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Beyond Belief: Defending religious liberty through the British Bill of Rights

Publication Details

Launched on November 30th, Beyond Belief: Defending religious liberty through the British Bill of Rights reflects on the thesis that in a free and plural society, rights should protect difference and ensure equity between those of different dispositions. A curious legal and philosophical inversion seems to have taken place over recent decade; where once rights were used to ensure diversity, now they are often utilised to erode difference and enforce a uniform conformity on society. This trend is particularly true with the right to religious liberty and the treatment of religious groups.

Since its enactment, equality legislation has enabled the courts to exercise complete control over who is free to discriminate against whom, and to regulate the inner moral convictions of private citizens. While this legislation has affected society in various ways, it is its effect on religious liberty that is particularly pernicious. This is not a niche concern. Indeed, assaults on the liberty and dignity of certain groups should worry us all. Evidence demonstrates that societies that vigorously protect religious freedom enjoy a wide range of other fundamental rights as well, in particular freedom of speech and freedom of association. Religious freedom remains one of the most effective limits on the intrusion by the state on individual and communal life.

Beyond Belief argues that in a climate of fear and distrust of religion, more needs to be done to protect the freedoms of people of faith, and the best way to do this is to press ahead with a British Bill of Rights and include the freedom to express religious belief within it. It is vital that the Government urgently introduces legislation that supports and protects religious beliefs and practices, and the new British Bill of Rights offers a rare opportunity to achieve this goal. ResPublica believes that it should be used to introduce a principle of ‘reasonable accommodation’ into the law. This would better balance the deep-held religious beliefs of certain elements of society with other interest groups, and ensure that all religions and belief systems can feel respected and protected in the eyes of the law.

David Burrowes MP, Conservative MP and Founder of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, said: “Religious liberty is a fundamental right, but recently we have seen it being downgraded compared to other human rights. I am delighted that the ‘Religious Liberty & Literacy Report’ is shedding light on this pressing, but too often overlooked issue. Religious freedom is a universal human right which is foundational to a good society, and should not shunned or marginalised.

“This ResPublica report delivers a strong set of recommendations for Government in light of the future British Bill of Rights, which would be the perfect vehicle for underlining the UK’s commitment to reasonable accommodation of religious belief. I encourage the Government  to consider these recommendations carefully.”

Director of ResPublica, Phillip Blond, said: “By refusing people the right to wear a cross or headscarf at work we are eroding the good that could be achieved.

“We hear a lot about the bad things people do in the name of religion but all faiths actually have a role to play in bringing communities together and stopping division.

“Those who go to church, temple or mosque are far more likely to act in the public good whether it is helping deliver meals on wheels or running toddler clubs, or simply being part of a group of like-minded people.”

Nola Leach, Chief Executive of Care (Christian Action Research & Education), said: “Religious freedom can be seen as a luxury – but it is an essential human right that must be protected. This report highlights some concerning trends which show how faith is becoming sidelined in the public square and could lead to a greater privatisation of religious beliefs.

“We need to be aware that these trends will lead to questions about how people of faith can contribute and engage in all aspects of society. This report highlights the vital role that people of faith already play in our communities; we must not put ourselves in a position where we disregard and neglect the role these groups play in our society – for example religious groups are often in a position where they can distribute welfare must more effective than local government can.

“As the Government considers the British Bill of Rights, we hope this report will help them to consider the many issues facing people of faith as they seek to participate fully in society.

“We must allow for reasonable accommodation for religious belief in UK law so that policymakers and judges can balance the rights and freedoms that different groups and individuals are entitled to in the UK most effectively.

“With the tension and division of the Brexit campaign and result still raw this report offers a timely reminder of the need to allow for difference of opinion and free expression of belief.”

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  • Dr James Orr

    Dr James Orr is McDonald Postdoctoral Fellow in Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Christ Church, University of Oxford. Dr Orr’s research spans topics and thinkers on both the continental and analytic traditions of philosophical theology and theological ethics. His...

    Dr James Orr