A great deal of hot air has been generated as a result of David Cameron’s decision to play up his faith in the Church of England. His article suggests a warm beer and village greens approach to his Christianity – “…I appreciate its liturgy, and the architecture and cultural heritage of its churches. My parents spent countless hours helping to support and maintain the village church that I grew up next to, and my Oxfordshire constituency has churches – including some medieval masterpieces – that take your breath away with their beauty, simplicity, and serenity”. While this contribution nearly led the political debate over the Easter weekend (Alastair Campbell’s pithy deconstruction of the article from a political perspective – “We had the warm up act with his ‘Jesus invented the Big Society’ and now the full Monty as Easter nears), pushing down the headlines Ukraine and Syria, much more interesting from an employment law perspective is what is meant by “a Christian country” and how that interacts with, say, equality and human rights law.
According to YouGov poll in late 2012 76% of Britons say that they are “not religious”, whereas 56% say that Britain is Christian and 61% agree that it should be. What does being a Christian country mean? Manifestations include the royal Coronation service and oath, the latter including the following fairly unequivocal obligation:
Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?
Parliament convenes with Christian prayers and bishops sit in the House of Lords.
The Magna Carta enshrines the rights and primary position of the Church of England as the “established” Church and, of course, our bank holidays reflect Christian festivals including Christmas and Easter.
Representatives of other religions appear relaxed with the description – the Hindu Council is “very comfortable” with it and the Muslim Council has acknowledged that the UK is a largely Christian country with “deep historical and structural links” to Christianity. However others are not so happy.
Meanwhile, Britain’s most senior woman judge, Baroness Hale of Richmond, has suggested that England is “a paradoxical country” when it comes to religion. While noting that affiliation to the Church of England has dropped from 40% to 20% in a little over 25 years, she said in a lecture at Yale University perhaps the better route to the protection of religious beliefs within the judicial process is through human rights laws rather than discrimination laws:
Nevertheless, it is not difficult to see why the Christians feel that their religious beliefs are not being sufficiently respected. Other religions with stricter dress codes or dietary laws are demanding concessions which Christians feel that it is harder to claim because they cannot point to equivalent religious requirements. Eweida is something of a breakthrough here. But instead of all the technicalities which EU law has produced, would it not be a great deal simpler if we required the providers of employment, goods and services to make reasonable accommodation for the religious beliefs of others? We can get this out of the [European Court of Human Rights] approach but not out of our anti-discrimination law (although it is well established there in relation to disability).
For those (like me) interested in the approach of the courts to dealing with questions of religious rights and freedoms, the speech is highly recommended reading.