Macfarlane and others v United Kingdom (ECHR 329 (2012) – read press release
Tomorrow the Strasbourg Court will hear complaints in four applications that UK law has failed adequately to protect the applicants’ right to manifest their religion, contrary to Articles 9 (freedom of religion) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination). See our posts on these cases here and here, and in the related Preddy case here.
All four applicants are practising Christians who complain that UK law did not sufficiently protect their rights to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination at work. Ms Eweida, a British Airways employee, and Ms Chaplin, a geriatrics nurse, complain that their employers placed restrictions on their visibly wearing Christian crosses around their necks while at work. Ms Ladele, a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, and Mr McFarlane, a Relate counsellor, complain about their dismissal for refusing to carry out certain of their duties which they considered would condone homosexuality. Their challenges to their consequent dismissal were rejected by the UK courts on the basis that their employers were entitled to refuse to accommodate views which contradicted their fundamental declared principles – and, all the more so, where these principles were required by law, notably under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007.
The judgment is awaited with considerable anticipation: the National Secular Society and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have both filed intervening submissions under Rule 44 §3 of the Rules of the Court.
The interaction between the law and religion or belief is rarely out of the headlines. Debate rages about whether Article 9, the human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, receives sufficient – or too much – protection in the courts. There has been a considerable amount of litigation, much of it contentious (see, for example, here, here and here)
A new report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) by researchers at London Metropolitan University, including myself, explores these controversies. It is based largely on interviews and roundtable discussions with around 100 religion or belief groups, human rights and/or equality organisations, employers, public service staff, academics and lawyers. It is concerned as much with differing perceptions and understandings of the law as with the law itself. It also examines the practical application of the law in the workplace and public services.
Monday night’s fascinating seminar on Article 9, “Outlawing God”, saw Dinah Rose QC, John Bowers QC, Dr Evan Harris (Liberal Democrat former MP) and Rabbi Michael Laitner (solicitor and Orthodox rabbi) square off over the relationship of the courts to religious belief and believers, refereed (and sometimes stoked) by Joshua Rozenberg in the chair. The seminar, which raised almost £2,000 for legal advice clinics at the Hebrew University, can be listened to here.
There was a clear division in the room: between the lawyers, who felt that the courts in both the UK and Strasbourg afforded less robust protection to Article 9 rights than to the other rights in the Convention; and Dr Harris, who could not accept that a religious belief was any more worthy of protection than any political belief.
Swift v. Secretary of State for Justice  EWHC 2000 (QB) Eady J, read judgment
This decision involves the intersection of Articles 8 (family) and 14 (discrimination) of the ECHR with the law governing who can recover damages for the death of a relative. This law is the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 (for the text see  of the judgment – embarrassingly, the one freely available on the internet is out of date). One does not to think for very long before realising that the FAA is underpinned by an idea that one ought to respect the rights of the family, and to pay the family when one has negligently caused the death of a family member. But like all such laws, there is the problem of where to stop – where does the family stop for these purposes?
Ms Swift had been living with Mr Winters for 6 months when he was killed at work. She was pregnant with their child. Under FAA rules, her child had a claim for financial dependency against his father’s employer – what he expected to derive from his father had his father lived – even though he was not born at the date of his father’s death. Indeed, her son recovered £105,000. But, says the FAA, Ms Swift does not have a claim. s.1(3) requires an unmarried partner to have been living with the deceased for 2 years before his death before they can become a “dependant”, and no amount of re-writing via s.3 of the Human Rights Act (to make the FAA rights-compliant “so far as possible”) can make “2 years” read as “6 months” . Had she qualified as a dependant, she would have had a claim for about £400,000.
So Ms Swift’s claim was against the Secretary of State for a declaration that the FAA was incompatible with her Article 8 and 14 rights.
R(on the application of S and KF) v Secretary of State for Justice  EWHC 1810 (Admin)- read judgment
This case about prisoner’s pay provides an interesting up to date analysis of the role of the doctrine of “margin of appreciation” and its applicability in domestic courts.
Margin of appreciation is a doctrine of an international court: it recognises a certain distance of judgment between the Strasbourg court’s overall apprehension of the Convention principles and their application in practice by the national authorities. In theory it has no application in domestic disputes but ever since the Human Rights Act introduced Convention rights into domestic law there has been an ongoing debate about its applicability at a local level. This case demonstrates the importance of its role in the assessment, by the courts, of the compatibility of laws and rules with Convention rights.
Herrmann v Germany (Application no. 9300/07) 26 June 2012 – read judgment
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the obligation of a landowner to allow hunting on his property violated his Convention rights. Although the majority based their conclusion on his right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions, the partially concurring and dissenting opinions and the judgment as a whole provide an interesting insight into the way freedom of conscience challenges are to be approached in a secular society where religion holds less sway than individual ethical positions on certain issues.
In 2002 the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany ruled that the granting of exceptional authorisation for the slaughter of animals without previous stunning, on religious grounds, did not breach the German Basic Law Schächt-Entscheidung (BVerfGE 99, 1, 15 January 2002). The social uproar that followed the ruling led to the German constitutional legislature taking a significant step aimed at protecting animal welfare with the 2002 constitutional reform, by including Article 20a in the Basic Law:
“Mindful also of its responsibility toward future generations, the State shall protect the natural foundations of life and animals through legislation…” Continue reading →
The Government’s Consultation on Equal Civil Marriage ends on Thursday 14 June: you can fill in the brief online survey here if you haven’t already. In the meantime, the Church of England is on the front pages this morning with its own response, which amongst other things, warns that “it must be very doubtful whether limiting same-sex couples to non-religious forms and ceremonies could withstand a challenge under the European Convention on Human Rights”
The Church’s argument is set out on pages 10 to 13 of its response. It is interesting, and there might be something in it. However, it is clear from the rest of the document that the Church is, in its introduction, inflating the likelihood of a successful court challenge. This has of course made its way into the press coverage, where it is being suggested that a challenge would “probably” succeed. But even the Church’s own response, reading a little further, does not go this far.
Let’s consider the argument. The Church puts a number of propositions. First,
It remains the case that member states of the Council of Europe are not obliged to make legal provision for same-sex marriage.
Mr Duncan-Smith has already faced opposition to his reform proposals but has made it clear that he is willing to tackle this controversial issue. However, this week’s ruling is a timely reminder that social security law is extremely complex and that the Government will have to tread very carefully to avoid unwittingly causing further instances of unlawful discrimination.
The late US law Professor Paul Miller reflected recently that Beethoven, Stephen Hawking and Elton John were examples of individuals whom, if they had been tested for serious genetic conditions at the start of their careers, may have been denied employment in the fields in which they later came to excel.
Earlier this month the Association of British Insurers announced the latest extension on the moratorium on the use of genetic test results for insurance purposes. But is this “Concordat” sufficient protection? Genetic technologies are becoming increasingly available and profound questions are arising in relation to life and health insurance and employability as genetic screening becomes cheaper and widespread.
Gas and Dubois v France(2012) (application no 25951/07). Read judgment (in French).
The French government did not violate articles 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and 14 ECHR (right not to be discriminated against in one’s enjoyment of Convention rights and freedoms) in not allowing one partner in a homosexual couple to adopt the child of the other. And the Daily Mail goes off on another frolic of its own.
Ms Valerie Gas and Ms Nathalie Dubois, now in their 50s, lived together as a lesbian couple, obtaining the French equivalent of a civil partnership (the pacte civil de solidarité, or PACS) in 2002. Ms Dubois, through artificial insemination in Belgium using an anonymous sperm donor, gave birth to a girl in September 2000. Together, they took care of the child and, in 2006 , Ms Gas, applied to adopt the girl with the consent of her partner, Ms Dubois. Continue reading →
The Trade Union Congress have sent me the full letter (download here) which Education Secretary Michael Gove sent to its leader Brendan Barber in relation to a complaint about seemingly homophobic booklets distributed to Roman Catholic schools in Lancashire. The letter which Mr Barber sent to Mr Gove is here.
I complained in this post that the excerpt of the response published by The Observer appeared to misunderstand the provisions of the Equality Act which apply to schools. I also said that the quote in the article could have been out of context. In short, it was. Here is the full paragraph, which presents a much fairer representation of the law:
Updated, 20 Feb 2012 | Following the news recently it would seem that the UK is convulsed by a raging battle between religious observers and, in the words of Baroness Warsi, militant secularists. On the same day, the High Court ruled that Christian prayers held before a council meeting were unlawful, and the Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the High Court that two Christian hotel owners had discriminated against gay clients by not offering them a double room.
Today’s spat, according to The Guardian, involves a letter sent to the Education Secretary Michael Gove by the Trade Union Congress leader “expressing alarm that a booklet containing “homophobic material” had been distributed by a US preacher after talks to pupils at Roman Catholic schools across the Lancashire region in 2010.” From the quotes provided in The Observer, the book sounds pretty offensive:
On 10th February 2012, the Court of Appeal upheld a Judge’s ruling that a Christian couple, Peter and Hazelmary Bull, had discriminated against Martin Hall and Steven Preddy on grounds of sexual orientation when they refused them a double-bedded room at their hotel near Penzance.
For many years, Mr and Mrs Bull had restricted the use of double-bedded rooms at the Chymorvah Private Hotel to married couples. As devout Christians they believed that monogamous heterosexual marriage was the form of partnership “uniquely intended for full sexual relations” and that sex outside of marriage – whether heterosexual or homosexual – was sinful. To permit such couples to share a double-bed would, they believed, be to participate in promoting the sin (single-bedded and twin bedded rooms were available to all).
Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has thrown a firecracker into the consultation on gay marriage, which is about to begin in March. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph he declared that he did not agree that it was the role of the state to define what marriage is. ”It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are”.
Gay rights campaigners have poured scorn on this pronouncement, calling the Archbishop a “religious authoritarian” who wants to ”impose his personal opposition to same-sex marriage on the rest of society.” But this outbreak of bad temper – not unpredictable, given the skirmishing over the consultation on the same issue which took place in Scotland last year – raises the wider issue of the role and influence of church leaders in the process of legal change.
In a secular society, the participation of clerics in the House of Lords is grudgingly accepted as part of an ancient tradition. And on this issue at least, the general view seems to be that the Church has grounds for complaint. The current system recognises gay partnerships under the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (CPA). But the main change is to alter the Equality Act so as to allow such partnerships to take place on religious premises, and it is that which is being so bitterly opposed, apparently because it brings the matter within the church’s bailiwick. But even if it does, we have to ask what it is that privileges Sentamu’s voice over any others in the debate over whether gay and heterosexual partnerships should be on an equal footing in all respects, including the place where they are registered. Continue reading →
On Friday 6 January 2012, a historic case came to a conclusion in Courtroom 7 of Southwark Crown Court. Michael Peacock was unanimously acquitted, after a four-day trial that saw the outdated obscenity law of England and Wales in the dock.
Peacock had been charged under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 for allegedly distributing ‘obscene’ ‘gay’ DVDs, which featured fisting, urolagnia (‘watersports’) and BDSM.