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Letter to Justice Secretary calls for the separation of the Church and the judiciary

A letter to the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has called for the separation of the Church of England from the judiciary.  The letter, written by former Ministry of Justice official Peter Fisher and Surrey Councillor John Butcher, concerns the ceremony attended by judges at the opening of the judicial year, which includes an Anglican service in Westminster Abbey.  Fisher and Butcher claim that this ‘prejudices judicial decisions on religious matters’ and undermines public confidence in the judiciary, and they propose that the religious part of the ceremony should be ended.  The British Humanist Association (BHA), which has long called for the separation of the church from state institutions, welcomes the letter.

The ceremony, which provides a visual metaphor for the connection between church and state, dates back to the middle ages, when it was believed that judges should seek ‘divine guidance’ for their decisions.  After the service in Westminster Abbey, the judges cross the road and go into the Palace of Westminster to attend the Lord Chancellor’s breakfast.  This year’s ceremony will take place on Tuesday 1 October.

In their letter, Fisher and Butcher raise the question of whether, in a society which is increasingly multi-religious and secular, a judiciary which is supposed to be independent should be deferring to Anglicanism.  They argue that the ceremony puts the judiciary at risk of appearing biased, and that non-Christian parties in legal cases might fear that they will be treated less favourably by a judge.  They propose several options to resolve the situation, but argue that the best solution would be to cancel the service in Westminster Abbey, but to continue with the Lord Chancellor’s breakfast, as this part of the event has no religious element.

Pavan Dhaliwal, BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented ‘The connection which currently exists between the church and judiciary is completely inappropriate in a society which is increasingly secular and non-religious, and in which the established church is a complete irrelevance in the daily lives of most people.  It also undermines the principle of fair and impartial justice which we expect in a democracy.  We would like to see the disestablishment of the Church of England and a complete separation of church and state.  Severing the connection between the church and the judiciary would represent a small but welcome step forward towards this end.’

Notes

For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at pavan@humanism.org.uk or on 0773 843 5059.

The Guardian – Letter to justice minister calls for separation of C of E from judicial affairs: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/sep/24/letter-justice-minister-judicial-affairs

The Law Society Gazette – Judges’ religious service ‘undermines public confidence’: http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/law/judges-religious-service-undermines-public-confidence/5037839.article

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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