Proposed Human Rights Act reforms would fundamentally undermine the rights of humanists
Yesterday, the Government published its long-awaited proposals on reforming the Human Rights Act. If passed into law, these reforms will have a devastating impact on the fundamental rights of humanists.
The Government has announced it wants to reform section 3 of the Act to severely curtail the ability of public authorities and the courts to ‘read in’ human rights-compliant interpretations to legislation, where it is possible to do so. This will stop them from being able to address human rights abuses themselves, instead meaning that a change in the law would be required. An example of such a reading in that has been made regularly by the courts and public authorities before is reading references to ‘religion’ in old laws as being inclusive of non-religious worldviews such as humanism. This crucial power of interpretation is what has underpinned almost all positive developments in the freedom of belief and equal treatment of humanists and the non-religious in the last twenty years.
Without the courts and public authorities having this power, humanists would not have been able to successfully campaign for many important changes. In 2005, humanist marriages became legally recognised in Scotland after the registrar general decided he had to make just such a reading in. In 2018, legally recognised humanist marriages in Northern Ireland were brought about after a judge read into existing marriage law an interpretation that humanist marriage should be understood to be included. Similarly, in 2018 the Welsh Government concluded that humanism had to be equally included in RE for this reason. The same law also applies in England, and dozens of local authorities have made exactly the same reading in in their RE provision. There have also been countless instances where individual humanists have won equality for the non-religious without having to go to court, including challenging the exclusion of humanists from the advisory bodies that set RE syllabuses and securing the provision of humanist and nonreligious pastoral care for the nonreligious in prisons and hospitals.
The Government proposals run directly counter to the recommendation of the Independent Human Rights Act Review Panel’s report into reform of the Act which was also published yesterday. The Panel specifically cautioned against reform of section 3 stating,
‘there is no substantive case for its repeal or amendment other than by way of clarification or for altering either the balance between sections 3 and 4 achieved by the [Act]… any damaging perceptions as to the operation of section 3 are best dispelled by increased data as to its usage.’
Humanist UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented,
‘We are extremely concerned by proposals to remove this aspect of the Human Rights Act. Much UK law that today should apply to non-religious citizens as much as to religious ones is wording in an archaic way. Without the existing power of interpretation, freedom of belief for the non-religious will be severely undermined to the detriment of millions of people in the UK.’
Humanists UK leads a coalition of over 230 charities, trades unions, and human rights organisations calling for protection of the Human Rights Act and judicial review. It is believed to be the largest ever UK coalition of groups to campaign on human rights.