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Ecclesiastical Court

Denis Solomon • 1,186 words

Some months ago a judge in Britain took action against a woman who had refused to give evidence in a case brought by the police against her boyfriend, who had severely beaten her on several occasions. Although the case was brought as a result of the complaints of the woman herself, she obviously did not want the man to go to jail, and so refused to testify.

The judge, in ordering that the man be acquitted, expressed his annoyance at the woman’s change of heart and told her to return to court the next day with her lawyer, to explain why she should not face a charge of contempt of court. He said that she had benefited from the services of the police, who had intervened at her call, arrested the man and prepared the charge; from the social services; and from the legal system which had mobilised itself to hear the case and punish her attacker. For her abuse of these resources, said the judge, she might well deserve punishment.

I did not follow up the case and so I can’t say what the result was. The incident was brought to mind by the similar case, in Trinidad, of Denise Stanford, whom Justice Herbert Volney jailed for twenty-one days last week for refusing to testify against a policeman. The officer had been charged, on Stanford’s initiative, for attempting to extort money from her by threatening to charge her brother with drug offences. The judge remanded her in custody and the next day imposed the sentence.

The Trinidad case is different in two ways from the British one. First, the case was against a policeman. Secondly, and this is the real Trinidadian twist, the grounds given by the witness for her silence were that she was a born-again Christian and had been advised by her pastor to forgive those who had injured her and put the past behind her.

The judge did not, as I would have, considered the possibility of committing the pastor too for contempt of court, or for perverting the course of justice, or whatever charge could be brought against a person for influencing someone not to do their civic duty. This seems to me to be the same offence for which President Clinton is now being investigated. But the judge did point out that no injury had been done to Stanford, and there was therefore nothing to forgive. An attempt at extortion by a policeman is an injury against the State, and citizens have an obligation to assist the State in dealing with it.

Stanford’s real reason was probably not religious, as the fate of others who have been foolhardy enough to testify against the police has amply demonstrated. The same is probably true of most of the other recent cases where witnesses have refused to testify on grounds of religious conversion. But the increasing prevalence of the excuse is the result of people thinking it will work — that the law will accept a religious “reason” as a justification for opting out of civic obligations.

All the signals that society has sent so far have in fact bolstered that illusion. Religion of all kinds has an automatically privileged place in the mentality of this country. It supersedes and even replaces everything from the work ethic to civic responsibility. Children throwing tantrums in school is put down not to mischief or indiscipline but to “spiritual attack”. University students expect to be excused from exams on any day of the week that suits them because their particular sect has decreed a Sabbath or a period of meditation on that day. Worse, they are supported in their demand by the teaching staff. Baptists’ wailing and singing, audible for miles around, or the loudspeakers which accompany so many Hindu observances, are not a disturbance of the peace because they are religious. The Government is now proposing to reinforce the insidious grip of religion on civic life, by means of an “Equal Opportunity Bill” which will make the public criticism of religion extremely dangerous. So I am getting in my criticism now.

In my column of 17 March I pointed out that for the State to give its approval, even tacitly, to religion as such, as opposed to religious freedom, is to provide an implied justification for groups such as the Muslimeen who use the “will of God” as a reason for acts different only in degree from refusing to testify in court or demanding exemption from examinations.

The line is never clear between the respect the State must accord to individual conscience and its demand for obedience to the law. The boundary is continually redefined in successive test cases. Ms Stanford was probably taken by surprise when Justice Volney sent her to jail. But the Sikh in Britain who refused to wear a crash helmet when he rode his motor scooter because his religion required him to wear a turban won out only after he had been charged several times. He knew what would happen to him if he persisted. The State’s case was not only that the law must be obeyed, but that although he was only risking his own life if he crashed, the wearing of a helmet was part of the contribution of the individual to keeping down the cost of the health services. The upshot, however, was that the law was changed to exempt Sikhs from the rule.

In the struggle of the Muslim community in France for girls to be allowed to wear the hijab headscarf in class, the decision went the other way, the courts considering that the secular character of the school system must remain inviolable. A similar case in Trinidad, predictably, went in favour of the plaintiff.

The point is not that the State must not respect individual conscience and continually seek to accommodate it. The point is that there are some battles that it must win, and so it must not give up the war in advance. It can only avoid this by guaranteeing religious freedom while distancing itself from religion as such.

Justice Herbert Volney’s sentence is a step in that direction. But not all judges seem to be as willing to exclude religion from the deliberations of their courts. On the same day as Justice Volney sent Ms Stanford to jail, Justice Anthony Lucky urged a convicted defendant to pray, and announced his intention of doing the same thing to help him decide on a sentence. Advice from a judge in court is the advice of the State. The most religious of judges should not give advice that sets a value on religion as against the lack of it, which is an equal right. Any devotional practice Justice Lucky may undertake to help him reach a judicial decision is his own affair, and he should not announce it in court. Society also contains people who believe that religiously-inspired judgements are a menace rather than a blessing. Every martyr ever burnt at the stake by a religious court is a witness to that point of view.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top