LONDON– A leading judge in the UK is asserting that British courts are ‘no longer Christian’ because we are living in a ‘secular society.’
Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, says Britain is a “multicultural community of faiths” and that judges are no longer enforcers of Christian standards of morality. The keynote address was given at the Law Society’s Family Law Annual Conference.
“Once upon a time, the perceived function of the judges was to promote virtue and discourage vice and immorality,” he said. “I doubt one would now hear that from the judicial bench.”
Munby went on to say that standards of morality had changed, and judges should reflect the societal shifts.
“Today, surely, the judicial task is to assess matters by the standards of reasonable men and women in 2013,” he stated, “not by the standards of their parents in 1970.”
In the speech, Munby said the Victorian judiciary’s role was to “promote virtue and discourage vice and immorality, a very narrow view of sexual immorality.” In the speech, he cited examples of judges condemning homosexuality, abortion and adultery and declared that those days are gone.
“Happily for us, the days are past when the business of judges was the enforcement of moral or religious beliefs,” Munby said. “Although, historically, this country is part of the Christian West, and although it has an established church which is Christian, we sit as secular judges serving a multi-cultural community of many faiths, sworn to do justice ‘to all manner of people.’”
Munby, in his speech about law, morality and religion in the family courts, gave examples of children being taken away from their parents in cases of adultery, but added that courts nowadays would overrule parents’ religious beliefs if it was in the child’s best interests for them to do so.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, warned that secular courts were not a neutral option.
“It is never a question of whether to bring a wider value system to bear on questions of justice, only which system to use,” she stated. “The secular system which Sir James suggests poses as ‘neutral’ but like any other value system, it favors certain characteristics over others.”
“In our context, ‘secular’ has become shorthand for ‘atheist’, a value framework that ultimately only offers us a ‘survival of the fittest’ ethic and the primacy of power and might,” Williams continued. “In contrast, the Christian faith provides a robust basis for dignity, community, morality and mercy.”
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, welcomed the speech and characterized it as “reassuring.”
“The days of judges using their benches to preach Christianity and claim that the Book of Common Prayer is the basis of British law are gone, and not a moment too soon,” he said. “The courts must remain secular.”
But Sanderson also claimed that it is difficult to maintain secular courts because of lawsuits surrounding religious discrimination.
“Having to decide whether it is an Islamic duty for a woman to wear a niqab, as some have claimed, or for a Christian to wear a cross at work even when it poses a health and safety risk, means that judges are being required to rule on doctrinal matters that should be of no concern to them,” he remarked.