Law and religion round-up – 21st January

The Irish Parliament wrestles with abortion law and, as the new Dean is installed at Peterborough, the Church of England wrestles with cathedral governance 

The Irish abortion debate

Last week, Dáil Éireann considered the report of its Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution in light of the recommendation of the Citizens’ Assembly than the constitutional ban on abortion should be repealed. The Minister for Health, Simon Harris, said this:

“The Citizens’ Assembly and the committee have given us a model for addressing this issue in a rational and measured way, and I believe it is one we should follow. I want to recognise that the recommendations contained in the committee’s report represent the views of the majority of members but there was not unanimous agreement on them. I respect the views of those who dissented from the recommendations but I believe the recommendations are the basis on which we must proceed on this issue. The main conclusion of the committee’s work is that change is needed to extend the grounds for lawful termination of pregnancy in the State. In order to effect that change, the committee recommended that Article 40.3.3o should be removed from the Constitution. The committee then went on to make recommendations on the grounds on which termination of pregnancy should be permitted in Ireland, if Article 40.3.3o is repealed by the Irish people. It recommended extending the law on abortion to cover cases where the health of a woman is concerned, cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and a broader legal regime that allows abortions where the woman seeks it from her medical practitioner if her pregnancy is under 12 weeks gestation.

I am working with my chief medical officer and officials of my Department, and the Attorney General, to consider how best to translate these recommendations into legislation, should that be the wish of the Irish people. It is my intention that, in the event of a referendum, as much information as possible would be available to people so they can make an informed decision.”

For the latest legal commentaries, see Fiona de Londras: Repeal and Replace? and Donnchadh O’Conaill: Shifting Sands under the Abortion Debate, both in Human Rights in Ireland.  De Londras argues that if the constitutional ban on abortion is deleted it might not be absolutely necessary to replace it with a new provision, while O’Conaill suggests that the Oireachtas Committee‘s recommendation that abortion be allowed on request up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy “presents certain opportunities for the repeal side, but also for their opponents”.

Cathedral governance

Readers will recall the visitations at Exeter and Peterborough Cathedrals by their respective bishops and the valuable insights provided by Michael Sadgrove, Dean Emeritus of Durham. With regard to the Peterborough visitation, the Bishop concluded (paragraph 30): “I urge the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and the House of Bishops, to look at whether the current Cathedrals Measure is adequate, and to consider revising it. The Peterborough situation has convinced me that the high degree of independence currently enjoyed by Cathedrals poses serious risks to the reputation of the whole Church, and thus to our effectiveness in mission. A closer working relationship of Cathedrals with their Bishop and Diocese would be of benefit to all, both practically and spiritually”. 

On 10 April 2017, the Church of England announced the establishment by the two Archbishops of a Cathedrals Working Group to look into the way its cathedrals are governed, their accountability and how financial decisions are made; following the publication of the Group’s draft report on 17 January, the principal recommendations of which are summarized here, it is carrying out an open consultation on the draft. It is seeking feedback via a none-too-slick on-line survey, details of which are given in the Press Release and the linked information on the on-line Consultation.

Coincidentally, on Saturday 20 January, the Very Revd Chris Dalliston was installed as the 47th Dean of Peterborough. Some of the legal aspects associated with the installation of a Dean may be gleaned from the Order of Service.

Humanist weddings in Northern Ireland

The judgment of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal in the case of Laura Smyth’s humanist wedding – previously noted here – which was to have been handed down on 15 January did not materialise: instead, Morgan LCJ said that he would deliver the Court’s verdict as soon as possible.

Church bells, noise and planning

The issue of perceived noise nuisance from church bells came up in a Commons Written Answer on Monday, as follows:

Craig Mackinlay: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, what steps his Department has taken within planning and other guidance to local authorities to support the continued ringing of church bells and traditional chimes. [116503]

Dominic Raab: We are standing up for England’s churches [presumably some poor bloody civil servant had to write this drivel]. National planning policy already sets out that businesses should not have unreasonable restrictions put on them because of changes in nearby land uses since they were established. We are minded to amend the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to give greater emphasis to this matter, by setting out that planning policies and decisions should take account of existing businesses and other organisations, such as churches, community pubs and music venues, when locating new development nearby.

We consulted on proposals for this as part of the Housing White Paper published on 7 February 2017 and we intend to publish a revised draft NPPF for consultation as early as possible in 2018. At that stage we will host a round-table with representatives from the sector to invite their input into this important matter.

We continue to work with other departments, to ensure local authorities support existing businesses, organisations or activities that are an integral part of local communities, at the same time as supporting new housing and local growth.”

In addition to planning provisions, ringing church bells is subject to potential liability for nuisance at common law and under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. In respect of the Church of England, it is also subject to canon law; the Opinion of the Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod, last revised in 2008, is available here. The position with regard to statutory nuisance under Part III EPA is unsatisfactory. The Opinion notes:

“There is no prescribed or objective standard of what is, or is not, a permissible level of noise. The test the Court will apply in deciding whether the level of noise constitutes a legal nuisance is the subjective test of the Court, guided by expert evidence (if available).”

Bellringing – Health and Safety

A little less than a year since a “freak accident” at Worcester Cathedral hoisted to a visiting ringer in the air before crashing to the ground after catching his foot in a bell rope, a similar incident was reported this weekend at the church of St Helen, Abingdon. The BBC reported that firefighters found the 17-year-old more than 12m in the air inside the belfry (?) and used a rope rescue system to reach the bell-ringer. [It seems more likely that the teenager was lowered 12m from the ringing chamber]. Nevertheless, these incidents highlight the potential hazards associated with bell ringing: the potential for serious injuries and the difficulties faced by the rescue services in recovering an injured person from the ringing chamber where the normal access precludes the use of a stretcher. Advice on tower safety is available through the CCCBR and elsewhere.

(For an academic study of ringing accidents see AC Lamont & NJM London, Bell ringers’ bruises and broken bones: capers and crises in campanologyBrMedJ 1990; 301:1415-8. Ringing hasn’t changed much since 1990 so it’s probably still valid.)

Consistory Court judgments

Last week we posted thirteen additional ecclesiastical court judgments for 2017 which had been circulated by the Ecclesiastical Law Association; these have now been added to the 2017 Index of judgments. To these must be added a further eleven 2017 judgments which will be reported at the end of January, together with more recent ones. This later batch includes: a restoration order made against an architect whose choice of “protective” paint, contrary to faculty specification, was peeling off the walls within a month of application; and permission to install a diptych of which objectors described the portrayal of St Ethelflaeda as “dark and disturbing”, “grotesque” … and “raises nothing but horror”.

Street preachers questioned and released without charge

Christian Concern reports that two street preachers, David Barker and Stephen Wan were questioned under caution by police after preaching on the High Street in Camberley, Surrey on 9 December 2017. They were heckled and it was alleged that they said “homosexuals are going to hell” and “man cannot lie with man” – which they denied.

The incident may be slightly reminiscent of the (apocryphal) Times headline, “Small Earthquake in Chile, Not many dead”, but it does point up a serious issue: how can the law balance the right to manifest one’s religion under Article 9 ECHR and the right to free expression under Article 10 with the right of people to go about their business in public places without being exposed to what they regard as an annoyance?

A “WikiLeaks for Religion”?

On 12 January, FaithLeaks, “a young transparency organization focused on religious communities” styling itself as “A New ‘WikiLeaks for Religion’” published “its first big trophy this week: a collection of 33 letters and documents from an internal investigation into alleged sexual abuse within a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses”. Its website explains:

“Like other whistle-blower organizations, FaithLeaks provides sources the ability to anonymously submit sensitive documents, which the site then posts publicly. FaithLeaks uses SecureDrop, an encrypted open-source system that is also used by media outlets including the New York Times and ProPublica. SecureDrop uses the anonymizing Tor network to facilitate submissions that leave no trace online”.

Founded by two former Mormons in November, FaithLeaks believes that “increased transparency within religious organizations results in fewer untruths, less corruption, and less abuse.” That may or may not be so, and whilst it is unlikely that any material released will be of direct relevance to L&RUK – we are not a campaigning organization, nor do we use anonymous material – it is possible that the spin-off from such exposés will have legal consequences.

Quick links

And finally…

Following the news that the Bayeux Tapestry is to be displayed in the UK for the first time, the National Churches Trust‏ innocently tweeted “Are there any churches or religious themes in the Bayeux Tapestry?” Err, yes, but do you really wish to explore that issue? Of the 623 characters depicted on the “tapestry” (actually an embroidery) only three women are depicted, one of whom is in the scene entitled “Ubi unus clericus et Aelfgyva“. Experts differ on what this is intended to depict, but the well-endowed figure in the border beneath has given rise to suggestions that there was some sort of sexual scandal associated with the priest. Other clerics elsewhere on the tapestry include Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury.

4 thoughts on “Law and religion round-up – 21st January

  1. If the entity in the womb is not a baby why agonise about time-limits and restrictions whereas if it is a baby it should not be killed under any circumstances.

  2. Pingback: Law and religion round-up – 11th February | Law & Religion UK

  3. Pingback: Church bells and the law | Law & Religion UK

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