Right, I said I’d look at the legal side of the Playfoot’s case for religious discrimination under the Human Rights Act.
The basic contention is that the school’s decision to ban the wearing of chastity rings amounts to a breach of Playfoot’s rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as enacted by the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 9 reads as follows:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
With that goes the comparisons drawn with the school permitting the wearing of Sikh religious artifacts, specifically a bracelet called a ‘Kara’, and headscarves in line with the Muslim practice of Hijab (modesty) but not these rings, which the Playfoots contend amounts to a breach of article 14:
The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.
Okay, lets start to unpick this by looking at article 9, the second section of which ‘qualifies’ the rights according the first section by noting that the “freedom to manifest one’s religion and beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law…”
And, no doubt, the Playfoot’s barrister has argued that these chastity rings are a means of manifesting a certain element of religious belief.
But, this qualification on the right to manifest one’s beliefs is a secondary clause, which implies clearly that the particular protected forms of manifesting religious belief covered by ECHR are specified by the primary clause, which is confirmed by this statement:
to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
So, to qualify for protection under article 9, these rings have to constitute an act of worship, be an element in the teaching of religious beliefs, a religious practice or a religious observance.
Is an ring an act of worship? No. Going to church is an act of worship and prayer is an act of worship, but a not a ring – that’s an ‘artifact’ and fails to stack up even as an adjunct to worship, as one might argue in respect of Catholic rosary beads.
So that’s the worship proviso out of the picture.
What about teaching? Again, no. The mere existence of, or wearing of, a ring teaches one nothing whatsoever about religion or religious belief and, in any case, the term teaching implies not only an intellectual exercise but one conducted by an individual who is suitable qualified or experienced in their understanding of religious belief to reasonably be thought capable of imparting knowledge to others, which is hardly a faculty one would reasonably ascribe to a fourteen year old girl, not to mention that the qualification about protecting the rights and freedoms of others implies that any such teaching should be voluntary and not rammed down people’s throats whether they like it or not.
So that’s teaching out of the window.
What about a religious practice or observance, the last two options?
We’ll tackle these together as the dividing line between the two is perhaps a tad unclear. An observance is a rule or custom that followers are expected to follow – the Catholic Church define an observance in terms of it being a rule or discipline, while a practice is either the act of complying with an observance or simply an habitual action or custom.
So to be an observance, there must be some rule or discipline attached to wearing of these rings that, additionally, I would argue, has some basis in scripture or long-standing church tradition – one cannot simply have religions making up new rules on the spot and then claiming that they’re matters of religious liberty deserving of legal protection, such rules have to have some foundation is clerical tradition or a sound theological basis.
So one can argue that chastity itself could be thought a form of religious observance, and the school certainly aren’t banning kids from not shagging, but not the wearing of ring as a symbol of chastity, despite the Playfoot family’s fatuous attempts to draw parallels between their franchised baubles and wedding rings and the claim attributed to the father, which I saw in one report, that Christians have been wearing rings for centuries – that they undoubtedly have, and so too have lots of other people who aren’t Christians, which means there has to be more to it than merely the wearing of ring, the ring has to have clear, significant and scripturally mandated significance.
Damn that dozy St Paul for not mentioning rings!
Wedding rings have an established ritual significance in marriage practices stretching back into pre-history, and even though the practice was initially shunned by early Christians as a pagan ‘thing’ they came around to the idea quite long enough ago to make the whole business at least an accepted practice, if not a legitimate matter of observance given that rings play a part in the marriage ritual.
None of which is applicable to chastity rings, which originated in the United States in the 1990s.
The only other Christian tradition surrounding rings that has any real standing is the use as a symbol and seal of authority, as in the Catholic ‘Ring of the Fisherman’ (commonly called the Papal Ring) for which the earliest recorded reference dates to 1265, and the practice of rings serving as a badge of office, itself, derives from the common practice of mounting a seal (as in denoting the source and authenticity of documents type of seal) into a ring as a matter of convenience.
And as there’s no mention in any of this of young Lydia signing her homework in wax or having been annointed the high priestess of some latter day order of vestal virgins, I think we can rule that argument out as well.
The Playfoots can’t even try the old ‘nuns wear rings’ line of argument as the ritual significance of that is as a component of their presumed ‘marriage to god’ and not as a simple symbol of temporary chastity while awaiting the appearance of an all too corporeal husband.
Whether this whole ring business has been wrapped up in cant and ritual by its supporters is entirely immaterial – if you are going to lay claim to the religious rulebook argument then there still has to be some long-standing foundation or basis for your rules, otherwise what’s to stop someone getting a priest to say a few of blessing over a teapot and then proclaiming that the blessed teapot has to be on permanent display on your school desk at all times or your religious freedoms have been infringed. The idea is nonsense, as is the claim that the wearing of chastity rings should attract the protection of human rights law.
So, that said, what of the discrimination claim in regards to the school permitting the wearing of the Kara or observance of the practice of hijab.
The Five Ks of Sikhism, Kesh (uncut hair) and Kanga (wooden comb – together these account for the religious significance of the wearing of the turban), Kara (bracelet), Kachhera (cotton underwear) and Kirpan (curved sword or dagger) are expressly mandated matters of religious observance and articles of faith, as commanded by the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh – hence they attract the full protection of article 9.
Hijab, which actually refers to the Islamic practice of modesty and not to a specific garment, is similarly mandated in both the Qu’ran and under Islamic law and jurisprudence, and although there are a number of variant cultural interpretations of the precise requirements of sartorial hijab within in Islam, the practice itself is, again, a matter of religious observance in which the practice of women covering their hair is more than sufficiently widespread and commonplace as a tradition, if nothing else, for these garments to fall legitimately under the definition of a religious practice, if not for them to be entirely regarded as a matter of observance (and then only because in some Islamic countries, such as Tunisia, the covering of the hair at all time is not part of local interpretation of the practice.
In no sense is the wearing of a ring as a symbol of chastity comparable to either the 5Ks or the practice of Hijab – for this to be the case the Playfoots would have to show that the wearing of rings as a symbol of chastity is either mandate in the Bible or rooted in the teachings of a major theological or historical figure in the history of the Chrisitan faith. Sainthood would almost certainly be the minimum qualifying requirement, and even then the expectation would likely be that the individual in question and, therefore, their teachings would have to be pretty well known and accepted as a core element or major contribution to Christian teaching – we’re looking here at the level of Jesus, the biblical apostles, St Paul and his immediate associates and then maybe the likes of Patrick, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc.
(The latter two would probably have loathed the idea of chastity rings and considered them to be idolatrous examples of errant Popery in line with the whole business about Moses and graven images)
Find a reference to chastity rings in amongst the theological heavy hitters, and you might have a marginal case. Without such a reference there’s no case, no infringement in religious freedom and no discrimination, just a bunch of evangelists on the make and wasting the time of our courts and the money of the school (taxpayers’ money, of course) on a futile, publicity-seeking exercise in self-aggrandisement.
Here endeth the lesson…