen Bullivant in the Catholic Herald suggested that “‘Folk Masses weren’t necessarily a bad idea. But the results have been very problematic” and “Fifty years, though, seems like a good opportunity for taking stock”. We will leave further discussion of this sensitive issue to those with a greater knowledge than ours of the current musical tradition in the Roman Catholic Church.

Over in the Church of England, in an article in the Daily Telegraph Lucy Denyer opined, “Let the trebles sing: why cathedral choirs should be all-male”, following the appointment of the first full-time female chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral in its 1,000-year history. However, to link the enjoyment [?] of the treble solo in Mendelssohn’s Hear my Prayer [O for the wings of a dove] to the appointment of 35-year-old Alto Vicar Choral seems a little far-fetched.

Quick links

  • Lord President Carloway: A question of interpretation?: what the Scottish (and, by implication, the rest of the UK’s) legal landscape might look like post-Brexit: “EU law has become so closely intertwined with our domestic law that separation, if that is what is to be done, will be a task of mammoth proportions. As well as changes to the substantive law, this may well involve changes to the principles of interpretation which the courts apply to legislation”.
  • Andrew Copson and Nick Spencer, Speaker’s Corner TrustA Good Life – Is Faith a Help or Hindrance?: different but equally thoughtful answers to the question, How is it possible to know and live a ‘good’ life without a sense of divine purpose? Does religious faith inevitably lead to discord and division? Is the world a better place with or without God?
  • Neil Foster, Law and Religion AustraliaCivil Liability for injury in church hall: an interesting follow-up to David’s piece on Casson v Hudson & Anor [2017] EWCA Civ 125, which was about liability for falling off ladders in churches: Neil notes a couple of cases in Australia which replicate to some extent (though not precisely) the facts in Casson.
  • Neil Foster, Law and Religion AustraliaReligious Free Speech in Australia: CDF v Gaynor: can a reserve member of the Armed Forces make controversial, religiously motivated, political comments on a private website contrary to Defence Force policy? – evidently not.
  • Mark Movsesian, First ThingsBlasphemy in Denmark: many European countries, Denmark included, have hate-speech laws that prohibit denigrating or threatening people on the basis of certain characteristics, including religion – but why would a secular, progressive country bring a blasphemy prosecution in 2017?
  • G Owen Schaefer, The ConversationWhy treat gene editing differently in two types of human cells?: discussion of the recent statement by the organising committee of the International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington DC, recommending how human genetic engineering should be regulated: what brought it to our attention is that it includes a link to David’s post on the current law in the UK.

And finally… 

From HMG: Spring Budget 2017: support for women unveiled by Chancellor: others might comment on the propriety or otherwise of the Chancellor unveiling women: we couldn’t possibly…


This morning, the Dean of Exeter Cathedral, the Very Reverend Dr Jonathan Draper, announced his retirement. He noted: “In recent months Exeter Cathedral has been on a journey of self-evaluation and change. That process has raised some challenging issues, not least financial”. Financial issues were one of the concerns of the Bishop’s Visitation Charge which was published in September 2016. Last week, Canon Victoria Thurtell resigned from her post of Precentor with immediate effect, and is looking forward to a new ministry in due course; the Daily Telegraph also reported that three administrative members of staff were at risk of redundancy after accounts showed that it faced a funding shortfall of £175,000. [See: Cathedral News March 2017 – No. 660, under  Chapter Bulletin 16th February 2017].

To help the Cathedral continue its worshipping life, Bishop Martin Shaw has been appointed Acting Precentor, with immediate effect; the Bishop of Crediton, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, will provide pastoral oversight to the Cathedral during this time; and Canon Dr Mike D Williams will Chair Chapter.

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