Many different religions have their own systems of rules and practices. These often cover marriage and divorce, bans on certain actions such as drinking alcohol, and rules about worship, rituals and physical dress/appearance. Members of that religion have to follow these rules and the rules of the state where they are in the majority are modelled to incorporate and allow this, indeed religious laws are often part of the foundation of the state’s law. However with migration around the world there are increasingly minority groups in nations with different systems that are therefore not taken into account. As a result in some cases, religious beliefs are in contradiction to state law, such as Sikhs carrying knives in public, Rastafarians smoking marijuana or certain religious dress codes with regards to school uniform. Recent examples of this debate of this include whether to allow Sharia law courts (Islamic courts) in Canada and the United Kingdom, whether non-Muslims should be allowed to drink alcohol in Muslim countries (such as Iran), and whether Jewish, Muslim and Hindu communities should be allowed to slaughter animals in a way that would break animal welfare laws. The status quo is that, in most cases, the law takes precedence over religious beliefs and that religious people are not allowed to practice anything illegal even if it is part of their religion. In this debate, the proposition believes that religious beliefs should be allowed to be practised even when they break the law.
Freedom to religion is widely considered to be a fundamental human right. Freedom of religion is very similar to freedom of expression and is an inalienable right that cannot be taken away by the state. Article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights states “Everyone has the right to freedom of… religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” In addition to this, many people consider religion to be the single most important thing in their life.
Under the status quo, many people are inhibited in their ability to practise their religion to its fullest degree. This not only causes them great distress due to how important this is to them but is a breach of their human rights.
The government has an obligation to provide people with a basic standard of life and thus must pass this legislation.
Rights only exist so long as they do not harm others. Like all rights, the right to practise your religion to its fullest extent, regardless of the consequences for other people and the laws of your state is only a right in as far as it does not affect other people. The opposition believes that laws are in place to stop people from causing harm to one another and allowing religious people to break these laws is putting the rights of the religious people ahead of the rights of everyone else in society.
The government has a responsibility to respect the rights and standard of life of all people, not just religious people.
People who are caused distress and have their religious freedom limited by their government are likely to feel disillusioned with and sidelined by their government. They will wonder why other religious groups can follow all the teachings of their faith while the government limits theirs. This kind of limitation of how to worship or what traditions and beliefs to follow can be part of the cause that leads to members of that religion feeling not welcome and discriminated against, ultimately leading to extremism. Allowing religious beliefs to override government laws would relieve these feelings and dramatically improve religious people’s relationship with the state.
This improvement in relationship would severely reduce the likelihood of anti-government feelings and general civil unrest.
Ignoring the law some of the time undermines the state. The opposition believe that this legislation goes much further than showing solidarity between the government and religion, and is actually the government showing submission to religion. This legislation sets religion as a higher authority than the government and, as such, undermines the government’s power as the ultimate authority.
The likely effect is that religious groups will begin to see themselves as above the law and will begin to disregard to government to an ever greater extent.
Currently, the state and organised religion are often seen as diametrically opposed. For example the state often worries about the threat of religious extremists. This causes a lot of tension between the government and religious communities within the country, as well as between the state and states which hold religion more highly. As the Bishop of Liverpool puts it “Church and politics are not two parallel lines; rather they are two live wires, side by side, which when they touch should ignite and explode.” Thus when Rowan Williams suggested Sharia might be accommodated his comments created a political storm.
This legislation would show that we do value and respect religious freedom and rights and would improve our relationships on both of these fronts.
 Gay, Kathlyn. “Church and State.” Millbrook Press 1992
Undermines the state. Similarly to the point above, the opposition believe that this legislation will actually be seen by organised religion as a sign of submission from the government. It shows organised religious groups that they hold power over the government whenever they choose to use it.
In terms of international diplomacy, it shows theocratic states and the like that we are moving to become more like them. This legitimises their position, which the opposition thinks is an inherently harmful one as the voice of the people is not heard in non-democratic countries.
Currently, bombings and attacks in the name of religion are a big problem. These are mostly caused by people feeling that their religion is being discriminated against. For example Dr Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury believes that "There's a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law." He believes this would help maintain social cohesion because Muslims would not need to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".
If the government is seen to be supporting all religions then these attacks will lose their credibility and will inevitably be reduced in both severity and frequency.
Religious extremism is not currently considered ‘legitimate’. The community at large have a great disdain for terrorism and similar activity and mainstream religions desperately try to disassociate themselves from extremism, all the while condemning it.
The opposition believes that this good will be so barely perceptible that it does next to nothing to outweigh all the harms that this legislation will bring.
This legislation essentially indicates that anything to do with religion is not subject to the same laws as everyone else and removes the state from his position as ultimate authority over its subjects. The limits will be very difficult to draw – there are some things that everyone would agree is based upon religious belief such as the Sikhs carry knives but there may be other cases where a minority of the religion believes that something is required by their religion, should this still be allowed? Similarly would this apply to every single religion and sect or would the state have to define what it counts as a religion and limit it only to major religions?
By extension, this legitimises actions like honour killings, which are killings done in the name of religion. Although they would not be directly allowed by this legislation, they would be implicitly encouraged and those carrying it out would try to claim that it was carrying out a religious belief in order to get protection from the law. Already 1 in 10 young British Asians back honour killings, they do not need any encouragement from changes to the law like this.
This is a weak slippery slope argument. The proposition does not accept that this legislation puts religion above the law. Religious people and movements do not see the potential to practise their religion to its fullest degree as a way to get one over on the state but a right that they deserve as a human being.
This legislation will not be seen as weakness but as tolerance.
As for honour killings, they are not religious but cultural and are denounced by leaders of all the world’s major faiths as such they have nothing to do with this legislation and would not be perceived as having anything to do with this legislation.
If people wish to carry knives in public or smoke marijuana, the rational thing for them to do under this legislation is to falsely claim to be Sikh or Rastafarian respectively so that they are not subject to these laws. This logic applies to all laws affected by this legislation.
The government would first have to work out what religions count for this legislation, the government would likely want to exclude at least some extremist cults and would not want to allow individuals or small to make up their own religions. Equally problematic would be that the government would need to regulate what all these beliefs are so as to prevent new beliefs from springing up to get around laws. The government would then have to work out ways of working out if someone is legitimately part of a religion or not, this would be practically impossible. The ultimate effect would be that all laws affected by this legislation would be so easy to get around that they may as well not exist.
Instead the government should look to accommodate religious values within British law by making the necessary changes in specific instances rather that introducing a carte blanche to override the laws of the land.
This harm can be avoided very easily. Avoiding these laws becoming completely inoperable would actually be quite simple. People who observe nothing but the potentially illegal parts of the religion would not be considered part of that religion, particularly if they only began identifying as part of that religion once this legislation was passed.
One of the most fundamental things in any democracy is equality between those in that society. Many minorities have been struggling for this equality for decades. This includes religious minorities for example between the reformation in the 16th Century and 1829 Catholics were second class citizens. This demand that religious beliefs should override government laws switches things around and once again means that not everyone is equal before the law.
Moreover making it law that certain groups of people are allowed to behave in a way that other groups of people are not inevitably leads to social divisions. This means people who are unaffected by this legislation will see religious people as getting special treatment, feel side-lined by the government and see religious people as their enemy in this.
This will promote tension between religious and non-religious communities and will thus create divisions in society as well as deepening pre-existing ones.
This treats everyone the same rather than treating people differently. The proposition does not accept that people will perceive this as one set of rules for one group of people and another set of rules for another. This legislation does not create divisions in society but relieves them by ensuring that everyone is allowed to practise their religion to the fullest extent that they wish to.
The status quo is that some religious groups are allowed to practise their religion to its fullest extent and others are not. The proposition believes that this is far more divisive than this legislation.
BBC News, ‘Sharia law in UK is ‘unavoidable’’, 7 February 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7232661.stm
BBC News, ‘One in 10 ‘backs honour killings’’, 4 September 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/5311244.stm
Gay, Kathlyn. “Church and State.” Millbrook Press 1992
Iannaccone, Laurence R. “Religious extremism: Origins and consequences” Contemporary Jewry. Volume 20. 1996. http://www.springerlink.com/content/du4l186785164316/
Living Heritage, ‘Religion and Belief’, parliament.uk, http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/religion/overview/emancipation/
Petre, Jonathan et al, ‘Bishop: Impossible to have sharia law in UK’, The Telegraph, 8 February 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1578020/Bishop-Impossible-to-have-sharia-law-in-UK.html
The Bishop of Liverpool, ‘Church and Politics: “My Kingdom is not of this world” Really?’, St Wilfrid Lecture, 18th February 2010, http://www.liverpool.anglican.org/index.php?p=1102
“Honour Crimes.” BBC Ethics Guide. 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/honourcrimes/crimesofhonour_1.shtml
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The United Nations Article 18 http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a18