Religion and Law: Interview with Frank Cranmer 6 October 2017

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Abdul-Azim Ahmed interviews Frank Cranmer, who with David Pocklington, runs the popular Religion and Law blog online.

AA: So why run a Religion and Law blog?

Well one case in particular shows why it is important. Lautsi vs. Italy, about the compulsory requirement in Italy to display a crucifix in a classroom. The initial ruling agreed with Lautsi and against the compulsory display, citing a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. Of course there were many journal articles written about the ruling, considering the implications. And then the grand chamber reversed the ruling, and so lots and lots of articles that had gone into the decision at great length, were mildly interesting but ultimately useless because the decision had gone the other way.

Blogging, if you get your act together, is an important way to quickly provide commentary, it is relevant, and if the ruling changes, what the hell, it is only a blog.

The second reason is a gap in the market, the only person who was blogging in the UK on matters on law and religion was Neil Addison, a Roman Catholic barrister in Liverpool. Neil ultimately gave up on the grounds that there were not enough cases to write about, and if you take a very strict interpretation of what constitutes religion, and if you stick to Christianity, then yeah, there probably aren’t that many.

I think that there are stacks of cases, the hard thing is keeping up with it.

AA: So how do you view religion, in your own categorisation?

It is very difficult. I am always happiest when I am doing straight-down-the-line religion case, so somebody’s being a refused a job because she wears a hijab or somebody – such as the case recently of the teacher who was told if she wanted to keep her job she would have to leave her husband because he was convicted of a sexual offence, and she said it is against my religious view. It’s a pretty simple “religious” ground on cases like this.

Apart from that, it is a matter of judgement. We recently posted articles on the declaration of Europe on the death penalty. It hasn’t got much to do with religion overtly, but it has to do with morality. It is often about where your audiences might look for information. We draw our net fairly widely, some might say too widely, we have quite a big readership and people will come to us for certain issues.

AA: In terms of the trajectory of religion in law, and the public sphere especially, have you found that there are more cases in recent years, or less, is it becoming more of an issue.

Well, it’s back to definitions. In general, I think more people are more anxious to assert their rights, partly due to the Human Rights Act, and also because more people, through college education and such, are aware of their rights and confident in taking these cases forward.

The Jeremy Pemberton appeal is a good example. He is an Anglican Chaplain who complained because his permission to officiate was renounced when he married his same sex partner. This has now gone to court. Ten years ago, even if the legislation had been in place for the same sex marriage, and an Anglican priest had got married, and his permission to officiate had been refused, I can’t imagine that going to court. So there is a change in culture.

AA: So not just more cases, but more literacy in religion, human rights, and so on?

A lot of it, yes.

AA: In terms of the Human Rights Act, our possible withdrawal from it, do you think there is any particular implications for religious communities around that?

Ah, you ask the twelve thousand dollar question,  I think all the mood music coming from government is that we are not going to withdraw from European Convention on Human Rights.

The only other European country that isn’t is Belarus, well there you are, to be in a minority of two with Belarus, I think not.

What we put in our British Bill of Rights is more interesting. My assumption from what I’ve heard is that the basic plan is that our courts will not be bound by the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights, but actually they aren’t bound by it now. Rather, they are required to take into account rulings from Strasbourg, but can ultimately disregard it.

My reading of the situation is what we have seen is a shift from a freedom based system (“do what you want as long as it’s not illegal”) to a rights based system as the influence of the European Convention has become enshrined in law.

If we have our British Bill of Rights, we might be sliding back from a rights-based system to a freedom based system, I don’t suspect we will, but it is a possibility.

Given the system of precedents, lower courts are bound by superior courts, so when the Supreme Court said in Hodkin that scientology is a religion, that has significance. It will be very difficult to undo that, whether or not we are still signed up to the European Convention.

Once we leave the European Union, even with the Great Repeal Act, – the courts will still be bound by previous judgements, which took into account European legislation.

It’s a little bit like turning an oil tanker, if it’s worth doing so at all.

AA: The other issue is how law defines belief and protects it. Whether political beliefs fall into same category as religious beliefs, and the difficultly of interpreting this.

Religious and philosophical beliefs must both be protected by Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights, and there is case law to back this. So Grainger plc v Nicholson is a case where Nicholson was made redundant, and he said it was because he believed in climate change. The courts had to decide whether believing in climate change was a protected belief, and the tribunal decided it was.

I think the line which is more difficult is the line between philosophical beliefs and political beliefs, and how far political beliefs should be protected.

I think where it gets difficult is where the protection of political views spills over into party political activity and elections. There was the case of [former Tower Hamlets Mayor] Luftur Rahman and “undue spiritual influence”. So while mixing religion and politics like that is an issue. It is also a longstanding tradition, particularly in Ireland. Not many Presbyterians vote for Sinn Fein, and not many Roman Catholics vote for the Unionist parties. Politics in Northern Ireland, traditionally, has been divided along religious lines – and it is incredibly hard to decide where this becomes “undue spiritual influence”.

AA: The lines get blurred in many places.

Well, one thing I do in is to act as Secretary of the Church and Legislation Advisory Service, it’s an ecumenical body with all the major denominations in Great Britain and some of the Irish ones, and for historical reasons, the United Synagogue. What we do is worry about the  impact of secular legislation on the churches, and religious organisations more generally.

A lot of what we spend our time talking about is the unforeseen consequences of legislation on our members. An example is, a couple of years ago, the government proposed the abolition of a £5,000 limit before taxing of benefits in kind.

What they didn’t know at the time is that the average Roman Catholic priest is paid about £4,000 a year, which is difficult to believe. What they get in addition is a food allowance, living accommodation, house-keeping, a car allowance, plus professional expenses, and added up, it would easily surpass the limit, so if we abolished it, we’d have these guys with tiny incomes presented with a tax bill they couldn’t pay. If your income is £4,000 year, a tax bill of £150 a year is serious money, so we had some meetings with the government, we explained this, so they put an exempting section in the tax act.

So this isn’t religion in the doctrinal sense. This is particularly an Advisory Service, what we don’t do is God, we do drains, and tax, and policies, and all that stuff. The churches can do God, we do the technical things.

AA: Thanks for your time, any closing thoughts?

This blog is run by two old-age-pensioners and we could pop-our-clogs any moment, who will write the blog if so? The problem is academics don’t want to write blogs, they want journal publications to advance their career, and there is no career benefit in doing blogs –  yet – but in ten years’ time I imagine that this will become more common, but it isn’t done now.

So if anybody out there among your readership has an interest in the odd guest post, they know where to come.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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