Law and religion round-up – 4th November

The week of Halloween – but there was quite a lot of real news as well…

Ireland votes to abolish the offence of blasphemy

The result of the Irish referendum on the abolition of the offence of blasphemy was announced late on Saturday night, 27 October – which is why we missed it in last week’s round-up. As predicted by the exit polls, 64.85 per cent voted “Yes” to decriminalise blasphemy, while 35.15 per cent voted “No”. Further progress will necessitate a preparatory bill to amend the Constitution and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan, has said that he will now work to remove the word “blasphemous” from Article 40.6.1 and move to repeal ss.36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009.

… while the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquits Asia Bibi

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court in Islamabad overturned the death sentence on Asia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a row with her neighbours. Ms Bibi has been in prison for eight years; Chief Justice Saqib Nisarm said that she could be released immediately if not wanted in connection with any other case. Matthew Scott highlights Ms Bibi’s case in his critique of the ECtHR’s recent ruling in ES v Austria, which he describes as a lamentable judgment.

Isle of Man to decriminalise abortion

The House of Keys has unanimously backed the Abortion Reform Bill 2018 yesterday with three minor amendments. The amendments will go to the  Legislative Council next month.

The Isle of Man’s existing abortion legislation, the Termination of Pregnancy Act 1995, provides for abortions in limited circumstances, such as where the mother’s life is at risk. Under the Abortion Reform Bill, termination of pregnancy will no longer be a criminal offence. Termination will be available on request up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, up to 24 weeks in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, and beyond that point where the mother or baby’s life is at risk. It also provides for counselling for women who have had an abortion, and for “buffer zones” around abortion clinics to prevent protests. [With thanks to Irish Legal News.]

Law Commission to look at wedding law

On 1 November, the Law Commission for England and Wales issued a press release welcoming the Chancellor’s Budget (Budget???) announcement that the Government would ask it to review the law on weddings in England and Wales: we noted it here. The Terms of Reference for the project have yet to be agreed with the Government; we cannot but hope that the Commission will end up carrying out a thoroughgoing review.

An Ad Clerum on LGBTI+ in Oxford Diocese

On 31 October, the four bishops of the Diocese of Oxford issued an Ad Clerum to 1,500 ministers setting out the bishops’ expectations of inclusion and respect for all and announcing a new LGBTI+ chaplaincy team. The Oxford letter commends five principles for welcoming and honouring LGBTI+ people and looks at work underway in the Church of England to develop new pastoral guidance and teaching resources relating to human sexuality and same sex marriage. This follows the lead of the Rt Revd Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Lichfield, in adopting five principles for listening to and supporting LGBTI+ people. 

The initiative was generally welcomed, and in his post C of E Risks Failure on Human Sexuality Because of Privileged Power, the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, former Chair of the General Synod Human Sexuality Group and member of the Co-ordinating Group for “Living in Love and Faith”, commented [emphasis added]:

“it is very good, in this context, that the Dioceses of Lichfield and Oxford have both released unequivocally supportive letters encouraging the full inclusion of LGBTI+ people. They are carefully worded letters which respect the current position of the Church, but in a way which opens up hope for the future. Respect to the Bishops of Oxford and Lichfield and all who worked with them!”

Both the Ad Clerum issued by the diocese of Lichfield and that by Oxford stress “the responsibility of all Christians, but especially those who hold the Bishop’s Licence as clergy or lay ministers, to ensure that all people know that there is a place at the table for them”. However, in his reply to the Lichfield document on 17 May, Bishop Rod Thomas commented, “I wonder whether the reference to ‘a place at the table’ for all might be taken by some to imply encouragement for all to participate in Holy Communion. This understanding would create a tension with the BCP Article 25 distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ participation”.

Salve Festa Dies?

On Monday there was yet another Westminster Hall debate on a measure the Government is unlikely to progress, so there were few surprises apart from an unconvincing explanation as to why the debate was held at all. There was a low number of signature for the two combined petitions (about 58,000), and the debate was justified inter alia “not least the absence of any petition over that threshold (i.e. 100,000 signatures). However, we would agree with, Martyn Day, (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP), said that the situation was summed up well by the National Secular Society:

“The UK’s religious landscape is in a state of continuous change. Our population is more irreligious, yet more religiously diverse, than ever before. A multi-faith approach to holidays can therefore never serve the individual needs of the many different people who make up the UK, or adequately keep abreast with the changes in the UK’s demographics. A more practical and equitable approach is to give workers greater flexibility, where their work allows, to take holidays on the specific days that matter to them.”

Along these lines, Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op) mentioned an initiative from the United States:

“where the most progressive employers have introduced paid personal days for staff members to enable them to observe religious occasions or to use them for other personal reasons. They are not written into law as such, but they are a concept widely recognised by employers. Perhaps with tax incentives to assist, even the most recalcitrant of employers’ organisations might be willing to recognise that that could be a route, initially, to help employers to adjust to their employees being able to take time off to, perfectly reasonably, celebrate those two hugely important sets of public holidays in the Hindu community and the Islamic calendar”.

The problem with this approach, however, would be whether there would be many “progressive employers” in the UK who would be amenable to such a scheme. Martyn Day stated:

“87% of respondents to our consultation said that they felt that not allowing time off for religious occasions was discriminatory, while 84% felt that they could not ask for time off work or education for a religious occasion, so there are clearly underlying issues that need to be addressed”.

Quick links

And finally…

Halloween Weekend Schedule: Archdruid Eileen on transferring Samhainn, burning the Wicker Person and dancing round dressed as Donald Trump and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Enjoy.

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