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The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, in speaking to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, I shall not address myself to the technicalities, which are best left to those who are expert in the law, but I shall address the heart of the matter. What I say now refers also to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.
I remain to be convinced that the Government have really heard the concerns of the Churches in this matter. We are concerned not for privileges but for the protection of conscience, a proper pluralism in our society and the proper integrity and autonomy of the Churches and other religious traditions in this country. We have no reason to doubt the good intentions of the present Administration but we are afraid of unintended consequences in future years. Liberal regimes can turn out to be as authoritarian as illiberal regimes.
I give a warning also. When the state interferes with the rights of conscience or with the internal life of religious bodies, it is nearly always the state which ends with egg on its face. There are enough pictures of the seven Bishops in this place to make the point. Another example is the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874. As soon as the courts started to put obstinate clergymen into prison, the whole thing fell into disrepute.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I am rather surprised that Amendment No. 11 has been grouped with these amendments. Although it overlaps Amendments Nos. 8 and 6 and the amendments grouped with it, because it deals with problems of religious courts and bodies, it deals with them in a broader, different and technically necessary way. If any of those amendments were to be accepted, Amendment No. 11 would be consequential.
But even if none of those amendments had been moved, Amendment No. 11 on its own would be worth consideration and should be considered. Therefore, I shall reserve my right to speak on it when various other ways of dealing with religious problems have been considered. But I shall not trouble your Lordships further with it at this moment.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, the European Convention on Human Rights is one of the most powerful weapons for the protection of religious freedom which has ever been created. That is why I am frankly surprised and somewhat sad that those who have put their names to the amendments, which include some Members of your Lordships' House for whom I have the highest regard, have persuaded themselves that the Bill is not a defence but a threat to them.
To allow those provisions of the European convention to be relied on by the English courts will benefit the Churches. Absolutely contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said, it will encourage diversity of religion and culture. It will not create rigidity.
Let us take an example. Let us assume that a future government passes an Act which authorises homosexual marriages. Two homosexuals go to their local Church of England vicar and say, "We are members of the Church of England. We are regular communicants. We live in your parish. We want a church wedding. You must marry us". In those circumstances the vicar would rely on Article 9 and would say, "If this Act requires me to perform such a marriage, it is incompatible with my religious beliefs and therefore incompatible with Article 9".
I must point out that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, on this issue would deprive that hypothetical vicar of the right to raise that defence in an English court. He would have to take the matter to Strasbourg. The noble Lord was wrong to say that the court itself could refer the matter to Strasbourg. There is no such power. The vicar would have to take the matter there at his own expense or that of the Church. This amendment would have denied that hypothetical vicar any relief in English law because the only right he could obtain was a declaration of incompatibility and that has now been forbidden to him.
Amendment No. 11 seeks to exclude the church courts from their position under the Bill as a public authority. If a decision will affect the legal rights of a party before that court, why should he not be entitled, for example, to a fair trial under Article 6? Let us take the example which I mentioned at an earlier stage of an incumbent who faces proceedings in a church court to deprive him of his benefits. Is he not entitled to rely on Article 6?
At an earlier stage, the Church of England raised an entirely legitimate criticism of the Bill for enabling the fast-track procedure to be applied to Measures of the General Synod. That criticism was met by the Government's amendment put forward on Report. In welcoming that amendment, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon said:
I regret that the movers of these amendments do not adopt the attitude which appeared to me was being adopted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon. I should emphasise once again that, if this amendment is passed, it will not serve the Churches because it will reduce rather than increase the protection which they will get from Article 9 of the European convention.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should point out that he raised this issue on Report. I made it perfectly plain then that there is no question of my suggesting that the Church of England would be harmed or that any Church or religious body would, so to speak, not wish to be within the umbrella of the convention. The noble Lord misunderstands me again. Indeed, I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon in this respect.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I should like to speak briefly on the matter following what has been said by my noble friend. I very much hope that your Lordships were able to absorb the many points that he made and with which I entirely agree. I have but a few points to make and I shall, I hope, not repeat anything that my noble friend said.
In the first place, the founders of the European Convention on Human Rights were men and women imbued with religious values as well as with the secular values of the Enlightenment. I was reminded of that fact by one of the Vatican's most senior lawyers when I was a rapporteur at an international gathering and referred to the Enlightenment. The Vatican lawyer pointed out,
Therefore, the convention provides no threat whatever to any Church that is a proper established Church; in other words, a religion which is well recognised and which acts in accordance with its tenets and beliefs. During the half century since the convention has been established and during the 30 years since British citizens were allowed to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights, I know of none in which any of these problems has arisen in practice where any enemy of religion or of any Church has brought a case that has ever got anywhere in Strasbourg.
I do not understand why the movers of these amendments think that merely giving our courts the same powers as are possessed by the European Court of Human Rights would represent any threat at all. On the contrary, surely our own judges would be much more sensitive to the kind of issues raised by the movers of the amendments than would an international European court.
Further, when I look at the way in which the amendments are drafted, it seems to me, apart from the absence of any necessity for them, that they would do great harm to relations between people of different faiths in this country. Your Lordships will have noticed that the amendments depend upon applying the provision to "religious bodies". The Moonies, the Scientologists and other sects would no doubt claim that they are religious bodies and that, therefore, they are entitled to the protection of this kind of immunity under the convention. I would not like to see our courts, as has happened with other countries, having to decide claims of discrimination between, say, the Scientologists and the Moonies on the one hand and Christians or Jews on the other.
One of the amendments in the group--Amendment No. 6--refers to "religious belief" which, for some reason, is confined to Great Britain and does not include Northern Ireland. I should have thought that Catholics and Protestants might be offended by their exclusion from that amendment. Surely they, more than most people in this country, have particularly passionate views in that respect. However, leaving that point aside, the amendment refers to the,
The last time that the amendment was put forward it sought to give the Minister the power to define what was a religion. This time the aim is to give courts the power to define what is and what is not a religious body. That would simply transfer the problem of divisiveness. I fear therefore that the amendments are completely
I very much hope that your Lordships will be satisfied that there is no practical problem that any of us can identify. As I said, none of the examples given seems to be a real example of any conceivable breach of the convention. If that is so, then we are being asked to approve amendments which I believe are fraught with problems and which would serve no real practical purpose. Therefore, I very much hope that the careful balance as regards protecting religious freedom against the misuse of the powers of the state (which is what this charter of liberty is all about) will be maintained and incorporated into our law in the way in which the Government wish.
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