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  • 18 April 2017 : Prime minister’s Easter message on the importance of Christian heritage

Prime Minister Theresa May’s Easter message instigated considerable stir and debate about the role of religion both in government and for national identity. In her address, two days before announcing a general election, she made a number of references to the importance of Christianity and Christian values, as a means of uniting the country after Brexit :

“This Easter I think of those values that we share – values that I learnt in my own childhood, growing up in a vicarage. Values of compassion, community, citizenship. The sense of obligation we have to one another. These are values we all hold in common, and values that are visibly lived out everyday by Christians, as well as by people of other faiths or none.”

Although “other faiths and none” were mentioned in passing, there was an implication that the values aspired to are understood to be Christian. Some people also felt it undermines the deep political divisions within the country after the referendum. Former Labour communications director Alastair Campbell accused her of implying that God would have voted to Leave Europe.

She also appealed to religious freedom, and urged that “We must continue to ensure that people feel able to speak about their faith, and that absolutely includes their faith in Christ.” Although the statement was general, it has been read as suggesting that Christians do not enjoy religious freedom in Britain. Secular campaign groups have found this ludicrous given the protected status of the Church of England.

A couple of weeks before, Theresa May had expressed her outrage at an advertisement from The National Trust a chocolate egg hunt not using the word “Easter”.

On 18 April, the prime minister called for a general election to be held on 8 June. The purpose is to secure a majority for the Conservative Party in parliament, in the time leading up to the separation from the European Union in 2019.

Read more, including the full speech at Huffington Post, I News and The Guardian.

  • 11 December 2013 : The UK’s highest court has ruled that Scientology is a religion and that members can marry in their church.

Scientologist Louisa Hodkin, who wanted to marry her fiancé in a Church of Scientology chapel in central London took her case to the supreme court and won. So far, the chapel was refused by the registrar general of births, deaths and marriages for the solemnisation of marriages under the 1855 Places of Worship Registration Act. On Wednesday, five Supreme Court justices ruled in her favour, announcing that the Scientology chapel was a "place of meeting for religious worship and that religion should not be confined to faiths involving a "supreme deity", as this would exclude other non-theistic faiths such as Buddhism. The ruling overturns a reading of the law from a 1970 court of appeal case, which was based on scientology’s lack of “veneration of God or of a Supreme Being". While some welcome this ruling as a sign of religious equality and freedom, others are concerned about its implications. Particularly, there is worry that the controversial organisation would now qualify for tax exemptions. Local government minister Brandon Lewis has said his department will take legal advice, but that premises which are not genuinely open to the public will still have to pay business rates, and cannot qualify for tax relief.

  • 10 October 2013 : During September and early October there has been a debate in the press about the use of the Niqab and other face veils in public places.

A minister in the Home Office, Jeremy Browne (Liberal Democrat), called for a national debate in September on whether the state should step in to prevent young women from being pressured or coerced into wearing a veil. Browne’s intervention follows a controversial decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to drop a ban on the wearing of full-face veils amid public protests. Freedom of religion is considered a very important value in Britain, and disputes about religious dress are usually solved on a case-to case basis. Some have criticized the government from trying to introduce a national debate about a relatively minor issue during the party conferences to distract the press and public from the country’s economic situation. Nonetheless the use of face veils in certain situations does raise concerns about security, religious rights and equality of access to education and jobs. Since the call for debate was introduced the debate about the Niqab has died down in the press, perhaps reflecting that it is only worn by a very small proportion of the population.

An overview of the context and the different arguments can be found in the Guardian.

  • 23 July 2007 : purity ring at school

Queen’s Bench Division. Regina (Playfoot) (a Child) v Millais School Governing Body. Before Mr Michael Supperstone, QC. Judgment July 16, 2007.
A sixteen year-old girl took a case to the High Court of Justice alleging that her school had violated her rights under Articles Nine (Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion) and Fourteen (Prohibition of Discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into UK Law by the Human Rights Act. It was ruled, however, that her school’s refusal to allow one of its pupils to wear a purity ring, demonstrating her commitment to sexual abstinence prior to marriage, did not infringe her right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. If there were a perceived obligation to act in a specific way, the school was obliged to make due allowance. However, the claimant was under no obligation to wear the ring and, in his Lordship’s judgement, the act of wearing it was not intimately linked to the belief in chastity before marriage.

See ’Purity ring is not intimately linked to religious belief ; Law report’, The Times (23 July, 2007), p. 49.

D 18 avril 2017    AIngrid Storm

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