France is leading the way in the secularisation of the state, but will Britain follow its lead?
The role of religion in the law is a pretty touchy subject, and one that’s prompted polarising viewpoints and intense debate over the years.
Take Trevor Phillips, former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In 2012, he said that people have to make a choice between religion and obeying the law. He argued that religious rules should end “at the door of the temple”, to give way to public law.
Now seems like the ideal time to bring up this topic, a topic of such taboo status. The University of Warwick’s Christian Union has recently hosted a week of events, so this seemed to me like a perfect opportunity to interrogate someone who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to religion, to see if the views expressed by Phillips carry any weight. As an atheist myself, I am perhaps not best placed to provide a religious angle, and my views could be seen to vary too much on the matter.
So I spoke to Tim Williams — who is currently on an associate scheme at an Anglican church in London — about his interpretation of Christian views in the law.
I wanted to find out about the concept of the secularisation of state. The system currently operating in France — ‘laïcité’ — differs greatly from what we see here, particularly the British response to discrimination. In Britain, prohibiting people from wearing religious signs is seen as discrimination, however in France, banning people from wearing religious signs is seen as necessary to avoid discrimination.
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This is often seen by many as ‘political correctness gone overboard’ and, even as an atheist myself, I take issue with the consequences of Britain becoming an entirely secular society.
Williams’ take on the matter is this. He argued that the church’s role should not be to fight against suppression by the state. Instead, he said that in Christian narrative every person has already rebelled against God and Christians want people to realise this, but it should be the individual’s choice whether to live under God’s authority or not. He said that the church has no right to dictate the state, however problems do arise when the state takes freedom away from the church.
In terms of legal complications and clashes with religion, we discussed Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a strong Lutheran who is a key example of religious resistance to a fascist government regime. The concept of the ‘lesser of two evils’ was contemplated here, especially when looking into jurisprudence and the idea of the ‘rule of law’ — a higher and more divine law than any government can comprehend.
Bonhoeffer was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler, an obvious crime of attempted murder. However one could argue his case on grounds of morality: although his actions were not legal, they can be seen as part of this higher morality and divine law.
For society to become better, it is always a good aspect to be morally upright. The Bible represents that the world is going against God, so it becomes difficult to separate this to make it better.
When thinking about these concepts and their application to recent case law, we looked at the highly controversial case of the conjoined twins in Re A, a case that raises endless debate on justice and morality, tying together the issues of law and religion.
Here, the judges were faced with an intensely difficult moral decision about the medical treatment of two conjoined twins, Mary and Jodie. Saving Mary by separating the twins would mean the death of Jodie, but if no life would be sacrificed then this would probably lead to the death of both twins. Regardless of the decision, death would occur. From a Christian point of view, this raises a specific topic: authority.
Romans 13:1 reads as follows:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Christians are told to submit to authority — whether it be the sovereign or the Supreme Court — however good or bad it may be; if God has allowed this, one must obey. The passage continues:
[W]hoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.
From a business aspect, an employee is most likely to listen to the advice and instruction of his CEO rather than his immediate boss in the workplace. Despite this hierarchical system, Williams demonstrated that although we must obey our immediate authority (the government), God acts as the highest possible authority, like the CEO in this scenario. Despite this, in terms of Mary and Jodie, Williams told me that although the decision made may not be seen as morally correct by all, in this sense we must follow the law and the decision it makes. We may inwardly question this, but outwardly it is right for the legal system to make this type of decision.
Obviously Williams’ viewpoint does not represent all religious point of views. There is debate between religions and between people of the same religion over subject matter as complex and taboo as this. So it’s difficult to come to any solid conclusions about the role of religion in law, and whether Britain will end up following France’s lead in secularisation. It’s something that will have to be closely monitored in the coming years, but if Williams’ words provide any reassurance, there appears to be little in the form of animosity on the horizon.
Millie Pierce is a first year law student at the University of Warwick.