A NON-CHRISTIAN member of the armed forces of the Bahamas, who was required to remain on parade while Christian prayers were being said, was being hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience, the Privy Council ruled on an appeal by the Commodore of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, and others.
Colour parades had been a tradition in the Royal Bahamas Defence Force since its creation in 1980. They occurred on 14 occasions a week, and, on four of those occasions, Christian prayers were said. There were also ceremonial parades during which “ceremonial prayers” were said.
Before the prayers during the weekly parades, instructions were given: “Parade caps off” and “Stand at ease”, followed immediately after prayers by “Parade, ho!”, at which the parade came to attention, and “Parade on caps”.
From 1993 to 2006, adherents of religious beliefs other than Christianity were given the opportunity, by a memorandum, to excuse themselves by falling out during the prayers, and falling back in immediately thereafter. On 9 November 2006, that arrangement was revoked by a further memorandum, so that all personnel were required to remain present during the conduct of prayers.
Petty Officer Gregory Laramore challenged the constitutionality of the 2006 memorandum. He enlisted in the force in August 1982, and re-engaged formally in December 1984, giving a solemn declaration that he was “willing to fulfil the engagement made”. At that time, he was a Christian. He converted to the Islamic faith in 1993, and, on behalf of himself and others, he made it known that he did not wish to be part of a religious assembly other than that of his own belief. As a result, the 1993 memorandum was issued, and the new procedure was introduced, which lasted until the 2006 memorandum.
In April 2007, Mr Laramore asked “to be exempted from all Christian activity in the [force]”. On 25 and 27 April, he left parade during colours ceremonies when prayers were about to take place. He was charged with disobedience, but before disciplinary proceedings were concluded he issued a claim against the defendants — the Commodore, the Attorney General of the Bahamas, and three individuals involved in seeking to discipline him — challenging the constitutionality of the 2006 memorandum.
The defendants argued that the 2006 memorandum did not infringe Mr Laramore’s rights, and was justified to ensure the efficient administration of the force. The Chief Justice of the Bahamas, Sir Michael Barnett, rejected that argument, and awarded Mr Laramore $10,000 damages in circumstances where he had been “required to suffer the indignity and costs of disciplinary proceedings for standing up for his constitutional rights”.
The Court of Appeal of the Bahamas upheld that decision, and a further appeal came to the Privy Council, which consisted of five British judges: Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Sumption, Lord Reed, and Lord Hughes, who heard the appeal in the Bahamas.
The Constitution of the Bahamas provides by article 22 that “no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience
. . . [which includes] freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and both in public and in private to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.
It was argued before the Privy Council that article 22 was directed to personal inner freedoms and outward behaviour, and that there was nothing in the arrangements for Christian prayers during colour parades to affect, Mr Laramore’s inner views; nor was he “hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience”. There could be such hindrance, it was argued, only if his religion forbade him to stay on parade in the manner prescribed by the 2006 memorandum.
Lord Mance, who delivered the unanimous decision of the Privy Council, rejected those arguments, and said that what mattered was not what the Islamic religion said, but Mr Laramore’s religiously based beliefs and conscience. What was required was “hindrance”, which was not the same as prevention.
The Privy Council did not accept that the “Caps off” order could be understood as a mere gesture of respect towards Christians, for whom it would have a deeper significance. Mr Laramore’s position was not analogous, Lord Mance said, to that of a Christian voluntarily entering a mosque or Hindu temple. Mr Laramore was being required to make a gesture that was evidently understood by Mr Laramore as one of respect towards Christianity and Christian prayers being said.
To have to participate actively in a Christian ceremony in a way to which he, in conscience, objected was, in the Privy Council’s view, to hinder Mr Laramore’s freedom to live in a way that was compatible with his Muslim conscience. The issue was whether he was hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience by being required to take part in a prayers ceremony that included a “Caps off” order.
The Privy Council considered that that positive requirement constituted such a hindrance, and added that, if the force were to require non-Christians to remain on parade, but to permit them to keep their caps on during the prayers part of the regular colour parade, that would also have met with Mr Laramore’s conscientious objection.
Being made to stand on parade, even at ease, during the saying of Christian prayers would, in those circumstances, also appear to be a hindrance to Mr Laramore’s enjoyment of his freedom of conscience.
Reference was made to the case of Lautsi v. Italy, in which a parent had objected to a crucifix on the wall of her sons’ classroom, and the European Court of Human Rights said that the crucifix was no more than “an essentially passive symbol” that could not be “deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious ceremonies”.
The Privy Council said that being required to attend classes in a room where there was a religious symbol hanging on the wall was not the same as being required to remain on parade while Christian prayers were being said. In the former case, the focus of what was happening was on the teaching, whereas in the latter case it was on the prayers.
The Privy Council was not deciding any issues regarding the public ceremonial occasions on which the force was expected be in attendance, and where a religious element might also be present. The Privy Council considered that that presence, as part of the nation’s forces during a ceremonial event, presented different considerations.
The Privy Council will advise Her Majesty that the appeal should be dismissed.