Freedom of religion not freedom to impose

Altar; photo by Adrian Pingstone (public domain)Last week saw two legal rulings relevant to the religion versus secularism debate. The more widely reported one was the case of prayers being held at the start of council meetings in Bideford, Devon. The verdict was that councils can not hold prayers as part of their formal business because they only have the power to discuss council business at meetings. However, the judge did say that councillors could pray before meetings as long as it wasn’t on the agenda as part of the formal business and that it wasn’t compulsory to attend. It’s difficult to find all of the details of this story. Some reports suggest that the prayers were already optional, and that the register of attendance wasn’t taken until the prayers had finished.

However, I can still empathise with Clive Bone, who originally brought the complaint, as it can’t have been pleasant to be excluded from part of the meeting while the other councillors took part in this ritual together. Simply making provision for someone not to take part isn’t good enough. Would he have had to hang about outside, waiting until they called him in? If the prayers were held before the published start time of the meeting, that would be better, but still not ideal. Why should someone who has been elected to a council be left to feel like an outsider just because the other members decide to do something that has nothing to do with the reason for its existence: to provide certain local services? Some people have criticised the technical nature of the judgement, which suggested councils should stick strictly to business at meetings. But it is actually rather a common sense ruling. If councils were allowed to put whatever business they liked on the agenda, they could decide to use half an hour at the start of the meeting to discuss the weekend’s football results. Clearly that would be inappropriate, and so is bringing a clergyman in to say prayers.

Many of the objections to the ruling have, unsurprisingly, been that it somehow restricts people’s “religious freedom”. But surely freedom to practise a religion means the freedom to go to a place of worship to pray, and the freedom to pray in private in your own time. It doesn’t mean a right to impose that religion or views on other people, or to insist that you have the right to practice the religion at any time or place, or to insist that religion forms an integral part of a completely unrelated event. If Christian councillors believe that praying will enable them to serve local people better, why not pray before they leave home, or do so in church the Sunday before? The fact that they insist the prayers have to be held as part of the meeting shows that they want at least to encourage others to take part too. And the reason they are supported by senior figures from the Church of England is because the latter want to ensure they retain their political influence in this country. There are countries in the world where Christianity, and other religions, are banned and their adherents persecuted. That is what it means not to have religious freedom. Seeking to impose a religious activity on others isn’t freedom, but rather a free hand.

Having said all that, I do still have some sympathy with those who have suggested it is a storm in a teacup that should have been resolved out of court. There are far worse examples of the abuse of the concept of “religious freedom” where it is used as an excuse to discriminate against others. The second relevant court case this week was that of the hotel owners who banned a gay couple from staying in their establishment. They lost an appeal against the original ruling that they had acted unlawfully. They had claimed they were entitled to discriminate against people because it was an expression of their religious beliefs. (They also claimed it wasn’t discrimination because they would have equally banned any unmarried couple from sharing a room, although it would be interesting to know exactly how they determine guests’ marital status – theirs sounds rather like a Fawlty Towers-style establishment.)

It’s clear to see that it is wrong to discriminate against any such group of people. No-one would find it acceptable if “gay” were replaced with “black”. I always have a problem with any suggestion that because someone’s views are religious in origin, it makes them any more valid, and that they have any more right to discriminate against others than someone who holds views for any other reason. As far as I am aware, there is no official list that details recognised religions and exactly what the beliefs of each is. No such thing exists, and in fact it couldn’t. People’s religious beliefs tend to be based on an interpretation of a religious text, not on a rule book. For example, some Christians consider homosexuality to be a sin, whereas other churches welcome gay people or are even set up especially for them. Therefore, a religious view can be given no more weight than any other view, so discrimination is just as unacceptable.

People should be free to practice religion, but this should not interfere with others. Religious freedom does not mean freedom to force other people to take part in religious rituals at non-religious events any more than being a sports fanatic gives a right to discuss the week’s fixtures; and religious freedom does not mean freedom to discriminate against other groups of people any more than holding a BNP membership card does.

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