Comment: Ignore the Pope

The pope has no right to speak about British law, but even if he did: he's wrong.

By Ian Dunt

If aliens came down to earth to find that an 82-year-old male virgin in a dress is a world authority on matters of sexual morality they would probably turn round and go home, safe in the knowledge that there's nothing to learn here. But politics is rarely about the way the world should be, and usually about the way it actually is, and so we must deal with the reality of the situation, no matter how preposterous it is.

The pope's comments yesterday attacking Harriet Harman's equality bill prompted a battering ram of criticism, but before we get carried away it would useful to differentiate the two strands of the debate. One strand is on the validity of the equality bill itself and religious groups' duty to follow British law. The second is about his authority to speak his mind in such a forthright fashion.


On the bill itself, religious figures have spoken a great deal of nonsense about this generally well-conceived, thoughtful and decent-minded piece of law. It's not perfect but it's a good bit of law. No-one is trying to ban Christmas, as bishops said recently.

It does, however, cement the notion that employers cannot discriminate. And the Catholic church, quite plainly, is very keen on continuing to discriminate against homosexuals and women who want to be priests. It seems heavy handed to force them to adapt their traditions. But allowing religious groups an exemption, as is currently the case, sets an intolerable precedent.

If the Catholic church is exempt from equality laws, then what about spiritual healer Davender Ghai, a Hindu man who has been entrenched in a protracted legal fight to be cremated on a traditional funeral pyre? When he went to the Appeal Court last month, master of the rolls Lord Neuberger would only allow him the go-ahead if his demands "fall within the legislation". There were no exemptions simply because of his faith.

Do women in burkas get exemptions from passport photos or airport security checks? No. In Uganda, child sacrifice by witch doctors seeking to gain spiritual and material favour is still relatively common and, worryingly, on the rise. It is a monstrous abomination, but it is also a religious practise. Would a Ugandan witch doctor in London be granted the right to sacrifice children?

That sounds a churlish and extreme example, and it is. But legally and in terms of formulating a coherent political position, principle is what counts. The principle in this case must be that religions cannot be granted exemptions from the law merely on the basis that they are a religion. After all, no-one else is consistently offered exemption. Why should they? The mere fact religious groups have forsaken rationality should not grant them special favour.

On the second strand: many religious figures are irritated by suggestions - predominantly from secular and gay rights groups - that the pope has no right to comment on British matters. As the leader of an important faith, it seems quite obvious that he has the right to speak on this issue. After all, it affects those who follow him. His religious status does not bar him from having an opinion. That argument is entirely right and understandable.

But Pope Benedict XVI is not just the head of a church, he is also the head of a state. As it happens - and rather amusingly - he is currently the only absolute monarch in Europe. That changes everything. The French president isn't in the habit of condemning British legislation. We react pretty badly when he makes comments about our food, for heaven's sake. The pope needs to get out of our affairs, not for religious reasons, but for national reasons.

Supporters of the pope, and their brothers from other religions who recognise the need to team up against the ever-increasing secularism of Great Britain, will accuse me of further reducing the role of religion in British society and delegating it into the private sphere. And to that I would say: correct.

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