Thursday, February 17, 2005
A holy mess
The Liberal Democrats are sending out confusing messages about the proper relationship between religion and the state.
First, the good news. Last week (7th February), Liberal Democrat MPs led an attempt to amend the section of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill relating to religious hatred. I posted on this subject last week but now a Hansard transcript of the debate is online. Excellent performances by David Heath, Simon Hughes and Evan Harris. The Liberal Democrat amendment won cross-party backing (including 25 Labour members who defied their party whip) but was sadly defeated by the government. All is not lost as there will be a second reading of the Bill in the House of Lords, probably on 7th March.
Now for the bad news. The National Secular Society reports that Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said in a speech to a religious group that he is in favour of faith-based welfare and thinks that religious bodies should play a larger role in public life. He added, in an interview with Muslim News, that the Lib Dems would come up with a "package" of measures in which they would consider giving further privileges to religion. He also says that he would not oppose a growth in the number of state-funded Muslim schools.
Meanwhile, in a speech to the Catholic Association of Teachers, Schools and Colleges, the party's education spokesman Phil Willis assured his audience that,
"We have no proposals whatsoever to close Church schools or to prevent the establishment of others - indeed it is a Liberal Democrat Council in Islington that has jointly sponsored the St Mary Magdalene Academy, the first Church of England Academy in the country."These statements are obviously a pre-election pitch for the religious vote. But they are fundamentally illiberal.
Liberals, whatever their personal religious views, must accept the principle of the secular state because only individuals can have religious faith and the inanimate state cannot 'believe'. Religion must remain a personal matter because all religions have at their heart a dogma that necessarily precludes other beliefs; when religion is established within the body politic, it leaves little room for argument. In a Liberal society, no-one should suffer discrimination or oppression for their religious views but, equally, no religion should enjoy any statutory privilege.
The Liberal objection to religious schools is that, far from promoting 'diversity' as their defenders claim, they enforce sectarianism and pin religious labels on children too young to be capable of making any meaningful choice. Further, state funding for such schools is tantamount to spending taxpayers' money on religious proselytizing. The state should not ban religious schools but there is no reason why the state should subsidise them.
Each person should be free to pursue their religious beliefs but one's faith should be a matter of private conscience, not state policy. Kennedy and Willis have placed the party on a slippery slope, in what appears to be an ill thought-out piece of shabby populism.