The Shari’ah shambles, and conscientious objection – by Edward Leigh MP

portrait-edwardleigh5.jpgOne cannot help feeling a little sorry for the Archbishop of Canterbury for his treatment by the press, however ill-advised his comments on Shari’ah law may have been.

But whatever distortions or over-simplifications the media may be guilty of, the merest suggestion by the man at the apex of the Anglican establishment that there was something ‘unavoidable’ about aspects of Shari’ah law being established as a parallel system to British law sends out the message to Muslims everywhere that the British establishment no longer has confidence in its own Judaeo-Christian culture.

I cannot help but agree with the words of Bishop Nazir-Ali, who said: “English law is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and our notions of human freedoms derive from that tradition. It would be impossible to introduce a tradition like Sharia into this corpus without fundamentally affecting its integrity.”

To take just one example, since the settlement of marital disputes is one of the functions already being carried out by Shari’ah courts in this country, and since that law permits a man to divorce his wife by saying words to the effect ‘I divorce you’ three times, while women have no such right, this plainly conflicts with our own principle of equality before the law for both sexes, to say nothing of its clashing with those of the European Human Rights law now incorporated into our own system.

So the Archbishop’s words were certainly not wise. And neither is the Government’s recent proposal to sell ‘Shari’ah bonds’ to Muslim investors.

Again, as I told the Mail on Sunday last weekend, the major objection to these proposals is the signal they send out. British Common Law must be supreme. It should apply to everyone.

To say this in no way interferes, of course, with people’s freedom of worship.

But having made those points, there is, I gather, an increasing feeling among faith communities that what unites them is more important than what divides them, now that the Government’s appetite for secularisation and for making laws fundamentally incompatible with mainstream religious values seems to know no bounds.

An example concerns the effect on Catholic adoption agencies of the Sexual Orientation Regulations in the Equality Act. That prevents any adoption agency from refusing to place a child with a homosexual couple. Its effect has fallen most heavily on Catholic agencies because they are relatively numerous and they look after a large proportion of potential adoptees.

But the principle to which the Church has taken exception is equally objectionable to all the mainstream faiths.

Some people allege an inconsistency in Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor saying in a recent interview that migrants should obey the laws of the land while seeking an exemption from the law on adoption. But this is a mistaken reading of his position. The law already recognises several exemptions on the basis of conscience. Sikhs, for example are exempt from wearing crash helmets when riding a motorbike, because their religion requires them to wear a turban.

And the Cardinal is not asking the Government to incorporate the laws of the Vatican state into UK law, whereas the various schools of Shari’ah law have an established presence in many countries as the basis of their civil law. It is a whole alternative legal system. Just as our doctors are permitted to abstain from abortion services on grounds of a conscientious objection, so with adoption by gay couples the case should be similar.

And of course the Church’s position would not prevent one gay couple from seeking to adopt a child through a secular agency, whereas the Government’s law will deprive many of the most difficult-to-place children – for whom the Catholic agencies cater disproportionately – of a loving home.

Tomorrow I will talk a little more about the Public Accounts Committee.

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