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Two cases this week reveal what a muddle we've got into about the role of religion in public life. New York City this week ruled that churches are no longer allowed to meet in public school buildings. A judge has ruled that because “A worship service is an act of organized religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church.” No major Christian denomination believes this, so it is an odd personal theological interpretation on which to rest the fate of more than 100 congregations.
Today in the UK , the National Secular Society’s (NSS) campaign to end a council in Devon conducting prayers before their meetings has been successful. The council had decided by majority vote to continue the practice, as have many other councils, but because of this ruling, no council in England or Wales will be able to .
Both these cases reveal a fair degree of woolly thinking. In the US, where the first amendment stipulates a separation of church and state, the context is a caution verging on paranoia about mixing religion and state institutions like schools (though not, of course, religion and politics). The idea, mooted in an op-ed in the New York Times, that the church handing out leaflets about their services, or even praying for the school they are meeting in is somehow a violation of this is patently absurd.
Here in the UK we see a Judge making a highly convoluted ruling on a case that probably shouldn’t have come to court. Rejecting the NSS's claims that prayers are discriminatory or raise equality or human rights concerns, he instead ruled in favour of banning the practice because he found that prayers do not fall within the ambit of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972. This provides local authorities with a generic power ‘to do any thing (whether or not involving the expenditure, borrowing or lending of money or the acquisition or disposal of any property or rights) which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions’.
The basis on which he comes to this conclusion is not clear. What was propelling him to interpret these non-specific clauses in such a way? Having rejected claims of discrimination, he then sneaks them back in:
"I do not think the 1972 Act [...] should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude, or even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected councillors".
It's a bizarre way of ruling on this issue, and sets a very unhelpful precedent.
I do not dismiss the concerns of the NSS entirely, and have some sympathy with the argument that those who do not believe should be not be forced to take part in a ritual that excludes them. These discussions are the stuff of social engagement, how we navigate our different priorities and learn to live with our differences. However, these kind of issues can only be resolved sensibly, graciously, and productively amongst the people involved , rather than through sweeping legal rulings using obscure legislation which will have far-reaching impact. In the case of Bideford Council, the councillor who raised the original objection has now left, but the campaign has rolled on. The current way we work out this issues in the law courts frames the debate as about competing “rights”, us and them, religious people vs. secular people, and creates an impoverished and divided public space. We have forgotten how to handle our differences like grown-ups. Healthy, generous secularism, what Rowan Williams calls "procedural secularism", means holding open a space where all people and all voices are allowed space to flourish without having to hide who they are. Secularism does not mean a programmatic and illiberal banishing of some points of view which are seen by others to be invalid- whether those are religious, ideological or other.
In the end the most sensible part of the judges ruling was something that could and should have been worked out amongst the councillors- that prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend. There was no need for this unhelpful legal precedent to be set. Organisations like the NSS are divisive, forgetting that society is not made up of two warring factions of "religious" and "non-religious" people but is far more complex than that. We've got to stop using the hammer of the law to crack the nut of interpersonal friction, and work harder at living together with our differences.
This blog first appeared on the Huffington Post.