(Title Image: BBC Wales)
Now that I’ve covered the role religion plays in modern Wales, it’s worth looking at how religion and faith could be accommodated in an independent Wales.
A Secular Wales?
As mentioned previously, Wales is already a secular nation – we don’t have an established Church or state religion. In light of the fact that no single Christian denomination has a majority influence or special position in Welsh life (in the same way as Catholicism in the Republic of Ireland – though that’s debatable now), there’s no reason to change this.
As Wales is still “Culturally Christian”, public and national holidays would still be based around the Christian calendar – Christmas would still be Christmas, St. David’s Day will remain St. David’s Day. You would also assume the Church in Wales would be renamed Church of Wales – it looks like a cosmetic change, but it’s symbolically important (similarly the “for” instead of “of” in the National Assembly for Wales).
Organisations like Cytun and the Inter-faith Council would likely continue as they currently are, though humanist and secular organisations could be expected to play a part on equal terms.
Norway has a “State Philosopher” to act as a moral compass; I suppose the Future Generations Commissioner sort of acts in a similar capacity. It might not be necessary to create this role in an independent Wales, but you would expect the likes of the Inter-faith Council to remind politicians and public alike of issues that go beyond politics.
- Church and state could be formally separated in any written Welsh Constitution.
- There could be a reference to Wales being a “culturally Christian nation that welcomes all peaceful faiths, religions, beliefs and believers on equal terms under the law” in the same Constitution.
- A national register of recognised religions and denominations could be compiled and registered religions would be counted as a “religion” in legal terms (and eligible for charitable status), with the requirement that they file an annual report on membership statistics, finances etc.
- Secular and religious charities would have the same status in legal and tax terms.
- The Welsh Government and individual denominations could work together to find alternative uses for closed churches and chapels (i.e. community spaces, town halls, village halls, housing, emergency shelters).
Freedom of Religion
Freedom of religion is the freedom for individuals to practice their faith without restriction. This should be protected by any Welsh Constitution and/or Bill of Rights.
Elizabeth I is famously quoted as saying she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls” and however anachronistic that sounds, and however much she didn’t live up to these ideals, it’s a good place to start.
Religion should be considered a private matter of conscience. The state shouldn’t interfere in how faiths organise themselves, how they practise or what they believe (i.e. Canon Law). However, once those practices cross the line into breaching the principles of how the state organises itself, runs itself or the rights it grants its citizens – the state and Constitution should have primacy.
- People in Wales could have a guaranteed right to have a faith, no faith or change faiths; apostasy and blasphemy won’t be considered and offence and can’t be reintroduced as an offence – civil or otherwise – and won’t be recognised as a legitimate grievance.
- An “age of religious majority” could be introduced – similar to laws in Germany, Switzerland and Austria – at which point children are allowed to decide their own religion or involvement in religion and have a right to join or leave any faith by their own free will.
- Religion could be considered a “matter of conscience” as long as it doesn’t interfere in the religious freedoms or civil rights of others (in line with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights).
- Religions could run their own internal affairs without interference from the state as long as their rules remain compatible with a Welsh Constitution and/or Bill of Rights and are not used to promote or cover-up criminal behaviour or other forms of institutional or individual abuse.
- Similarly to Canada, “reasonable accommodations” could be made with regard religious clothing, icons or items worn in public or the workplace (i.e. an employer asking someone to remove bangles or religious jewellery only when working near machinery for safety reasons). Exemptions could exist when a garment is deemed an absolutely fundamental religious obligation (i.e. wearing a Sikh turban instead of a hard hat; Muslim headscarves – but not necessarily a face veil).
- Cults and extremist sects won’t be counted under religious freedom laws (more in Part III) and can be proscribed/banned by the government.
Freedom from Religion
If the rights of people who practice a religion are to be respected, so must the rights of everyone – almost a majority of people in Wales – who don’t practice or belong to any particular faith.
Under the principle of separation of church from state, no single faith should be given precedence over another and even if a person’s faith or beliefs prevents them from doing certain things (i.e. same-sex relationships), the state will always guarantee they have the secular right to do so.
If a religion opposes abortion, then only its adherents need to, not everyone else. If a religion believes homosexuality is immoral they can think it or say it but can’t act on it – “love the sinner, hate the sin”. If a religion believes the world is flat or that evolution doesn’t exist, again that’s fine – but it’ll be confined to the place of worship and won’t be allowed anywhere near a geography or science classroom.
- The practice, which still continues at some Welsh councils, of prayers before public meetings could end.
- Nobody should deny another person a service that they would otherwise offer someone else because of their own religious or moral beliefs; this could be a Constitutional guarantee.
- Proselytisers (for religions) could be included (or perhaps exempted) under any future regulations related to cold calling.
Religion in Education
A parent’s choice to send their child to a faith-based school should be defended under both freedom of choice and freedom of religion. One area that needs to be looked at again is state-funding of faith-based schools. Faith schools are exclusionary and selective to a certain extent, therefore public spending on faith schools should be tied to secular/whole community benefits.
Also, any child living within the natural catchment area of a faith school should be eligible for admission on the same terms as a believer.
Clearly, if a parent is sending their child(ren) to a faith-based school, the child should be expected to follow a faith-based curriculum. It shouldn’t be expected of secular state schools to do the same. That doesn’t mean religion and faith should disappear from state schools.
Religious education plays a valuable role by introducing pupils to different cultures, different ways of looking at the world and different moral outlooks. If the subject were to take on a more anthropological and philosophical bent (as has been mooted in Wales), then it could play a huge part in helping Welsh children develop tolerance and the ability to think more about big issues objectively. Personally speaking, that’s far better than a dull fifteen minute period of collective worship.
- State funding could only be provided for new faith schools if there’s a guaranteed “whole community” benefit and the school doesn’t have a selective admissions policy.
- The requirement for a daily act of worship in state schools could be scrapped (faith schools exempt).
- State schools could still be allowed to hold religious-themed assemblies or services. For example, Christian-themed services for Christmas & Easter, assemblies to mark major holidays of minority faiths (i.e. Eid, Diwali, Yom Kippur) and secular assemblies (i.e. International Workers Day, Remembrance Day, International Women’s Day, major sports events).
- Religious education should remain a compulsory part of the curriculum (and is likely to do so after the Donaldson reforms anyway) but changed to provide a broader look at philosophy, ethics and morals, in addition to specific religious practices and beliefs. Faith schools could be expected to teach this as too but could provide “top up” lessons specific to their school’s faith, or as part of collective worship – as some already do.
- Parents could still have a right to withdraw children from lessons that clash with their religious beliefs (except when it comes to learning about the religious and philosophical beliefs of others) – but they could have to provide proof and the child could be expected to undertake supervised comparable work (i.e. pre-arranged study at their place of worship that doesn’t clash with the timetable).