Category: Religion


Squaring equality with religion – Aidan O’Neill QC

29 March 2011 by

The relationship between the expression of religious beliefs and practice and equality law is a fraught one, and particular difficulty has been experienced in the matter of the application of the law outlawing discrimination.

Equality law, as currently interpreted, treats the six prohibited grounds of discrimination – age, disability, race, religion, sex (including transgender status) and sexual orientation – as being of equal weight and standing; there is no hierarchy among these grounds.

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Analysis: the place of religion in foster care decisions

2 March 2011 by

Johns v Derby City Council and Equality and Human Rights Commission (intervening) [2011] EWHC 375 (Admin)- Read judgment

Religious views opposing homosexuality are a legitimate fostering concern and the local authority’s approach to this question did not constitute religious discrimination.

The claimant husband and wife applied to the defendant local authority to be approved as short-term, respite, foster carers.  They were members of the Pentecostalist Church and believed that sexual relations other than those within marriage between one man and one woman were morally wrong. The local authority considered that the claimants’ views on same sex relationships did not equate with the National Minimum Standards for Fostering Services which required carers to value individuals equally and to promote diversity. The local authority’s Fostering Panel therefore deferred a decision.

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Will churches really be sued for not allowing civil partnerships?

24 February 2011 by

On 17 February the Home Secretary announced that the government was moving ahead with changes to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 which would allow the registration of civil partnerships to take place in religious premises.

While welcomed by many, some have voiced concerns that permission will inevitably become coercion. They fear that religious organisations may face legal action if they refuse to facilitate civil partnership ceremonies, a claim the Government denies. But will they?

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No religion in court please

31 January 2011 by

Shergill v Purewal & Anor [2010] EWHC 3610 (QB) (15 December 2010) – Read judgment

In the commotion surrounding the Christian hotel gay discrimination case, it is easy to forget that there is a long-standing principle that English courts will not decide matters of religious doctrine. This principle has been in play in a run of recent cases involving an Indian holy man and libel claims against journalists.
The most recent case was brought by Dajid Singh Shergill, a UK-based Sikh activist suing the Panjab Times in relation to 3 articles published in the summer 2008, relating to His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj (Jeet Singh), an Indian based preacher. The articles claimed, amongst other things, that Jeet Singh had “abandoned Sikh Principles“, that he and his supporters were a “sham“, that Shergill had “sought to instigate serious riots and create an atmosphere of terror” by proclaiming that Baba Jeet Singh had won a court case in India and was seeking to misappropriate local Sikh temples.

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A Cornish hotel and the conflict between discrimination law and religious freedom

24 January 2011 by

Hall & Anor v Bull & Anor [2011] EW Misc 2 (CC) (04 January 2011) – Read judgment

Judge Andrew Rutherford in the Bristol County Court has held that the devout Christian couple who ran their Cornish hotel according to their Christian principles directly discriminate against a homosexual couple in a civil partnership, when they refused accommodation to them on the basis that they only let double rooms to married couples.

The couple had planned for a short break in Cornwall and, after some internet research, chose the Chymorvah Private Hotel. They booked two nights over the telephone and arrived a few days later. They were met by the owner of the hotel and told in the public reception area in front of at least one other guest, the hotels policy with regard to double rooms. The online booking form stated

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Pastor Terry Jones ban – what about free speech?

20 January 2011 by

Terry Jones, an American pastor who threatened to burn Korans on the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, has been banned from entering the UK “for the public good”.

He has told BBC Radio 5 live that he would challenge the “unfair” decision as his visit could have been “beneficial”. But, as I posted last month, the recent case of an Indian preacher who challenged his exclusion from the UK suggests that the courts would be unlikely to quash the Home Secretary’s decision. The following is taken from my previous post on the topic.

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Faith courts would do more harm than good

5 November 2010 by

In a new article, Afua Hirsch discusses the difficult question of the place of religion in our courts, in light of comments made by a judge sentencing Roshonara Choudhry, a radicalised Muslim woman, for the murder of a Christian man.

The writer compares this case to Lord Carey’s recent appeal in a same-sex counselling case that religious cases be heard by religion specialists (see our post), as well as the official censure of a judge in a criminal damage case who made overtly political comments about the 2008/9 Israel-Gaza war (our post here). Hirsch argues that religious courts may be the answer to these problems, although this may be unfair to other groups affected by discrimination such as women and ethnic minorities.

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The Pope’s visit and human rights

16 September 2010 by

The Pope begins a four-day visit to the UK today, the first official trip by a serving Pope for 28 years. The visit has already been controversial, and it raises some interesting questions from a human rights angle.

The leader of the Catholic church has spoken out recently on UK equality laws, complaining that they would run contrary to “natural law”. His comments were most likely directed at the effect of the new legislation on Catholic adoption agencies, making it more difficult for them to turn down gay couples. This could have been the key issue of the trip, but it has been overshadowed by a more difficult and damaging controversy.

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Catholic Care gay adoption rejection boosts equality protection

19 August 2010 by

Tenets of belief not enough

The Charity Commission has rejected a bid by a Catholic organisation to amend its charitable objects in order to restrict its adoption services to heterosexuals. The case highlights the significant protections which have been put in place by recent equality law, and the policing role which the Charity Commission is required to play from a human rights perspective.

The Commission was ordered by the High Court in March to look at its initial decision again in light of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The law behind the case is quite convoluted, but is worth looking at again as it is likely to have significant implications for gay couples looking to adopt as well as for religious charities in general.

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Sexual orientation, religion and the courts’ increasingly difficult role

14 July 2010 by

The courts’ relationship with religious principles is rarely out of the spotlight, and recent decisions have provided more fuel for this debate.

Aidan O’Neill QC, writing on the UK Supreme Court Blog, provides an interesting discussion of last week’s Supreme Court decision in HJ (Iran) in the context of a series of controversial United States decisions on sexuality and religion.

We posted last week on the case of HJ (Iran), in which the Supreme Court ruled that policy of sending back gay refugees to their home countries where they feared persecution is unlawful as it breached their human rights. Rosalind English examined the case in the context of a European Court of Human Rights rejecting a complaint by a same-sex couple that Austria was in violation of the Convention for not granting them the right to marry.

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Polish religious education breached freedom of conscience rights of pupil

24 June 2010 by

Grzelak v. Poland (no. 7710/02) – read judgment

The European Court of Human Rights has found that A Polish boy who refused to attend religious instruction classes for reasons of personal conviction had been discriminated against human rights because of a policy of reflecting that non-attendance in school reports.

The applicant Mateus Grzelak had been brought up in a non-religious tradition by his parents who were also applicants. Mateus began his schooling at the age of seven, and in conformity with his parents’ wishes, he did not attend religious instruction. Doctrinal classes were scheduled in the middle of the school day, between various compulsory courses.

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Are the courts doing enough to protect religious freedom? [updated]

14 June 2010 by

No entry?

A number of recent cases have ignited an interesting debate on the place of religion in the UK court system, and whether the courts are doing enough to ensure religious freedom as they are obligated to do under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The most notorious example has been McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd, an unfair dismissal claim brought by a relationship counselor who as a result of his Christian beliefs refused to promote gay sex. The former Archbishop of Canterbury submitted a witness statement stating that cases such of these should be heard by judges with special religious sensitivity. Lord Justice Laws in the Court of Appeal rejected his arguments outright.

We also posted last week on the Hardeep Singh case, in which Mr Justice Eady in the High Court effectively threw out a libel action because it rested upon fundamental principles of legal doctrine which could not properly be examined by a secular court. We posted:

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Hardeep Singh libel case reignites debate on place of religion in the English courts

8 June 2010 by

HH Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj v Eastern Media Group & Anor [2010] EWHC 1294 (QB) (17 May 2010) – Read judgment

The High Court has effectively thrown out a libel action against a journalist who claimed in an article that a Sikh holy man was a “cult leader”. The judge’s reasoning was that the disputed points of religious principle were not questions which a secular court could properly decide. In refusing to rule on such cases, are the courts taking an increasingly anti-religious view, and are they now in breach of the human right to religious freedom?

The decision was reported in mid-May, but Mr Justice Eady’s judgment was made publically available yesterday. It highlights controversial issues of whether religious believes are getting a fair hearing in the English courts, and whether “secular” judges are qualified to decide points of religious principle.

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GMC to announce policy of striking off doctors who prolong the lives of terminally ill patients against their wishes [updated]

20 May 2010 by

If a terminally ill patient has made a “living will”, specifying in advance that they do not want to be resuscitated, doctors must respect these wishes or risk being struck off. The General Medical Council is to announce this guidance in response to the Mental Capacity Act 2005 which gives “living wills” legal status. Doctors must not follow their own personal or religious convictions by prolonging treatment unless there is evidence that a patient may have changed his or her mind.

Update 25/05/10 – The Guidance has been published and can be found here

If a doctor is unwilling to follow the express verbal instructions of a patient – communicated through a friend or relative as legal proxy — they can withdraw from treating the individual. A second medical opinion must sought before hydration and nutrition is withdrawn. Telegraph Medical Correspondent Kate Devlin reports that

Doctors who flouted the guidelines would be forced to attend a fitness to practise hearing before the GMC and would be struck off if the case against them were proved. The rules affect patients deemed to be mentally capable of making these decisions. If they do not have this capacity, or have not designated someone to act on their behalf, doctors are required to make any judgment about treatment in the best interests of the patient. The guidance says that in these cases, when the decision over end of life treatment is “finely balanced”, the patient’s previously stated wishes “will usually be the deciding factor”.

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Religious versus other freedoms: the future of Article 9?

10 May 2010 by

McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd [2010] EWCA Civ B1 (29 April 2010) – Read judgment or our previous post

Case comment

Lord Carey of Clifton, responding to Lord Justice Laws’ observations in MacFarlane, has called this latest dust-up about religion in the courts a “deeply unedifying clash of rights“. It is indeed a clash of rights, but unedifying it is not. It is precisely when these rights collide that some real, hard thinking is generated, not only about the precise content of these rights, but their historical purpose and their proper function in modern society.

It may be that when the architects of the Convention drafted Article 9, guaranteeing freedom of thought, conscience and religion, they did not foresee that its future role would not be so much the protection of oppressed believers against Soviet-style secularisation but instead a thorn in the flesh of public authority employers seeking enforce their legitimate objectives against non-compliant religious employees.

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