Friday 5 February 2010

What about my freedom of religion?

In the recent debate over the Lords' amendments to the government's Equalities Bill, much of the attention has focused on the attempt by religious groups to secure exemptions from anti-discrimination requirements.

In an Open Letter to the Bishop of Winchester published at OurKingdom, my colleague - and fellow Quaker - Iain McLean draws attention to another feature of the Lords' debate and of how the Church of England bishops used their power in the Lords.

When the government legislated a few years ago to allow civil partnerships it bowed to the wishes of some - I emphasise, some - religious groups and made it unlawful to conduct civil partnership ceremonies on religious premises.

However, in the past few years, a number of religious groups have decided that, actually, they think it is entirely in accordance with the will of God to conduct civil partnerships on their - I emphasise, their own - religious premises. Liberal Judaism, Unitarianism and Quakerism have all taken this view.

So in the debate on the Equalities Bill, Julia Neuberger, President of Liberal Judaism, spoke to a proposed amendment which would make it legal for those religious groups wishing to do so to hold civil partnership ceremonies on their premises. As she put it:

'Unlike heterosexual couples who have a choice, gay couples are disbarred from making any sort of faith commitment within a religious building. As president of Liberal Judaism, which was the first religious organisation, as far as we know, to produce and publish a liturgy for same-sex commitment ceremonies, I believe that those faith groups and individual organisations that wish to allow civil partnerships to take place within their religious premises should not be prohibited from doing so. That would mean a civil partnership taking place within a Quaker meeting house, for example, or in a Unitarian church, or in a Liberal Judaism synagogue, followed by some kind of faith-based commitment ceremony, the second following naturally from the first.

'I want to make it clear that those faith-based organisations which support the amendment do not argue that everyone should allow such ceremonies.'

As the final sentence of her speech indicates, the amendment did not seek to impose civil partnership ceremonies on any religious group which, following its own decision-making processes, does not wish to hold such ceremonies. So Anglicans, Roman Catholics and others would be perfectly free to continue to refuse holding civil partnership ceremonies on their premises, in accordance with their own religious views. The amendment would simply have made it legal for those religious groups who accept such ceremonies to practice them, in accordance with their religious views.

Guess what the Anglican bishops, the Lords Spiritual, did?

Yep. They opposed Julia Neuberger's amendment. The Bishops of Chichester and Winchester both spoke against it, the latter arguing that it would confuse the distinction between civil partnership and marriage which 'all churches' should insist on. (Chichester's opposition was on technical grounds - he did express sympathy for the principle.)

So, on the one hand, the Anglican bishops were fighting tooth and nail against the Equalities Bill by appealing to this principle: it is unjust to impose a uniform law on people when religious liberty is at stake.

And, on the other, they opposed Julia Neuberger's proposed amendment, and, at least in Winchester's case, thereby affirmed this principle: it is perfectly acceptable to impose a uniform law even when religious liberty is at stake.

There is a wider lesson here about the importance of 'secularism'.

Many religious leaders are critical of what they refer to as the idea of a 'secular society'. And there is a vague - worryingly vague - receptivity to this in some circles on the left at the moment.

But the hypocrisy of the Anglican bishops - the Bishop of Winchester in particular - reminds us of the good, old-fashioned reasons why we need to tread very carefully here.

I don't want a 'secular society' any more than the Bishops do. But I do want a secular state.

This is because there is no such thing as 'religion' - there are, rather, religious viewpoints, plural and frequently conflicting. So when the state bases its laws on the precepts of a religious viewpoint, it thereby, inevitably, takes sides between different religious viewpoints. It plays favourites between citizens with different religious (or anti-religious) beliefs.

The demand for a secular state - a state which does not act from specifically religious considerations - is a demand that the state stop playing favourites like this. It is a demand for the equality of all believers - and non-believers - in the eyes of the state. And, frankly, if you don't believe in that basic principle of civic equality then you have no right to call yourself a democrat.

In opposing Julia Neuberger's amendment, the Anglican bishops revealed that they are not democrats. They do not believe in the equality of all believers - and non-believers - in the eyes of the state. They do want the state to play favourites. They want the state to exempt them from uniform laws that oppress their religious liberty (not necessarily an unreasonable demand) - but they also want the state to impose a uniform law that accords with their religious views even though this will oppress the religious liberty of others.

The time has surely come, as Iain McLean argues, to end this medieval nonsense. It is time - long, long past time - to take the bishops out of the second chamber, and to make a more general separation of religion and the state.


Since posting this piece, Iain McLean has drawn my attention to an article by the aforementioned Bishop of Winchester. The article argues that the Anglican bishops oppose uniform anti-discrimination law in the name of 'pluralism'. He does not explain how this very same commitment to pluralism is compatible with opposing Julia Neuberger's proposed amendment.

A Fabian friend has written to suggest that my claim in the above article about secularism, civic equality and democracy is 'overegging' it a bit. Well, the article above was written in a state of rather unQuakerly rage at the Anglican bishopry and so I wouldn't rule out having gone over the top. Still, I stand by what I say above. A non-secular state will be a state that plays favourites between citizens with different faiths (and none); and, as such, it will contradict a basic norm of citizen equality; and, as such, it will fail to be a truly democratic state. One might avoid the last step of this argument by claiming that 'democracy' is purely a matter of equal voting rights (which aren't necessarily undermined by state favouritism for a particular religion). But that, I think, reflects an overly narrow conception of what a democratic political order is - it ignores the way in which democracy is a matter of civic, as well as formally political, equality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's hardly surprising that the Bishops should refuse to sign up to a relativist and secularised account of 'religion' though, is it? I mean, their opposition to 'gay marriage' for example is founded on religious beliefs they believe to be objectively true, to which any deviation is an offence against God - naturally, this will trump any commitment to pluralism or relativism, as your appeal for a 'secular state' seems to be about. And, again, the Bishops will also seek to protect and extend this insight where and when possible (ie on civil ceremonies in religious buildings)- I mean, what else would you expect?

As such, it's right that the state should sometimes play favourites, even if some would then declare this to be a limitation of 'liberty' - indeed, in other situations you would positively demand that it did so, when an African Islamic tradition of circumcising young girls is offered as a genuine religious belief, for example (I know there is an argument to be had here about culture vs. religion - but that very same argument applies to the Quakers et al. and the issue of 'gay marriage').

Lastly, to say there is no such thing as 'religion', simply because there are also religious viewpoints, seems a little dinsingenuous. The two statements can co-exist quite happily - that some people disagree on what religious truth might look like, doesn't therefore mean that there can never be such a thing as religious truth, and that a particular religion can't be the the most faithful expression of it. That is, not everyone would buy your (already v. secular and individualistic) account of religion.