The Catholic Union has called on the Government to respect faiths in the same way as other world views in a meeting with the Government’s Faith Adviser, Colin Bloom.
The meeting was part of the evidence gathering process for the Government’s Independent Faith Engagement Review, being led by Mr Bloom.
The review was launched in November and included an online survey (which closed on 11 December) along with meetings with representative groups, including the Catholic Union.
The review is due to conclude later this month, and a report and recommendations are expected to be published in summer 2021.
The Catholic Union highlighted a number of areas of concern and suggestions for what the Government can do to improve. A summary of the points made to Mr Bloom can be found below:
- There needs to be a greater realisation that it is not just religious groups that have a personal philosophy or set of moral beliefs. To some extent everyone has these and most people regard their own philosophy or set of beliefs as being true and universal. This needs to be recognised across our public institutions whether it be the Government, the civil service, regulators etc. There needs to be much greater education about this across government, with better religious literacy amongst those making decisions. There has been much talk about unconscious bias when it comes to race, but there is a huge amount of work to be done requiring people to recognise the bias that arise from their own world views. There should be far more areas in which it is reasonable to have a difference of opinion than is currently accepted. Of course, religious groups must also play their part in this and recognise that the law may not always conform to their moral beliefs and must give space for other moral views to be respected by the law.
- We need a better understanding of the concept of fundamental human rights. Under the Human Rights Act the Government needs to act compatibly with Convention rights, legislation is supposed to be consistent with them and bodies like the Equalities regulators are supposed to police them. However, there seems to be little understanding about what it means not to discriminate against a person who thinks differently as opposed to someone who is of a different race, sex, disability etc. Different analytical tools are needed when dealing with difference of conscience and belief. Different accommodations must be made. That is because differences in religion and belief necessarily involve the need to act differently and the need to exempt oneself from certain activities. This lack of proper literacy on this topic has led Article 8 of the ECHR to be expanded to cover all sorts of things that were not envisaged by the drafters but which concern the social milieu of many regulators and judges but Article 9 to be read down so that it is hardly any protection at all. There needs to be a strengthening of the Article 9 protections, consideration given to an Act to protect conscientious objection, and attention paid to the people appointed to bodies like the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
- The role of religions in society. Firstly, there should be greater recognition of the societal goods provided by religious groups. The tenets of most religions require care and provision for the vulnerable. Recent investigations into this show that in the UK there is a significant amount of charity work that is done by religious groups. However, it is not clear how far the protections for charities, in for, example, the Equality Act extends to religious beliefs. There is a real danger (such as in the Cornerstone Fostering case) that society wishes to enjoy the advantage of the religious motivation for doing good but not permit people to act in accordance with their religious conscience when doing it. This is both unfair and counterproductive. For many religious people the need to comply with their conscience is at least as strong as their motivation to help out. If they are forced to act against their conscience, their contribution to society will diminish. Guidance (or a change in the law) could be introduced to make the operation of the Equality Act clearer in this regard. The second and related point is the extent to which the Government consults with faith groups. Other pressure groups have good access to government, which does not seem to be enjoyed by faith groups. The Catholic Church, for example, is engaged across the globe and in all sections of society. Thought should be given to where responsibility for faiths sits in government. At the moment the brief is held by a Lords Minister in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. A cross-government role is needed and one with real clout. The Government should also take proactive steps to make people of faith feel welcome and valued across the civil service.