How would you describe your religious/ideological identity?
I try to follow Jesus as simply and completely as I can. For me, this means living in community with other believers to share my entire life and energy in seeking to live for the Kingdom of God and share the Gospel. I am a member of the Bruderhof, a Christian communal group which stems from the Anabaptist tradition and is inspired by the life and witness of the earliest Christians. The beliefs and practices of the Bruderhof are more fully explained in Foundations of our Faith and Calling: The Bruderhof (2012), which I enclose for your reference.
What made you choose this, or choose to remain if it was a tradition you grew up in?
My parents brought me up in the Bruderhof with a simple, active faith. A few years ago I took vows of lifetime membership, recognising that this is where I can best following my calling to serve God and humanity. I believe it is God’s will for all men and women to live together in peace and love, not only in the future, but now.
Do you think that the UK is an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief systems?
My sense from classmates at university and colleagues at work is that the UK is in large part very secular. It is difficult for many young people to understand the viewpoint and experience of those with a faith. Generally, I have experienced that many are indifferent to faith, rather than intolerant, but this indifference accompanies a lack of appreciation of the importance of belief to many people. A number of my acquaintances express intolerance of those whose beliefs lead them to take a stand that does not accord with modern liberal ideas, for example in regard to religious dress or sexual ethics.
How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your convictions in this country? Are the challenges (if any) social, political or legal in nature?
I have had few difficulties personally, but I am concerned that people of faith face increasing interference by the State in how they live out their beliefs, whether this is telling a colleague they believe sex outside of marriage is a sin or educating their children in line with their beliefs. The political culture seems suspicious of religious belief, and though at present this primarily affects minority groups (especially Muslim) it can and does affect Christians as well.
The legal protection of religious groups has not been impressive: UK courts as well as Strasbourg have been generally timid about protecting the manifestation of beliefs even while they declare their importance in a democratic society (for example the cases on Muslim headscarves). The suggestion by various courts and authorities that religion can—and perhaps should—be accommodated out of the public sphere is worrying. For me, it is vital that my faith governs every area of my life from how I dress to my relationships with colleagues to what work I choose or refuse. The freedom to hold religious beliefs or engage in religious worship is only a small part of the freedom to manifest beliefs that should be vouchsafed.
One area of particular concern to me as a member of a community that holds education in high regard is the right set out in Article 1 of the second protocol to the ECHR that “the state shall respect the rights of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions”. This right should be an important safeguard against State interference in parents’ freedom to raise their children as they think right, however, the article has been rendered toothless by Strasbourg’s over-application of the margin of appreciation. Within the UK, school regulators and social services are increasingly involved in controlling how parents can in practice ensure their children are taught in conformity with their beliefs. Ofsted in particular is largely unsupervised and the policies on which it assesses schools are often of its own making, founded on little or no statutory basis. Additionally, schools have scant effective redress against unfavourable Ofsted reports despite the acknowledged inconsistencies and inaccuracies. All this means that through Ofsted, the State has broad, unaccountable powers to enforce its policies which at times contradict parents’ beliefs, infringing their Convention right.
The Bruderhof is particularly mindful of these issues because of our history. In the 1930s, my great-grandparents and other Bruderhof members took their children to Switzerland because Hitler’s government foisted on the community a Nazi teacher whose task was to ensure the children were properly indoctrinated. This has made us sensitive to regulatory overreach in this area, and I am concerned that the regulator has too broad power to deleteriously affect parents’ rights with regard to their children’s upbringing.
How does your religion/ideology regard HRs? Has it contributed to or influenced the world’s understanding of them?
Central to Christian ethics is the idea of equal worth of all people as created in the image of God. This idea prohibits violence, encourages care for the needy and oppressed, and discourages prejudice against those who are different e.g. foreigners. (The fact that institutional Christianity has a somewhat poor record on human rights which did not end with the Crusades merely evidences the fallibility of those who profess to follow Christ; it does not mean that such offenses were Christian.)
To members of the Bruderhof, universal human rights, including those stated in the Convention are very important. We recognise the inherent worth of each person as a creation of God and value diversity in origin, ability and expression. As firm believers in the human conscience as a guide to what is true and good, we cherish especially the freedoms of speech and religion (including religious practice) that have been a cornerstone of Western liberal democracy, and are concerned to engage in support of any person of faith or faith group whose rights in this regard are threatened.
Do you think that HRs which apply to everyone are a good or a bad thing for British society?
A good thing.
Are there any ways in which your group has a practical influence on human rights in contemporary Britain? E.g. does it actively campaign on any issues?
At the most basic level, the Bruderhof has an influence by sharing a life and faith where all are not merely equal, but loved and valued. Guests are welcome and community members participate in wider society to encourage and assist others, especially those in material need. We publish books and other materials on issues of faith and social justice, in particular regarding the care of children and concern for those in poverty. We also support other organisations that research and advocate on human rights issues.
Do you think that the State interferes too much or not enough in the lives of individuals and groups: a) in general; and b) specifically in relation to freedom of religion and belief?
Invasions of privacy by the GCHQ aside, I don’t feel that, in general, the State interferes too much. In relation to religion and belief, I see a risk of over-interference in “faith schools” with the government tempted to take more control over what and how children are taught. Another area of interference is in the regulation of religious charities: the Plymouth Brethren (Preston Down Trust) case indicates that the Charity Commission may be increasingly willing to opine on the merits of certain beliefs and manifestations of belief. This approach is inconsistent with the principle of State neutrality towards different religious beliefs. At the same time, I believe the State should take a more active role in supporting religious groups and promoting religious understanding. This would ensure that the increasing diversity in our society does not divide it and that tolerance and appreciation for faith groups is improved. Mere neutrality by the State tends to disadvantage religion, but the State should be able to support people of faith without discriminating between them or against those without faith. What the State must never do is entangle itself in governance of religious groups or in any way impose religious practices or beliefs on its citizens. Of course, in the UK this issue is complicated by the establishment of the Church of England but that historical anomaly aside, this limitation should be adhered to.
When should the State interfere with people expressing their religious or ideological convictions through actions or lifestyle choices?
When these actions clearly infringe other fundamental rights, the interference is significant and unavoidable by means of reasonable accommodation, and the infringement can be remedied by reasonable restriction of the person’s freedom to manifest their beliefs. Causing offence or annoyance to others is not sufficient reason for interference. However, avoiding State interference can be particularly difficult in family law situations where judges sometimes think it within their remit to assess the relative merits of religious beliefs and practices, with the result that they are likely to favour beliefs consistent with majority opinion. But even here, the State must do its best to remain impartial, recognising that beliefs are to be equally respected even when they are opposed to the societal norm.
Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society makes it easier or harder for you to live in accordance with your faith/convictions? Is there any other form of government which you would consider preferable?
Perhaps the best response to that question is Churchill’s: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Given that we do live in a democracy, does your faith/ideology mean that you feel that you have a personal responsibility to vote? Why/why not?
I don’t feel that my faith means I have a general responsibility to vote. However, there may be certain issues on which I feel as a matter of conscience (as a Christian and/or as a UK citizen) that I need to take action, including by voting.
Is it a good or a bad thing that the democratically elected body (Parliament) has the final say in making and changing British law? Should there be limits to the ways in which the UK Parliament can make/change the law? E.g. should judges have the power to strike down some laws and if so on what basis?
It is inconsistent with the fundamental nature of human rights that they be subject to political whim. Parliament should not be permitted to make laws contrary to human rights which are of far greater value than the antiquated tradition of parliamentary sovereignty—a doctrine which is unobjectionable in most areas but should not be permitted to override the protections against government interference. Although senior courts can declare legislation incompatible with the Convention, there are insufficient controls to ensure Parliament acts on such declarations. Accordingly, judges should have power at very least to suspend the effect of legislation where it would grossly infringe a recognised right (i.e. the Convention rights, historic liberties at common law, and perhaps other analogous rights accepted in future by the courts). The suspension would remain in effect until a further decision by Parliament. Further, the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down both secondary and primary legislation for incompatibility so that there is a means of preventing Parliament continuing to put forward an unjust law. (Judges are likely to be very reticent about using this power, but even so it should act as an incentive for Parliament to respond appropriately to declarations of incompatibility.)
Do you think an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority of the people is a problem for minority groups? Do you think that Parliamentary democracy is inclusive of all groups and citizens in society, or is it difficult for some people to participate? If so, what are the barriers?
Democracy has significant problems for minority groups especially where these groups lack the resources or acumen to advocate effectively for their interests. When groups such as immigrants and members of minority religions do not fit in with the majority culture they risk being side-lined because their vote or their voice is not strong enough to effect change and their differences make them convenient targets for prejudice. Minority groups which, for any reason (including financial and cultural), cannot muster significant political power face misunderstanding by majority groups that is difficult to overcome and ultimately affects political decision making. A recent example is the “Trojan Horse” fuss about faith schools which was misreported by the media and poorly handled by politicians.
Do you think that religious and ideological groups should have a voice in Parliament? Specifically, do you agree with the presence of bishops in the House of Lords? Should there be representatives from other faiths, how should they be chosen?
To me, whether religious groups are directly represented in Parliament is unimportant as long as the government makes serious efforts to consult them and take their views into account on matters likely to affect them. This may well require more than sending out consultation papers. Open and direct discussions with members of religious groups would allow them a fair chance to influence changes where otherwise the group might be overlooked. The presence of bishops in the Lords seems to do no harm, but bringing in other religious representatives may well upset the balance that has been worked out over centuries and cause more controversy than any benefits of the inclusion are worth.
Is it good or bad that some decisions which affect our State are made by E.U. institutions and by devolved administrations (i.e. Scottish and Welsh assemblies)?
Decision making by the EU can be problematic, both because of its undemocratic nature and its policy goals. The social pillar of the EU conception of itself places it on a collision course with traditional English notions of liberty, not only in economic matters but in relation to issues of conscience. When citizens of Member States object to EU decisions they have little ability to secure changes or concessions. Perhaps most worrying is the EU-led trend towards an administrative state, in which unaccountable administrative bodies become increasingly prescriptive and intrusive, and risks infringing citizens’ rights to liberty.
What does your faith/ideology teach about people with power? How should they be held accountable by human beings, or is that primarily a matter for God? Does this religious/ideological understanding have anything to teach wider society?
The Bible teaches respect for those with secular authority, but has numerous examples of challenging those with power when they misused it. We should direct authorities to what is just and right both through direct engagement and through raising public awareness of injustice. However, we recognise that the ultimate solution to injustice will not be political, but is in God’s hands. While the State has God-given authority to promote peace and order, its commands are backed by coercive force and therefore participation in government is antithetical to a Christian life based on love and forgiveness. Therefore, members of the Bruderhof would never hold government office or accept a role (such as a juror) that involves having power over the rights and freedoms of others.
How does your group help to challenge decisions which it perceives as problematic, either for its members or for society as a whole?
Our community is concerned to support people of any faith to ensure the right to freedom of conscience is protected.
Is it important for you personally always to act within secular law? Why/why not? What circumstances, if any, justify breaking human law?
I respect the law and legal authorities because I believe the control of the State is an important force for maintaining order and protecting the rights of all. The State has God-given authority to govern; however, human law does not have independent moral authority so I do not feel obligated to obey law merely because it is law (I am sympathetic with some of Joseph Raz’s ideas on the instrumental value of laws in enabling subjects to comply with morality). If a law would require me to act against my beliefs, I believe that I must and should break it as Christians are instructed to obey God rather than man.
Does your group campaign for changes to the law if so, why and how?
We believe it is important for people of faith to witness to the state as a conscience, helping it to distinguish good from evil and reminding it to respect the rights and freedoms of citizens (see page 13 of Foundations). Therefore we engage with members of government directly and support other organisations that campaign on social issues.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties, particularly the weak and vulnerable?
Yes. We do this both through publications and statements and through directly helping those in need both locally and globally as much as we are able.
Are you aware of any legal rules which have a direct impact on your freedom to practise your faith/live out your ideology? Are any of these recent, and if so, have they been introduced in a fair and open way?
A few that come to mind:
- Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 which made it an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour” or to display “any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting” within the hearing or sight of a person “likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”. The section is an example of a content-based restriction on free speech which essentially accords the state a police power to suppress speech it finds objectionable. It also introduces a heckler’s veto, stifling the robust debate that is necessary in a free society. (Following campaigning by Liberty and the Joint Committee on Human Rights the reference to “insulting” has now been removed from the section.)
- The ongoing issues around the cessation of treatment for seriously ill patients who believe that continued treatment would be contrary to their faith (or, as the case may be, who believe care must be continued at all costs). Determinations by medical professionals or the courts of what is in patients’ best interests can fail to respect patients’ desires based on their religious beliefs.
- The new requirement on schools to “actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. This obligation is vague, open to broad interpretation, and could be used to interfere with schools that teach beliefs and values that do not accord with mainstream ideas. This requirement was introduced after only a short consultation period which coincided with the 2014 summer holidays. The published government response to the consultation indicated that concerns raised by those who managed to reply to the consultation were effectively ignored. Commenting on subsequent controversial Ofsted inspections of Jewish and Christian schools, Sir Edward Leigh has noted that Ofsted “appears to be guilty of trying to enforce a kind of state-imposed orthodoxy on certain moral and religious questions.”
Shaina Huleatt studied law at King’s College London and has worked as a legal adviser for a number of UK charities. She is a member of the Bruderhof, a Christian communal group which stems from the Anabaptist tradition and is inspired by the life and witness of the earliest Christians. Shaina is particularly interested in issues of freedom of speech and religious liberty.