Questions of religion and society are as complex as they are controversial. 2017 alone has been indicative of this with several terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam, court judgments banning headscarves in the workplace, and more recently, the prohibition of Christian Union representatives at an Oxford college fresher’s fair. Understanding the role and scope of human rights in this context is as important as ever, and with this mind HRLA’s Young Lawyers’ Committee (YLC) decided to host a discussion entitled ‘Faith, Conscience and Human Rights’ with a leading panel of practitioners, activists and academics.
The event was held in the Bingham Room at Gray’s Inn and was hosted by YLC member Jeremy Frost, Anglican priest and future pupil barrister at human rights set Garden Court Chambers. Alongside him were Dr Ronan McCrea (Professor of Law at UCL and former advisor to the National Secular Society), Ismet Rawat (barrister and president of the Association of Muslim Lawyers), and Mia Hasenson-Gross (director of René Cassin: Jewish Voice for Human Rights).
“Humanity is the both the scum and glory of the universe”. Opening with a quote from French philosopher Blaise Pascal, Jeremy Frost illustrated how his Christian faith helps him understand the importance of human rights. For him, humans are created in the image of God and are therefore of infinite value; human rights, by extension, represent the glory of humanity and human rights violations its scum. This prompted the panel members to consider what faith can bring to human rights as well as how human rights laws protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion. He also asked the panel whether religious illiteracy was a concern for them, and what challenges they perceived regarding the interaction of faith with the public sphere both in the UK and Europe.
Dr McCrea emphasised the importance of a nuanced understanding of the topic. “The problem for human rights is that religion is complicated” he said, describing how so often the discourse is not so much about religion itself but a host of other complex and sensitive issues such as migration, gender, sexuality and national identity. This poses a challenge to regulating religious influence and expression in the public sphere, especially when well intentioned policies have been hijacked for political ends. Dr McCrea referred to the Front National in France in this context, explaining how the far right party’s newly discovered love for laïcité (a French concept of secularism) has helped promote its islamophobic policies. Further difficulty arises in the way human rights law characterises religion, both as a set of ideological beliefs and as an immutable form of identity. Often in law there is no way to do justice to both characteristics. Dr McCrea was conclusive however in his opposition to the use of religious courts for resolving non-religious disputes in society, even if this were a voluntary decision by the claimant. Citing legal academic Farrah Ahmed, he showed how the choice between religious and secular courts in India had led to the oppression of women by members of their own faith, it being viewed as a betrayal of the community.
Ismet Rawat outlined the legal framework protecting the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and human rights. Whilst this is an absolute right under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the manifestation of one’s religion or beliefs is subject to such limitations deemed necessary in a democratic society and in the interests of public safety. For Ms Rawat’s own faith community this means that whilst they have a right to produce Halal meat, it could not be demanded wherever they go. She also emphasised the collaboration with other faith communities on shared concerns of religious freedom, mentioning how her own organisation had held a joint event with the UK Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists earlier in the year on the right to practise circumcision. The education system in the UK is also problematic for Britain’s Muslim community. Not only has there been a longstanding criticism of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy Prevent for its vilifying effects on school children, but there has also been a perceived injustice regarding single-sex Muslim schools, recently deemed discriminatory by the Court of Appeal despite a long tradition of single-sex Christian and Jewish schools.
Mia Hasenson-Gross provided a unique perspective on the topic as a non-lawyer and human rights activist from Israel where there is no separation of religion and state. She spoke of the work of her organisation, which engages the UK’s Jewish community on human rights issues by drawing on Jewish values and experience. Internal discrimination within the Orthodox Jewish Community was another topic addressed in her talk, particularly in relation to accessing faith schools and the right of a transgender mother currently tying to obtain greater access to her ultra-orthodox children. Just prior to the event the organisation celebrated the birthday of its namesake, Jewish jurist, professor and judge René Cassin, also known as the father of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ms Hasenson-Gross explained how Cassin’s experience of losing 26 members of his family in the holocaust motivated him to fight for justice and human rights, a life story that continues to inspire the Jewish community that is all too frequently the victim of hate crimes.
The YLC would like to thank Gray’s Inn for hosting the event as well as the panel members for a fascinating discussion and positive example of interfaith dialogue.
Markus Findlay is Secretary of the Young Lawyers’ Committee of the Human Rights Lawyers Association and a caseworker at the Bar Pro Bono Unit.