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Britain is the lab to test faith and freedom in

19 October 2012

The UK's experience can be a model, argues Joseph Weiler

Who would have thought, even ten or 15 years ago, that matters of Church and State, having seemed long settled and even boring, would take centre-stage, often acerbic and worse, in our public discourse? Part of the new urgency concerns the more robust acknowledgment of the multicultural nature of our societies: it is not just Church and State; it is Mosque and State, and Synagogue and State, too.

There is also a surge in the culture of human rights, with the concomitant Copernican revolution in the status of the individual's becoming not simply an object of the state (or subject of the realm), but sovereign: as a British or French or US citizen, I do not belong to the state - the state belongs to me. So traditional arrangements do not have quite the same persuasive power as before, and contestation abounds.

The classical freedom of religion, to be found in all constitutions, is now acknowledged by all courts to be ontologically accompanied by freedom from religion. Freedom from religion is not only, or even primarily, populated by the lapsed and in- different, but by those for whom non-religion is a form of religion itself, which deserves the utmost respect.

The seemingly simple formula that seemed to serve so well in the past - we respect freedom of religion and freedom from religion - now constitutes a contested battle-line. If I have a right to freedom from religion, can we still adorn our streets with Christmas decorations - even neighbourhoods with a predominantly non-Christian population? The list of examples is endless.

It seems to me that the UK is by far the best place to serve as the civil laboratory in which these issues can be discussed and resolved, in a way that may even offer examples to others beyond.

This is because, first, it has historically avoided the easy Laïque French solution, banishing religion to the private sphere. It has acknowledged that religion may be so inextricably linked with national identity that to opt for that Laïque solution is to do violence to the very identity of the nation.

So the more challenging option of having a full commitment to the liberal pluralist democratic state, and yet affirming the principle and practice of an Established Church, with the head of state serving as the Supreme Governor of the Church - this is, in and of itself, an example of tolerance and accommodation in practice.

What is so impressive and typical of the British experience is that, although the Queen is indeed the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, she clearly is perceived to be monarch of all British citizens, religious and secular, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish - as evidenced most recently last year in the royal wedding, and this year in the Diamond Jubilee.

It is an illustration that religion, even as part of the very identity and artefact of the state, need not compromise its democratic and liberal identity, and need not alienate its non-religious or other-religious citizens. It is a salutary lesson for many regions of the world that may be looking for models to reconcile democracy, human rights, and the religious artefacts of the State.

Second, and only somewhat more nebulously, is the British panache for "commonsense" accommodation, a virtue of a tradition that eschewed a formal constitution, where the common law was "written on the hearts of the judges". Compromise comes into play rather than "principled" determination of a "winner wins all and a loser loses all" character. This has its weaknesses, but in this context it has great virtues, too.

Some principles might be categorical - one can never, for example, not insist on the ability of the individual freely to leave a religious community. Like most other rights, the freedom of religion is never absolute.

If someone - let's call him Abraham - were to announce one day that he had had a vision, and that he was to take his son to the Lake District and sacrifice him as an offering to God, then we would rightly call the police and discuss kindly with such an individual the concept of infanticide. We will not accept that the mere mention of "religion" is enough to displace other cherished values.

Likewise, however, Britain has never bought into the canard that for the state to be "neutral" in matters of religion, it had to be secular. So, for example, as in the Netherlands, but unlike in, say, France or Italy, it practises both respect for religion and true neutrality - agnosticism, one might say - in funding denominational schools alongside secular ones. Unashamedly, such funding comes with some strings - the curriculum of all schools has to teach the civic virtues necessary for respectful co-existence in a multicultural society.

Some issues are particularly fraught, such as adoption agencies and same-sex couples. Would I really object to a Jewish adoption agency that received children from observant Jews whose circumstances sadly did not allow them to keep the children, and insisted that they find a loving home that observed the rules of kosher and shabbat, so that they could grow up faithful to their heritage?

I would, perhaps, be suspicious of an adoption agency that singled out an aversion to same-sex couples, but what if it insisted on placing children in families that followed a Catholic life in a holistic way - traditional marriage (not cohabiting partners) and church attendance, so that that child could grow up faithful to his or her heritage?

This is a more complex question, especially in a society where there were no shortages of adoption agencies corresponding to some principal world-views, religious or otherwise. I give these as examples of pragmatic, commonsensical attempts at accommodation rather than doctrinaire drawing of lines in the sand.

There will be many who will rage at any of these accommodations; there will be others who will find them examples of muddling through. Others still will find them attempts at mutual respect for incommensurable moral positions.

Europe leads by example, not by force. We know that in many parts of the world, the concern for religion is the reason given for rejecting values of pluralist democracy and human rights. In some deep way, the British approach - with its Established Church, its dual-role monarch, its multidenominational state schools, and its "muddling-through" spirit of respectful accommodation - may just be the kind of example one can humbly offer to an angry world.

Professor Weiler is Director of the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice at New York University. He is lecturing on this subject at Westminster Abbey on 24 October (www.westminster-abbey.org/faith).

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