The courts respect religious belief but take “an essentially neutral” stance on faith, England’s most senior family judge has declared.
Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, said: “A secular judge must be wary of straying across the well-recognised divide between church and state.”
Speaking at the first annual conference of the Law Society’s Family Section, the President insisted that the traditional Christian faith of the judicial establishment was no longer an element of proceedings and judges now appear as “secular judges serving a multicultural community of many faiths sworn to do justice to all manner of people”.
Religious belief was no concern of either the government or the secular courts the Law Society Gazette reports Sir James saying.
“We live in a society, which on many of the medical, social and religious topics that the courts recently have to grapple with, no longer speaks with one voice. These are topics on which men and women of different faiths or no faith at all hold starkly different views. All of these views are entitled to the greatest respect, but it is not for a judge to choose between them.”
The courts should recognise no religious distinctions and pass no judgements on belief systems, the President said, as long as they are “legally and socially acceptable” and not “immoral or socially obnoxious”.
“A child’s best interests have to be assessed by reference to general community standards, making due allowance for the entitlement of people, within the limits of what is permissible in accordance with those standards, to entertain very divergent views about the religious, moral, social and secular objectives they wish to pursue for themselves and for their children.”
Practices such as forced marriage and “honour” killing were “beyond the pale” he said.
In relation to matters concerning children, he said, the courts will take into account the beliefs of the parents, but will always rule on what they belief to be the best interests of the child. Amongst other examples of such conflict, he cited the belief amongst Jehovah’s Witnesses that blood transfusions are sinful.