BY SIMON CALDWELL
RELIGIOUS liberty in Britain is under its most severe threat from intolerant attitudes for nearly 200 years, a leading Catholic barrister has said.
Neil Addison, an expert on religious hate law, told a conference at Lancaster University that “the legitimacy of religious opinion per se is now coming into question in a way that has not been seen since the repeal of the anti-Catholic Test Acts in 1829”.
Evidence for this could be seen, he said, in the repeated hostile questioning of the former Labour Cabinet Minister Ruth Kelly on the subject of her Catholic faith and in the 2004 refusal of the European Parliament to accept the appointment of Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione as a commissioner because, in answer to a question, he said he believed gay sex to be a sin.
Mr Addison said that the theme of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) seminar, “Religious Rights within a Secular Society”, itself revealed the prejudice at work against religious believers. He said court rulings had decisively confirmed that Britain was not a secular state and that the “highly dangerous” concept of a “secular society” meant an “anti-religious society”.
“Who or what defines the limits and limitations of a secular society?” asked Mr Addison, the director of the Thomas More Legal Centre. “The concept of defining the religious rights within the amorphous concept of a ‘secular society’ seems to me fraught with difficulty and makes rights subordinate not to objective standards of law but instead to subjective personal opinion and arbitrary bureaucratic tyranny.” He said: “There is a danger ... of the concept of ‘Religious Rights in a Secular Society’ being interpreted so as to justify a repressive and intolerant attitude towards religions and religious believers who are subtly defined as outsiders from society, at best merely tolerated, at worst sidelined and silenced.” He said such a concept was fundamentally inconsistent with the idea of legal rights and changed the meaning of religious freedom from a freedom enjoyed by all citizens to “mere concessions to a minority group which are at the mercy of the majority”.