Yes, you heard it here. My colleague on the Skepticule podcast, Anonymous Steve, has been instructed thusly. It is just an incredible story. For those of you in Britain, such stupidity must change. Here is how Paul Orton (thanks to him for this piece), one of the hosts of the show where we do our segments, puts it, from his blog Missing God Gene. Please note an important edition concerning whether it is all Masses of just Christmas Mass. If you can help, or know someone who can, then let us know. Please spread the word, spread the link and let’s get this sorted:
What’s the problem?
Steve, a British citizen of my acquaintance, has been instructed by a British judge to attend Roman Catholic mass with his children when he has custody of them, as part of a divorce settlement.
The instruction to attend church was something the judge introduced without being requested by the mother. The judge declared his Roman Catholicism to the court. The children only occasionally attended church with their mother before the divorce.
Steve appealed the judgement as far as he could as a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) but the Appeals Court has ruled that the original ruling should not be overturned. This would appear to set a precedent whereby it is in the remit of the British court system to demand that citizens attend services of a particular denomination.
Steve chooses not to take his children to mass, thereby leaving himself open to a charge of Contempt of Court and a prison sentence.
Steve needs to raise awareness of the case and has done so through the Skepticule podcast, of which I am a presenter, but has to remain anonymous to protect his children from being identified, hence being known here and on the podcast as Anonymous Steve.
Steve went through a difficult divorce case, the ramifications of which are still involving the legal system in one way or another, at the time of writing. My interest here only relates to the matter of forced church attendance and not the divorce case itself. The term ‘children’ here is used to avoid being gender and number specific. The number of children is not important for this article.
After protracted hearings concerning family law, Steve was before a Circuit Judge in a County Court in the north of England in relation to family arrangements for his children. Steve was designated regular time with his children.
During the hearing the Roman Catholic judge introduced the requirement for Steve to attend Roman Catholic mass if Steve has the children when there is a mass, including at Christmas [EDIT JP – actually, Steve is denied weekend access for no discernible reason apart form a religious one, so as to avoid some religious ramifications? He definitely has to attend Christmas Mass]. This was not asked for by the mother and the children had previously only occasionally attended mass with their mother, a Roman Catholic. The judge required a promise from Steve that he would take them to mass, thereby preventing Steve from arranging for them to be taken by someone else. Steve must attend Roman Catholic mass with his children but Steve’s ex-wife does not. The children must attend mass when they are with their father, but not with their mother.
The judge declared his Roman Catholicism in court and mentioned that it might be better if Steve had the children for the ‘pagan’ festival of New Year rather than Christmas itself.
Steve felt the ruling was deeply wrong and went to the Court of Appeal to contest, amongst other things, the point about the County Court judge being able to instruct him to attend mass with his children, on the basis that this was a breach of his and his children’s ECHR Article 9 rights. The Court of Appeal ignored this aspect of his appeal.
Steve also opened a case with the Office of Judicial Complaints (OJC) about the judge’s conduct on this point and others. The OJC upheld the other aspects of his complaint but stated that the matter of his and his children’s Article 9 rights would be a matter for an appeal of the original decision or of Judicial Review.
As the Appeal Court had already ignored Steve’s appeal on the ECHR Article 9 rights, the option was to commence a Judicial Review in the High Court. However, like the Appeal Court, the High Court ignored his assertion of his Article 9 rights. At this point, the two avenues to a decision had led to judgements, but neither had addressed, or even referred to, his ECHR complaint.
Steve’s only remaining option was to force an answer to the question of whether his and his children’s Article 9 rights had been infringed by appealing the decision of the High Court. The Appeal Court judge ruled that the infringement, which was of sufficient importance for Steve to take it thus far, was too small to amount to a breach of Steve and his children’s Article 9 rights.
So this is where the matter stands .
Steve acted for himself throughout the process without access to legal representation.
Why is this a problem?
- The state is ordering a citizen to go to church. The recusancy laws, which required citizens to attend church, were abolished in 1650. Somehow they still apply to Steve though.
- Given that religion had not been an issue in the case, the judge felt it was his responsibility to introduce it. It would appear that he was placing his own religious feelings about Christmas over the cultural importance of Steve celebrating Christmas with his children. Saying that it might be better if Steve had the children for the ‘pagan’ festival of New Year rather than Christmas itself implies the judge was imposing his own religiosity into his decision.
- The original court judgement referred to all decisions being made in the interests of the children, but there is something wrong when the court imposes terms that were not sought, in what seems to be in the interests of promoting a particular religion, which happens to also be the religion of the judge.
- In my work, if there is a conflict of interest I have to declare it to those concerned. The judge seems to have had a conflict of interest here but there was no mechanism to take account of it.
- Steve has specifically to attend Roman Catholic mass. This only applies when he has the children and when the mass is happening. Some churches have two masses a day. Does he have to attend both? This point wasn’t clarified by the judge.
- Steve is prevented from attending a religious service of his choice if it is on at the same time. This clearly restricts his freedom of religion.
- The state is hindering the opportunities for Steve to foster the relationship with his children. They like to attend secular activities together. If Steve wants to take his children out for the day, he cannot do this unless he fits in a church service along the way. If his children want to go to a football match he would have to choose one around times of the services.
- The state is risking the relationship between the father and the children by making Steve do something against his and the children’s will. As it happens neither Steve nor the children wish to go to mass, which actually brings them together in a conspiratorial way.
- What business is it of a judge to decide whether parents should bring their children up in a particular religion, and whether church attendance should be compulsory? Steve has made no commitment to bring his children up in a religion so why was the judge imposing it?
- On what grounds is the judge seeking to dictate the religious affiliation of the children? Don’t they have any rights in this matter?
- This ruling is in place until the children are 18. They can opt out of religious education of their own volition at sixteen but by the ruling of this judge they must be taken to mass by their father until they are eighteen.
- Many people would expect that being forced by law to attend church as a child would guarantee a rejection of that faith. The judge presumably thinks differently.
- If the children refuse to go to church, Steve gets into trouble.
- Steve does not take his children to mass, thereby risking his limited custody of the children and exposes him to a charge of Contempt of Court, which carries a maximum two-year prison sentence.
- Steve makes the point that the precedent has now been set that a judge can require a person to attend a religious occasion, for any belief system or lack of belief system. So if a Muslim judge demands a Christian attends a mosque, or a Jewish judge demands a Muslim attends a synagogue, the ECHR Article 9 rights could not be used to fight it.
- Should he lose custody of the children or be accused of Contempt of Court it might give an opening to the Human Rights legislation.
- Steve has effectively had no right of appeal to the original ruling.
- Most worryingly, he has no access to the Article 9 of European Convention of Human Rights Act legislationbecause the courts can choose to just avoid answering the question. So although we seem to have certain rights, we do not in practice, because there is no arena in which we can raise a complaint.
- The state can decide whether or not to apply the ECHR or not, according to its whim. Steve makes the point that when the ECHR was absorbed into English law, many thought that our unwritten constitution now had a written codified element, effectively a bill of rights with constitutional strength. The ECHR was our bill of rights, it stated as fact what we are entitled to, and determined what issues can be raised in court and what protections a court must observe. However, if a blatant breach of a key element enshrined in that codified element can be ignored by courts when it is specifically raised as an ECHR complaint at a higher court, then effectively that equivalent to a bill of rights is vacuous. Effectively, despite the trumpeting we hear of ECHR, our rights are effectively as they have been for centuries – not worth the paper they aren’t written on.
The Other Point Of View
When I raised a discussion on the principle on a Facebook forum where believers and non-believers come together to discuss things, I was surprised how many Christians felt that the original ruling was perfectly justified, whereas most non-believers felt there was an injustice. The strongest view was that if the court was just imposing an obligation on Steve to attend the regular activities that they normally carry out (such as piano lessons), then there was no harm in that. This argument falls down as it was the court that introduced the requirement to attend church and also that Steve is obliged to attend with them rather than waiting outside.
Steve raised awareness about this injustice on the Skepticule podcast, and now makes regular contributions as ‘Anonymous Steve’. The Skepticule Podcast (skepticule.co.uk) addresses matters of skepticism and other issues of interest to those who loosely define themselves as skeptics. I am one of the presenters of it.
Steve has also sought help from Liberty and the British Humanist Association, and I raised it with the National Secular Society. None of these worthy organisations have felt able to get involved, possibly because it is such a complicated case and it is difficult to differentiate between this particular aspect of it and the wider, complicated divorce case.
If Steve was in the USA then the Freedom From Religion might be able to take it on, on the basis of the constitutional principle of freedom of religion, but the FFRF has a team of lawyers on hand and a constitution to sue against. There is no such organisation in the UK and no constitution.
Steve is hoping to elicit help or advice on how he can get access to the ECHR about his complaint about this breach of freedom of religion. He has recently received an expression of interest from a member of the Lawyers’ Secular Society.
I am hoping that laying out the facts of the case will enable someone to offer help, or a least to raise awareness of the issues involved.
Although I can’t speak for Steve, I have a quote on my office wall from a Richard Beake of Kentishtowne that seems to resonate. He stated athe Middlesex Assizes on 6 December 1625, “That he cared not a f. for the Justices, and that he had not been at church for tenn yeares, nor wold goe to church for all the Justices could doe. Lett the Justices kisse his A.”
Some journalists have sown interest in this case, as has social media, which is great. I thought it might be interesting to add this text from an email that Anonymous Steve copied me in on to one such journalist whilst talking about the complexities of such cases. I thoought this would be important to add to answer a few questions that have arisen on the case:
I fear that this is why judges in family courts are able to ignore the law, and the European Convention – that journalists will not cover these stories because they are complex, partly private, and there is probably “fault on all sides”.
However the official transcript of the hearing shows:
(1) that the mother and her lawyer did not request this
(2) that the judge mentioned his own Catholicism in an irrelevant anecdote
(3) that the judge brought this idea up, completely out of the blue, with no invitation or provocation
(4) that it only applies to me, not my former wife
And hence that I feel justified in fearing that the judge’s own religion was more important to his overall decisions, than what was best for my children.
The problem is that judges are permitted to impose their religious or other prejudices, where people find it just too tricky to report the fact that they do this. And this judge has “form”, in relation to his dodgy decisions (link can be provided on request).
Note too that my complaint to the Office of Judicial Complaints was upheld, but in this one Article 9 matter, I was told I may only take that to appeal or to judicial review. Both of whom ignored entirely- would not even comment upon – this key matter. Without press attention, and without courts addressing the actual complaint, we don’t have protection under ECHR – its not worth the paper it is written on, if it is just ignored, and the fact of it being ignored remains unreported.
official transcription (redacted by me) attached
Steve talks about his case in our latest podcast offering here.