Christians should use human rights laws to defend their freedoms, says top judge

Baroness Hale: ‘paradox’ over faiths in England

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
  • Baroness Hale
    Baroness Hale: ‘paradox’ over faiths in England Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Frances Gibb and Ruth Gledhill
Published at 12:01AM, March 21 2014

Britain is one of the least religious countries in Western Europe because the Church of England is a “very undemanding church”, the UK’s most senior woman judge has said.

“It has no dietary laws, no dress codes for men or women, and very little that its members can say is actually required of them by way of observance,” said Baroness Hale of Richmond, a Supreme Court justice.

England was a “parodoxical country” when it came to religion, she added. Despite having an established church, half the population did not belong to any religion. Affiliation to the Church of England fell from 40 per cent in 1983 to 20 per cent in 2010.

“Politicians are not encouraged to wear their religion, if any, on their sleeves,” she said in a lecture to a conference at Yale Law School released yesterday. “Religous observance is much more common amongst minority communities than it is among the majority, who would once unhesitatingly have described themselves as ‘C of E’ even if they never went to church.

Despite this, Baroness Hale said that it was “not difficult to see why Christians feel that their religious beliefs are not being sufficiently respected”.

She suggested that human rights laws, rather than discrimination laws, were the correct way to decide such cases as they would allow courts to take account of religious beliefs and balance the competing rights of individuals and the community.

The law could require “the providers of employment, goods and services to make reasonable accommodation for the beliefs of others”, Baroness Hale said.

That would enable a “general defence of justification in discrimination law” in which courts can weigh the merits of a case. If there was a “good reason for a difference in treatment they will try to find a reason why it is not unlawful”.

She also suggested that if human rights law had been applied, Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who claimed religious discrimination after refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, might not have lost her claim.

The case was originally a discrimination claim, Baroness Hale said. “I wonder what would have happened if Ms Ladele had brought a Human Rights Act claim in England against the London Borough of Islington rather than, or as well as, a discrimination claim.”

Lady Hale’s comments come as church attendance figures released today show that Sunday church attendance — typically 800,000 people — has halved since 1968.

However, average weekly attendance has shown very little change over the decade from 2003 to 2012, with a million people attending church each week on average in October 2012 and the average church welcoming 50 people — 30 in rural parishes and 100 in urban ones.

There is also positive news, with numbers showing a rise in under 18-year-olds and newcomers, with the numbers of joiners said to be exceeding that of leavers overall.

More than half of the worshipping community are aged between 18 and 69, 28 per cent are 70 or over and 20 per cent are under 18. The proportion of the worshipping community aged 70 or over ranges from 13 per cent in London to 41 per cent in Norwich.

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