Equality and Religious Freedom

by Peter Leeson

On 4th of February 2014, the Cutting Edge Consortium hosted a discussion at the House of Commons on the relationship between religious freedom and human rights. Three speakers introduced their points of view before taking questions from the attendees.

Karon Monaghan, QC (and atheist) talked about the status of religion in this country and the legal aspects of religion. She pointed out that religion has a privileged place in this country, particularly the Church of England with its 26 bishops sitting in the house of Lords, the requirements of Christian presence in schools and prayers in Parliament and the role of the monarch as “defender of the faith”. This has allowed specific exemptions to be billed into laws which allow discrimination in religious organizations regarding sex, abortion, sexual preference and more. In addition to this, religion is protected in this country both in the freedom of conscience and the freedom to act according to one’s belief, even if that is discriminatory. When there is a conflict between religion and discrimination, the European court tends to support the local courts, but encourages accommodation when there is conflict, balance when there is none.

Frank Cranmer, honorary research fellow at the centre for law and religion (and a Quaker) questioned the limits of what “reasonable accommodation” means, citing the case of a Canadian Muslim who managed to get segregation imposed on members of his aikido class because his religion forbade him to touch women.

Carola Towle, national LGBT officer at Unison, discussed the conflicts in the work place, focusing more on the LGBT issues rather than the religious aspects. She attracted attention that a petition with some 200,000 signatures opposing the European law protecting LGBT people has been thrown out.

Questions and discussions followed, covering topics such as the fact that religious laws are always superseded by national laws and we need not be swayed by small groups of vocal extremists on all sides.

The answer to this, as to most problems would lie in education. Most conflicts occur when one group decide that they have the absolute truth and everyone else should act accordingly.

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