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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

The UK is signatory to international conventions on human rights which hold it to commitments regarding religious freedom and belief, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention, which outlines the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (Article 9), was incorporated into UK law in the Human Rights Act (1988), although it only fully came into force in 2000.

The Church of England, as the established church in England, has dominated public religious life for more than 450 years and enjoys a small number of legal privileges, for example 26 Anglican bishops sit in the UK parliament’s House of Lords. Although the majority of the UK population still brodly identify with Christianity – according to the last census 59.3 percent self described as Christian[1] – regular Church attendance fell dramatically during the late 20th century.[2] Immigration and demographic changes have contributed to the growth of other faiths, most notably Islam.

Although Religious Education is a legal requirement in state-funded schools in England, more than a quarter of the country’s secondary schools do not offer religious education. Fiona Moss of the National Association for RE warned that schools would produce students that were “not religiously literate”.[3] During the period under review, a number of public figures including Aaqil Ahmed, head of religion at the BBC, and Justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed concerns over rising levels of religious illiteracy.[4]

According to the Pew Forum’s last assessment while government restrictions of religious freedom remained low, social hostilities were high.[5]  Home Office data shows an increase in “racially or religiously aggravated offences” from April 2016, peaking in July 2016 (5,949 religious hate crimes were reported for 2016-17). “These increases fit the widely reported pattern of an increase in hate crime following the EU referendum.”[6] Additionally, religious believers have experienced discrimination when their own beliefs conflict with changing societal norms.

Incidents

Related to Judaism

For 2017 the Community Security Trust recorded 1,382 anti-Semitic incidents – the highest annual total recorded by the organisation. This included a 34 percent increase in the number of assaults recorded which rose to 145. Increased assaults on individuals perceived to be “foreign” following the result of the Brexit referendum and publicity regarding controversies about alleged and actual antisemitism in the Labour Party were reckoned to be among factors in the increase.  The 2017 figure of 1,382 incidents marked an increase from 2016 when there were 1,346 anti-Semitic incidents. Every month from May to December 2016 there were more than 100 incidents, the majority involving the verbal abuse of recognisably Jewish people. 22 percent of the overall total involved abuse on social media. There were also 107 violent incidents, mostly minor.[7]

In September 2017, an elderly man was making his way to a synagogue in London when a white man aggressively grabbed his prayer book and skullcap, throwing both to the ground. In the same month two men of Middle Eastern appearance shouted at a Rabbi from their vehicle: “F**k off back to Israel, you Israeli C**t.”[8] In 22 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, the victims were Jewish students or academics, compared to 41 incidents in 2016. A survey found more than a quarter of Jewish students who responded had experienced personal abuse including through social media. Most (65 percent) did not believe the NUS would “respond appropriately” to allegations of anti-Semitism following allegations of anti-Semitic remarks by NUS personnel, including its 2016-17 President, Malia Bouattia who removed Jewish students’ ability to elect a representative on the union’s national anti-racism committee.[9]

Related to Islam

Incidents more than doubled between 2016 and 2017 – with police recording 110 crimes between March and July 2017, up from 47 over the same six-month period in 2016. Fiyaz Mughal, Director of Faith Matters which works to increase community cohesion, said Islamist terrorism was the biggest factor driving hate crime, but that people felt uncomfortable saying so.[10] In particular, the June 2017 London Bridge attack triggered attacks on British Muslims, with a fivefold increase in the three days following the incident. There were reports of Muslim women being verbally abused on buses, or spat at; one lady was grabbed by the throat at a bus stop.[11] Racist abuse, acts of vandalism and bomb threats were among reported hate crimes directed at mosques across the UK. One person was killed and 12 injured when 48-year-old Darren Osborne drove a van into a group of Muslims near Finsbury Park mosque in north London. In February 2018 Mr Osborne was sentenced to a minimum of 48 years for a terrorist offence.[12]

In September 2017, five days after a radicalised teenager detonated a bomb on a tube train at Parsons Green station, injuring 50 people, a 47-year-old mother was run down by a car in Leicester. The impact threw Zaynab Hussein, who was returning from the school where she had just dropped off her two youngest children, against the wall of a nearby house. As she lay on the pavement the vehicle reversed over her. Mrs Hussein was later hospitalised with a broken leg and arm as well as severe fractures to her pelvis and spine. Her injuries have substantially restricted her mobility. The car then tried to hit a 12-year-old girl on her way to school, but she was only clipped. Both victims were wearing obviously Islamic headscarves. In March 2018, a jury found the driver, 21-year-old Paul Moore, guilty of attempted murder, grievous bodily harm with intent, and dangerous driving. He was given a life sentence.[13]

Related to Christianity

Christians are experiencing problems when their religious views conflict with current political norms on gender and sexuality.  Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron felt pressured to quit as party leader after a media row over his personal religious views about gay sex during the 2017 general election campaign.[14] An August 2017 Employment Appeal Tribunal found against Pentecostal pastor Barry Trayhorn, who was suspended for “homophobic comments” for quoting 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 in a May 2014 chapel service.[15] Mrs Justice Slade said that the biblical passage quoted was “derogatory against homosexuals” and could “legitimise bullying or other mistreatment”.[16] In October 2017 the High Court for England and Wales upheld Sheffield University’s decision to expel MA student Felix Ngole from his Social Work course for publicly posting on his Facebook page in support of American clerk Kim Davis. Judge Rowena Collins Rice ruled that although the university’s actions were “indeed severe” the perceived risk of damage justified them, as “they could be accessed and read by people who would perceive them as judgemental, incompatible with service ethos, or suggestive of discriminatory intent…whatever the actual intention was, it was the perception of the posting that would cause the damage”.[17]

In 2016 magistrate Richard Page, 71, was sacked after telling a same-sex couple that ideally children should be raised by a mother and father. The Christian man had previously been reprimanded and had to undertake “re-education training”.[18] Similarly, South Derbyshire Magistrate Susan Preston was given a formal warning for misconduct by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office and ordered to stand down from hearing future family cases, after declining to sit on a case involving same-sex parenting because to her personal religious views.[19] A Christian couple was stopped from adopting their foster children, after expressing the view that children should have a mother and a father wherever possible.[20]

After figures on hate crime in Scotland showed Roman Catholics are more targeted than any other religious group, MSP Elaine Smith, Scottish Labour’s inequality spokesperson, said members of the religious group need more protection.[21] A BBC Scotland video parodying the reception of Communion in the Catholic Church was described by Bishop John Keenan of Paisley as “offensive to Catholics in both the words and images used”.[22]

Related to Religious Schools

Conservative Jewish schools, particular private Haredi intuitions, have come under increasing pressure from OFSTED over same-sex issues.[23] Vishnitz Girls School failed three OFSTED inspections in 2016 and 2017, partly for not teaching primary school children aged between three and eight about homosexuality or gender reassignment.[24] An October 2016 report concluded that, because of the lack of teaching in this area, “the school does not encourage pupils to have respect for other people”.[25] The private girls’ school was not the only Jewish school to clash with OFSTED on the issue. In February 2017 Beth Jacob Grammar School in Hendon, which was ranked outstanding five years ago, was downgraded to inadequate.[26] OFTSED noted that pupils were “not taught explicitly about issues such as sexual orientation”, while acknowledging that “pupils are taught the importance of respecting and appreciating all people as part of their Jewish faith”.[27] Beis Aharon Primary School for Boys in Stamford Hill received six visits from OFSTED inspectors in two years, and the Secretary of State issued an order preventing it from admitting new pupils. While it improved in a number of areas of concern, as of the last inspection in March 2017 the independent school was still being criticised for the “quality of education”, for not teaching children aged between three and 13 about LGBT+ issues.[28] Summing up after the school lost an appeal against the restriction, Judge Hugh Brayne said failure to teach students about same-sex relationships and gender reassignment “prevents the school from encouraging respect for people who have such characteristics”.[29]

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education Amanda Spielman singled out faith schools for criticism. She said: “We have found an increasing number of conservative religious schools where the legal requirements that set the expectations for shared values and tolerance clash with community expectations.”[30] Tottenham MP David Lammy said: “We’ve stood by, helpless to stop what many regard as the escalating offensive on Jewish education,” and criticised what he called the “overtones of Soviet ideology” in Spielman’s conflation of “British values” with “secular values, which every school in the land must inculcate into children”.[31] LGBT+ issues were not specifically covered in the British values for schools launched in 2014, and while respect and tolerance for LGBT+ individuals were implicit, there was nothing to suggest explicit teaching about lifestyle was required.[32] Nor would the failure of the Vishnitz Girls School to teach pupils about homosexuality explicitly violate any existing equality legislation, raising serious questions about OFSTED’s interpretation of government guidance.[33]

Prospects for freedom of religion

The peak in religiously linked hate crime was connected to wider factors. While it is hoped that there will be a drop in such offences as these factors are no longer current, nevertheless each reporting period sees new triggers and continued attacks of varying severity.

The right to manifest religious views is being denied when beliefs conflict with current, progressive norms on gender and sexuality: individuals and institutions are being penalised for expressing traditional religious view of morality, even when done objectively and with no intention of causing offence. There is every reason to fear that as the debate on gender and sexuality moves further away from traditional models that those religious groups and individuals who articulate their views in this area will be increasingly sanctioned by governmental and legal institutions.

 

Endnotes / Sources

[1] National Office of Statistics, Religion in England and Wales 2011 <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/religioninenglandandwales2011/2012-12-11>. Recent surveys suggest the numbers of “nones” (i.e. those identifying with no faith have risen), however, these are based on relatively small data samples, e.g.  2017 survey that found 53 percent of respondents identified as “nones” was based on a sample of 2,942 respondents. May Bulman, “Record number of British people say they have no religion” Independent, 4th September 2017 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/british-people-atheist-no-religion-uk-christianity-islam-sikism-judaism-jewish-muslims-a7928896.html> (Both sites accessed 13th February 2018).

[2] Alasdair Crockett and David Voas, “Generations of Decline: Religious Change in 20th-Century Britain” in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 45 (2006), pp. 567-584; BBC News (online), 7th May 13 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22426144> (accessed 18th April 207).
[3] Parents also have a legal right to withdraw their children from RE classes. Robert Long, Religious Education in Schools (England), House of Commons Library Briefing Paper 07167 (7th July 2016); Alex Strangwayes-Booth, “Schools break law on religious education, research suggests”, BBC News (online), 17th September 2017<http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-41282330> (accessed 13th February 2018).

[4] Rose Gamble, “Terrorist attacks are to do with religion says Welby, urging faith leaders to take responsibility”, The Tablet, 5th June 2017 < http://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/7227/terrorist-attacks-are-to-do-with-religion-says-welby-urging-faith-leaders-to-take-responsibility> (accessed 18th April 207).
; Ian Burrell, “BBC head of religion warns of ‘chronic lack of religious literacy’ in the UK”, Independent, 18th March 2016 < https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/bbc-head-of-religion-warns-of-chronic-lack-of-religious-literacy-in-the-uk-a6940041.html> (accessed 18th April 207).
[5] Global Restrictions on Religion Rise Modestly in 2015, Reversing Downward Trend, Pew Research Centre, 2017 (covering situation in 2015).

[6] Aoife O’Neill, Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2016/17, Home Office Statistical Bulletin 17/17 (17th October 2017), pp. 1, 6.

[7] CST Annual Review 2016, p. 9 <https://cst.org.uk/data/file/d/f/CST_Annual_Review_2016.1486995234.pdf>; CST Annual Review 2017, p. 17 <https://cst.org.uk/public/data/file/a/b/IR17.pdf> (accessed 18th April 207).
[8] CST Annual Review 2017, pp..4, 5, 20, 38 <https://cst.org.uk/public/data/file/a/b/IR17.pdf> (accessed 18th April 207).
[9] Independent (online),  3rd April 2017 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/jewish-students-uk-british-universities-anti-semitism-israel-bds-national-union-students-nus-malia-a7665111.html>; The experience of Jewish students in 2016-17 (London: NUS), p. 8 < https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/The-experience-of-Jewish-students-in-2016-17> (accessed 18th April 207).

[10] “The latest data was obtained through Freedom of Information requests made to 45 UK police forces.” Rachel Roberts “Hate crime targeting UK mosques more than doubled in past year, figures show” Independent Sunday 8 October 2017 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/hate-crime-muslims-mosques-islamist-extremism-terrorism-terror-attacks-a7989746.html (accessed 13th February 2018)

[11] Vikram Dodd and Sarah Marsh, “Anti-Muslim hate crimes increase fivefold since London Bridge attacks” Guardian Wed 7 Jun 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/07/anti-muslim-hate-crimes-increase-fivefold-since-london-bridge-attacks (accessed 16th February).

[12] Vikram Dodd and Kevin Rawlinson, “Finsbury Park attack: man ‘brainwashed by anti-Muslim propaganda’ convicted”, Guardian, 1st February 2018 < https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/feb/01/finsbury-park-van-attacker-darren-osborne-found-guilty-murder-makram-ali>; Colette Hume, “Darren Osborne: ‘Complex emotions’ after mosque attack” BBC News (online), 16th February 2018 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-43074664> (Both accessed 18th April 2018).

[13] Hanna Yusuf, “Mother who was run over twice by attacker: ‘I thought I had died’”, BBC News (online), 27th March 2018 < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43544115>; Kevin Rawlison, “Man jailed for life after running over Muslim woman in Leicester”, Guardian, 27th March 2018< https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/27/man-jailed-life-running-over-muslim-woman-leicester-paul-moore-zaynab-hussein>; Lizzie Dearden, “Man who tried to kill Muslim woman and 12-year-old girl in ‘revenge’ for terror attacks jailed for life”, Independent, 27th March 2018 <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/leicester-muslim-attempt-murder-revenge-terror-attack-jailed-paul-moore-sentence-prison-a8275976.html> (Both accessed 11th July 2018).

[14] Following an interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News in which Mr Farron refused to answer the question whether gay sex was sinful saying he would not “spend my time talking theology”, he was repeatedly asked the question in media interviews and even in parliament. In an attempt to end the furore Mr Farron told BBC political correspondent Eleanor Garnier that he didn’t think gay sex was sinful. However, speaking to Premier Christian Radio in January 2018 he appeared to retract the statement: “The bottom line is, of course, I did (feel pressured) and there are things – including that – that I said that I regret.” Following his remarks Lib Dem politicians and activists called for Mr Farron to be sacked from his frontbench post. See Benjamin Butterworth, “Is gay sex a sin? Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron loses thousands of votes” Pink News, 9th June 2017 <http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/06/09/is-gay-sex-a-sin-liberal-democrat-leader-tim-farron-loses-thousands-of-votes/>; “Tim Farron: I don’t think gay sex is a sin” BBC News (online)

25th April 2017 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39703444>; Alex Williams  “Tim Farron: I was foolish to say gay sex isn’t a sin” 10th January 2018 <https://www.premier.org.uk/News/UK/VIDEO-EXCLUSIVE-Tim-Farron-I-was-foolish-to-say-gay-sex-isn-t-a-sin> ;  Benjamin Butterworth, “Gay sex row: Tim Farron ‘will be dealt with’ as Lib Dem activists call for him to be fired” Pink News, 11th January 2018 <http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/01/11/gay-sex-row-tim-farron-to-be-dealt-with-as-lib-dems-activists-call-for-him-to-be-fired/> (All above sites accessed 12th January 2018).

[15] “Rev’d Barry Trayhorn ‘forced to resign’ as prison worker – for quoting the Bible in chapel” Archbishop Cranmer (blog), 2nd November 2015 <http://archbishopcranmer.com/revd-barry-trayhorn-forced-to-resign-as-prison-worker-for-quoting-the-bible-in-chapel/>; “Christian prison worker ‘forced to resign’ after quoting Bible in chapel service” Christian Concern, 2nd November 2015 <http://www.christianconcern.com/our-concerns/freedom-of-speech/christian-prison-worker-forced-to-resign-after-quoting-bible-in-chape> ; Jonathan Petrie, “Christian minister disciplined by prison authorities for quoting verses from the Bible deemed to be homophobic” Mail on Sunday, 31st October 2015 <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3298454/A-Christian-minister-disciplined-prison-authorities-quoting-verses-Bible-deemed-homophobic.html#ixzz3r0CuDYri> ; “Homophobia row preacher ‘forced’ to quit HMP Littlehey” BBC News (online), 3rd November 2015 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-34697664> (All accessed 8th January 2018).
[16] Andrea Williams, “A judicial warning shot that should put the fear of God into us”, Christian Concern, 10th August 2017 <http://www.christianconcern.com/our-concerns/freedom-of-speech/a-judicial-warning-shot-that-should-put-the-fear-of-god-into-us-andre> (date accessed 8th January 2018).

[17] “Court rules student can be expelled for quoting Bible on Facebook” Christian Concern, 27th October 2107 < http://www.christianconcern.com/our-issues/education/court-rules-student-can-be-expelled-for-quoting-bible-on-facebook> ; “Christian thrown out of university over anti-gay remarks loses appeal” Guardian 27th October 2017; Matt Reeder “Yorskhire university defends christian’s course exclusion in homosexuality comments row” Yorkshire Post, 4th October 2017  https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/education/yorkshire-university-defends-christian-s-course-exclusion-in-homosexuality-comments-row-1-8786501> (All accessed 8th January 2018).

[18] “Employment Tribunal allows censorship of Christian beliefs” Christian Concern, October 24th, 2017 <http://www.christianconcern.com/our-issues/employment/employment-tribunal-allows-censorship-of-christian-beliefs> ; “Richard Page, from Headcorn, loses case after being sacked over gay adoption row” KentOnline. 22nd October 2017 <http://www.kentonline.co.uk/maidstone/news/former-nhs-director-loses-gay-adoption-row-134089/> (All previous sites accessed 8th January 2018); “Magistrate sacked for opposing same-sex adoption is suspended by NHS” Guardian, 26th March 2016 < https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/27/magistrate-sacked-for-opposing-same-sex-adoption-is-suspended-by-nhs> (accessed 13th February 2018).

[19] “Magistrate disciplined for not hearing same-sex parenting case” Christian Concern, 3rd February 2017 <http://www.christianconcern.com/our-concerns/adoption/magistrate-disciplined-for-not-hearing-same-sex-parenting-case> (accessed 12th January 2 018).

[20] “Christian couple blocked from adopting children because of their belief that children need mum and dad” Christian Concern, 9th November 2016 <http://www.christianconcern.com/our-concerns/adoption/foster-parents-prevented-from-adoption-because-they-believe-a-child-should-hav> (accessed 12th January 2018).

A survey of 12,000 Christians found that 50 percent reported experiencing prejudice because of their beliefs and 93 percent thought Christianity was being marginalized within the UK. State of the Faith survey, Premier Christian Media 2017 <https://www.ordinarychristian.org.uk> (accessed 12th January 2018).

[21] John Boothman, “Catholics in Scotland are the biggest target of hate crime”, The Sunday Times, 18th March 2018.

[22] Nick Hallet, “BBC Scotland video says Holy Communion ‘smells like hate’”, Catholic Herald, 13th April 2018 http://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2018/04/13/bbc-scotland-video-says-holy-communion-smells-like-hate/ (accessed 24th April 2018)

[23] Jewish Chronicle, 8th December 2017< https://www.thejc.com/education/education-news/jewish-independent-schools-fare-worst-in-ofsted-report-1.449894> (accessed 18th April 207).

[24] Jewish Chronicle, 26th June 2017; Independent (online), 26th June 2017 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/private-jewish-school-lgbt-issues-fail-ofsted-inspection-vishnitz-girls-london-orthodox-sex-british-a7809221.html> (accessed 18th April 207).

[25] OFSTED additional inspection, Vishnitz Girls School, 13th October, 2016 <https://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report/provider/ELS/138516> (accessed 18th April 207).

[26] Jewish Chronicle, 27th February 2017 <https://www.thejc.com/education/education-news/hendon-girls-school-receives-lowest-ofsted-rating-1.433474> (accessed 18th April 207).

[27] OFSTED inspection, Beth Jacob Grammar School for Girls, 2nd November 2016, Italics mine <https://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report/provider/ELS/101388> (accessed 18th April 207).

[28] “Pupils demonstrate a general lack of awareness of the way other people choose to live their lives, including those with protected characteristics.” OFSTED  inspection, Beis Aharon School, 2nd March 2017, p. 3  <https://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report/provider/ELS/101388> (accessed 18th April 207).

[29] Pink News, 9th May, 2106 <http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/05/09/jewish-school-banned-from-taking-new-students-until-it-teaches-about-lgbt-issues/> (accessed 18th April 207).

[30] Amanda Spielman, The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2016/17, London: OFSTED, p. 8.

[31] Jewish Chronicle, 28th December 2017 <https://www.thejc.com/comment/comment/it-is-time-to-stop-this-assault-on-our-jewish-schools-1.451005> (accessed 18th April 207).

[32] These were: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

[33] “Guidance on promoting British values in schools”, 27th November 2014 <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/guidance-on-promoting-british-values-in-schools-published> See also Promoting fundamental British values as part of SMSC in schools Departmental advice for maintained schools London: Department of Education November 2014 <https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/380595/SMSC_Guidance_Maintained_Schools.pdf> (Both accessed 18th April 207).

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