Limits to freedom of religious belief and expression…

The article was originally published here: by Dr Peter Jepson

Worrying times are before us. In future years we will look back at this era in the history of the UK as being equivalent to the McCarthy era of the US.

Not long ago in our schools/Colleges it was unacceptable to ”promote” homosexuality. At that time, I felt it strange that I could discuss the legality of murder (while delivering law A-Level Law) – but I did not have the same freedom to discuss the legality of homosexuality. Now, just a decade or so later, there is a requirement that homosexuality should be delivered in our schools/colleges as part of the new trend of ”British values”.

Likewise, a decade ago, Citizenship was considered to be a very important subject to be delivered and now many Colleges have abandoned the subject.

What concerns me is that the curriculum is being censored/politicised. Teachers are being restricted in their academic freedom to deliver values that they believe in. It seems that (to quote the Christian Institute) Ofsted are to become the state regulator of religion.  This is to apply not just in our schools, but also in youth work and in our Churches.

What worries me is that the right to religious belief is enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. From what I can see, the UK government is determining the values that relate to persons religious beliefs. In effect, Ofsted are to determine the religious beliefs that are being taught in our schools/colleges/churches.

If a parent chooses to send their child for (private) religious education, surely that should be their right.  We should certainly encourage the right of parents to attend and observe the religious values that is being given to their child. But, is it the role of the state to determine what those religious values are? Surely, Article 9 gives the individual a right to religious belief. It is NOT acceptable for the state to determine the values of that religious belief. I am not talking about values related to violence. Quite clearly, any person and/or organisation promoting actions/values of violence should be subject to the public order laws. But, religious values and violence actions/values are two distinctly different things that can easily be identified and separated.

In my view, it should be illegal for any person/organisation to promote violence. Quite how far that extends, and whether it should extend to boxing, judo, etc is a matter of judgement. Let me give you a clear example. I turn on my TV and see violence on my screen. I go to the cinema and see violence on the screen. That, it seems, is acceptable within our society. However, it also seems that I can go to the cinema and the Lord’s Prayer has been banned. How can we live in a society where violence is openly displayed as entertainment – but the Lord’s Prayer is not allowed?  Surely, if Ofsted are to be allowed to drift into Churches to police the content and delivery of religious beliefs – they should also be invited to police violence in our cinemas? My guess is that the response to such a suggestion will be one of – Article 10 which allows freedom of expression. Yes it does! Just as Article 9 allows freedom of religious belief.

John Stuart Mill justifies interference with free speech where someone is addressing a crowd on the price of corn, i.e. while outside a corn dealers. His argument being that freedom can be restricted if it is promoting violence. This same principle must also apply to Article 9 – freedom of religious belief. The difference is that belief is far more absolute than speech. What I believe is in my mind and in my heart. The only limitation that should exist is that I should not be allowed to express my belief if it is combined with promoting violence.

If the government wish to protect society from religious zealots who promote a combination of religion and violence, then it seems to me that they could require the recording of all religious instruction/prayer (with a p/p requirement). This could facilitate the optional online posting of religious instruction – something that should be welcomed by most religious instructors. It would also provide evidence of religious beliefs being promoted without any reference to violence.

The UK government should not be using Ofsted to police the content/promotion of religious beliefs. It should, instead, be using the police to police the promotion of violence.

Dr Peter Jepson
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