Where will the lines of freedom of religion and freedom from religion fall in a new Scottish constitution?

Published 09 April 2014  |  
PA
The Scottish independence referendum will take place on 18 September this year.

What is the future for religious groups and individuals under a new Scottish-written constitution?

That is the question that has been vexing the minds of religious and secular groups alike as the question of Scottish independence continues to be dissected, discussed and debated, across the airwaves, through comment posts, and in church halls.

An interfaith panel came together last week and agreed to meet in July to discuss "the place religion should have in any future written constitution proposed to the Scottish parliament".

Although there were representatives from many different religious traditions in the meeting, including Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and the Baha'i faith, they all agreed that "the contribution of faith to Scottish society should be properly recognised whatever the future holds".

The question is, just what exactly constitutes proper recognition for religion?

On one level, there are aspects to this request that very few people, religious or otherwise, would disagree with.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, Ronnie Convery, communications director of the Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow, said that one of the principal requirements would be "recognition of freedom of conscience".

This is a very basic requirement, and something that is expressed for all countries to observe in article 18 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would be extremely unlikely for any future Scottish constitution to ignore that kind of basic human right.

But Mr Convery's second point was one that needed elaboration – the right to freedom of religious expression and worship. On the face of it, this appears to be a continuation of things like freedom of speech and conscience, but as Mr Convery pointed out, that isn't always the case.

"It's very easy to grant freedom of worship to a religious community, but that just means allowing people to perform religious ceremonies in the privacy of their mosque or temple or church."

This kind of simple private religious freedom isn't all that religious people want, Mr Convery explained. Rather, they request "the right to act on their religious belief for the common good of society as they see it."

It is this kind of right that has become very controversial in Scotland in recent years. American evangelist Tony Miano was arrested in January for preaching a message that included the belief that homosexuality was sinful.

A similar incident happened in Perth in September 2013 when Reverend Josh Williamson, the pastor of Craigie Reformed Baptist Church, was arrested for street preaching under the charge of a "breach of the peace".

Although both preachers were later released, the action raises the question of how respected the freedom to express religious opinions and beliefs is in Scotland. In Rev Williamson's case, he was told by police that if he preaches in the street again, he will be arrested and cautioned a second time.

Mr Convery was joined in his concern about these issues by the Right Reverend Lorna Hood, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

On the same BBC panel as Mr Convery, she expressed worry about attempts to side-line and quieten religious voices in the public square: "There's a concern because there is a very strong secular voice. We don't think it's a large voice, but it's a strong one.

"That voice says that religion should simply be a personal thing, and that it should have no part to play in life in general, pushed to the side-lines and off the picture all together."

Defending the need to include religion as a part of Scotland's future, Mrs Hood said: "We don't leave what is behind us behind."

Because of this kind of voice, Mrs Hood called for inclusion of recognition of religion in any proposed new written constitution.

Specifically, she suggests the best place for such recognition would be in the document's preamble: "Those that have a written constitution, they set out the goals in a preamble. That preamble sets out what is to follow after that. That's maybe where faith groups and those of no faith could have some kind of statement."

Gary McLelland, Education Policy Officer at the Humanist Society Scotland, while agreeing with the other members of the BBC panel about the need to protect freedoms of people to believe what they want, disagreed that religion had to be the focus.

"I just don't see why that has to be done through a religious paradigm," Mr McLelland argued. "Let's maybe change that paradigm from interfaith to inter-belief."

Mr McLelland suggested that rather than mentioning religion specifically, by including a statement to offer protection of everyone's belief, religious, agnostic and atheist individuals would all be covered, and favouritism would not be shown to any one group over the others.

Spencer Fildes, the new chair of the Scottish Secular Society, has said that he wants freedom of religion to be equally enshrined alongside what he called "freedom from religion".

Mr Fildes said: "We would welcome any government review of the constitution to ensure Scottish citizens from all backgrounds, including the 53 per cent of Scottish adults who are of no faith, are proportionally represented and no specific privilege is awarded to any faith group."

According to Mr Fildes, religious groups should lack this special status because to grant such a privilege would make the new Scotland "undemocratic, unscientific and unrepresentative".

But the danger of simply making religion another 'belief' to be protected, as Mr Convery points out, is that to do so will have the very limited consequence that people will be allowed to think what they like, but their freedom to act on that thought may be restricted, and religion could be very easily pushed from public life.

The point raised by Mr Convery and Mrs Hood is that because of the specific opposition to religious groups that often emerges, religious believers need more than a simple freedom to believe, they need the ability to act on that belief.

This is where the distinction lies with atheism and humanism. Neither of these beliefs have significant practical consequences. As there are no demands for action for atheist believers, the only freedoms they require are freedoms of thought and belief.  For Christians and those of other faiths, however, specific protections are required.

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