By Paul Goodman
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Clever Trevor Phillips has correctly identified the real target of Sayeeda Warsi's speech at the Vatican earlier this week. It was widely reported as applying to Britain (or England, at any rate). But it was aimed far more directly and forcefully at continental Europe. Note the hard examples that Warsi's Daily Telegraph article – which encapsulated the main themes of her speech – gave of what in her view is going wrong:
"My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere."
Where does the state not fund faith schools, or bar people from wearing "signs of religion"? Not usually in England, with its established church (or indeed in the rest of the United Kingdom). But rather on the continental mainland, where church and state are usually separated. It is there that dispensations can be found under which, say, crucifixes are banned in schools – and headscarves too.
I am surprised that so much of the commentary about Warsi's speech missed this mammoth in the room. The Cabinet Office Minister will have been thinking about the effects of this separation on European Muslims as well as European Christians. But she will also have been cautious, in the wake of the rumpus over her Islamophobia speech, of putting this concern front of shop. Clever Trevor has duly spotted this, affirmed the continental model, and said that religion should stop…
“…At the door of the temple…To me there’s nothing different in principle with a Catholic adoption agency, or indeed Methodist adoption agency, saying the rules in our community are different and therefore the law shouldn’t apply to us. Why not then say sharia can be applied to different parts of the country? It doesn’t work.”
But Clever Trevor thus also turns out to be Stupid Phillips. It is risible to conflate, say, the operations of Catholic adoption agencies with, for example, the hudud punishments – which is exactly what he was doing by using the term "sharia". (He knows perfectly well that most British Muslims would contest the view that these should be written into our law). Like Richard Dawkins and Evan Harris and all the rest of them, Phillips believes that human rights trump religious ones.
The flaw with this view is that it is hard to exclude religious rights from all the other ones that congregate under the human rights banner. This is why two British women who have been disciplined for wearing crosses are appealing…to the very European Court of Human Rights of which Phillips presumably approves (without, apparently, the backing of the Government of which Warsi is a member).
He argues that people should not be allowed to pick which laws they obey. Quite so. But it doesn't seem to have occured to Phillips that the public benefit test which was applied to charities by the last Labour Government – which had public schools in its sights – could be applied to the example he cites: Catholic and Methodist adoption agencies. Were that test to be applied a court might correctly rule that the public benefits if they operate in line with their own ethos.
The idea of human rights is contestable. So are some of the verdicts that courts reach in its name. But the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as a true believer in the cause, should surely grasp that religious rights and human ones are not easily separable – and that jurisprudence on the former is developing. Since much of it depends on weighing one consideration against another there is no good reason why public benefit shouldn't be part of it.
Phillips seems oblivious to applying the principle. Which helps to explain why he, with his simplistic assertions, is wrong and Warsi, with her intuitive warnings, is right.