Law and religion have been intertwined in the UK since the Church of England establishment in 1500s, with most of the court’s decisions being placed on a scale, against their compatibility with religion. In the UK Christianity is the most predominate religion, not just in culture, as seen with national holidays for Easter and Christmas but also, structurally and legally the Church has had and currently has, a large influence over our justice system. This is a much-debated area with a fine and unclear line of when religion should dictate the laws that rule us, if ever. The influence of religious beliefs on the justice system is a taxing one to unravel, this article is merely to give perspective on the topic, purely from a view of fairness and justice, rather than providing the new way forward.
In a study by Pew Research Centre, it is expected that the number of people identifying as Christian in the UK is to drop to 45.4 per cent by 2050, from the previous 65.3 per cent in 2010. This statistic alone raises the question over the ethics of having a judicial system, which affects the nation, that is influenced by a religion that is no longer expected to be in the majority. The UK is not split between identifying as a Christian and not identifying as any religion, rather there is a mix of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Folk Religion and no religion. However, none of these religions have influenced the judicial system to the same extent that Christianity has. By 2050, Christianity and Judaism are the only two expected to fall in numbers, Christianity falling the most, whereas each of the others are expected to increase, with those identifying as no religion increasing the most and becoming the majority overall. Should religion still influence the judicial system at a stage when the majority of the population is expected not to be religious?
If religion should influence the judicial system, which religion will govern it? Of all the previously mentioned religions, no two are identical to one another, many have polar opposite opinions on what they consider right or wrong. In the UK 26 Bishops, belonging to the Church of England, oversee law making in the House of Lords. These bishops are presumed to ensure morality prevails in decisions. The Church of England’s position in the House of Lords is questionable, given Christianity is no longer expected to be the most dominant religion in the UK. The idea that one religion is superior to another, in itself, can be considered to promote religious inequality. Those in the UK who do not follow Christianity, yet are obligated to follow the law, could claim that it is religious discrimination to enforce laws based on a religion which they do not follow. This issue was raised in 2008 when blasphemy laws in the UK (which only applied to Christianity) were repealed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, after years of criticism over the laws which were not viewed as compatible with freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 2008. In recent time it has been suggested that the position the 26 Bishops hold should be divided between other religions to ensure a fair, unbiased religious representation in the House of Lords.
The idea that any religion should take a place in the House of Lords to ensure morality, suggests that in order to have morals you must follow a religion. While religion teaches love thy neighbour, and do not murder, it has been the most prominent opposition to women’s rights, including a woman’s right to abortion. So while it is important to ensure a sense of moral good in the law, using religion to do so can lead to an oppressive judicial system with beliefs that many feel unjust, if not executed correctly.
"If religion should influence the judicial system, which religion will govern it?"
That being said law and religion often overlap with their overall aim to achieve good through structure and rules. The bigger concern with individual religious beliefs is that many politicians oppose reform, despite there being great public support in favour, to accommodate their own beliefs. The religious beliefs of individual MPs in Northern Ireland have stood in the way of legal reform including, gay marriage, abortion and climate change with former first minister Peter Robinson stating, “it wasn’t Iris Robinson who determined homosexuality to be an abomination it was the almighty.” The political opposition to gay marriage in Northern Ireland meant it was not legalised here until 2020, 6 years after its legalisation in the rest of the UK, and 5 years after its legalisation in the Republic of Ireland.
During Arlene Fosters time as first minister she was adamant to keep abortion inaccessible in Northern Ireland unlike in the rest of the UK. Ms Foster told the Guardian in 2016, “I would not want abortion as freely available here as it is in England, and don’t support the extension of the 1967 Act.” A United Nation committee commented on Northern Ireland abortions laws in 2018, reporting that denying women access, was in fact a breach of their human rights, under gender discrimination as “it is denial of a service only women need.” Abortion was decriminalised here the following year. Northern Ireland is a prime example of religious influence on the law going to far, and in turn oppressing the public.
The reason why religion holds such a prominent place in the law, is that at the time when Henry the VIII established the Church of England, the majority of the population where Christian and so it made sense to have laws which were based of Christianity. The difficulty of course with this is, many religious teachings are now outdated and no longer supported by society as a whole, whereas others are in line with the modern mindset. This raises the question of who gets to decide which teaching should be followed and which shouldn’t. Religion has been widely viewed as an oppressor, with former US president Jimmy Carter, a known Christian admitting, “women are treated more equally in some countries that are atheistic or where governments are strictly separated from religion.” It is suggested that religious beliefs are something which shouldn’t be forced onto anyone who does not choose them, and therefore should not have a place in deciding the laws we all must follow. This new world idea is heavily criticised by religious institutions of whose existence is viewed as dependant on traditionalism.
The idea of separating religion from law and government is known as secularism. On its face, it appears as complete separation of church and state, it is not in opposition of it. Secularism acknowledges the wide variety of religions, spiritualities and belief systems in society, and maintains that it is not fair to hold any as more important than another. It argues that the fairest way for the government and legal institutes to act is without religious influence. One of the issues with secularism, is that for us to separate religion from state entirely, we would need to go through each decision, law and policy which has been potentially influenced by religion and reconsider the outcome of it from a non-religious perspective. A further issue, is that secularism has no one definition, some view it as akin to atheism, others a type of ideology with anti-religion undertones as stated by Craig Calhoun. Unlike religion, secularism has no “set in stone” way of how society ought to move forward, rather it offers a ideal outcome with no map to get there. Many also view absolute secularism to be impractical, for those who practice a religious faith, it can be next to impossible to separate their faith from their life decisions.
Ultimately, there have been pros and cons to religious influence on the law for decades. As society shifts however, its place within the law seems to be less necessary to obtain a greater good for society. No one religion should be placed above another and therefore no one religion should be controlling the decisions that we can or cannot make. Those who follow said religions are free to practice their own teachings and beliefs, the law is designed to give that freedom to everyone. Therefore, we should all be permitted to do what we choose within the realms of the law, regardless of that laws conformation with religion. However, complete removal of religion from law is also faced with great difficulties, while secularism seems to provide the fairest answer, it is difficult to execute in practice. Law and religion both walk paths towards the greater good, perhaps it is for the best that these two paths do not merge as one however, it seems only likely that they will continue to cross