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Religious Accommodation and Secularism in an Independent Scotland

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As part of the UK, church-state relations in Scotland are ambiguous to say the least. The UK Monarch is the head of the Church of England, which is the established church in England, but not in Scotland.

At the same time, there is an open question as to whether the Church of Scotland is officially ‘established’. Scotland has not been an independent state since 1707, so how can the Presbyterian church lay claim to be the ‘state religion’ now, or in an independent Scotland.

These are among a myriad questions regarding church-state relations which can be addressed in a written constitution.

At present, Westminster remains constitutionally a semi-feudal monarchic swamp, which continues to feebly maintain that its legitimacy is based on divine right.

A ‘yes’ vote will avail Scots of the opportunity to develop a healthier relationship between church and state, which could eliminate the division between religious and civil law, while protecting all religions from state interference.

For centuries throughout Europe, civil and religious law have been separate, while also being in competition. In Scotland, at its best the Kirk has been a principal actor in resolving local legal disputes, separate from the broader Westminster law which was preoccupied with maintaining the social caste system.

At worst, the paedophile Priest scandal has shown us how this division between religious and civil law has allowed too many clergy to rape children with impunity.

There will always be divergences between civil law and church practice. For example, the practice in Catholicism and Islam to only employ males as Priests and Imams may run afoul of civil laws promoting equality in employment.

While there may be exceptions in civil law accorded to churches based on ‘central, sincere, and traditional’ practices, like employing only men in certain posts in the clergy, this should never extend to criminal law. No religious figure should ever again rape with impunity, and barbaric practices like female genital mutilation should never be protected under the guise of religious freedom.

The best way to protect religious freedom is for Scotland to be a secular state. Perhaps John F. Kennedy phrased it best in this speech to the Houston Minister’s association in 1963. However, there is the widespread impression that a secular state is the same as a secular society, and that a secular state would drive religion out of the public sphere. Even if the Church of Scotland were established as the official state religion, this would have no effect on the degree of secularism within society. This depends on individual piety, which cannot be under the purview of the state in a free society.

Having lived in the US and France, and being the son of an Anglican turned Unitarian minister, I have witnessed the ways in which the two countries are and are not secular. In the US, there is a constitutional separation of church and state, although religion is a very public affair. Thomas Jefferson witnessed the persecution of Baptists by the established Anglican Church in Virginia, which inspired him to write the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The establishment and free-exercise clauses in the First Amendment in Bill of Rights has led to a flourishing of religious activity in the US, in large part because the government cannot intervene in religious affairs.

This separation has not led to the expulsion of religion from the public sphere, which many religious people fear. The political debate is replete with religious invocations and ideas. The freedom of religion and speech are protected, so any Senator can praise God during debate, and there are ‘National Prayer Breakfasts’ held which bring together politicians from both parties to pray and discuss how faith informs their politics.

In France, there is a stronger secularism, because religion is viewed as a strictly private affair. There is freedom of religious practice, but certain ‘ostentations’ displays of religious observance are banned from the public sphere. You don’t have street preachers here with megaphones yelling ‘Bibles, Bibles, Bibles’ to passing sinners as you do in New Orleans at Mardi Gras. Religion is to be practiced the churches, and the French almost universally take a dim view of politicians invoking religion.

While varying in their application of secularism, what is common between France and the US is that they protect religious freedom, and do not favour or disfavour any particular religion or denomination. They are constitutionally bound to not interfere in religious practice which does not violate any generally applicable law.

That is the essence of a secular state, and Scotland has the once-in-a lifetime chance establish itself as one with a ‘yes’ vote and enshrine these values in a written constitution.

Religion is not a devolved power for the Scottish government, and will not be after independence. All religions, including the Church of Scotland, will be better protected in a secular state.

Under Westminster’s constitutional muddle, they can still pass laws which dictate religious doctrine, as they did with the Church of Scotland Act of 1921. Does any religion, including the Church of Scotland, want an independent Scottish parliament to be able to pass similar laws dictating their religious orthodoxy?

Why would any Scot want to continue to be ruled by Westminster which still can? Why would Scotland want to remain under the authority of the unelected House of ‘Lords’, which shares with Iran the dubious distinction of clergy participating in the formulation of laws?

Secular Scotland with a democratically elected President could also reassure Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarians, Quakers, Sikhs, and all other religions that their next head of state will not take the following oath:

‘I Charles, King of Scotland, faithfully promise and swear, by this my solemn Oath, in presence of the Eternal God, that during the whole Course of my Life I will serve the same Eternal God, to the uttermost of my Power, according as he has required in his most Holy Word, revealed and contained in the New and Old Testament; and according to the same Word shall maintain the true Religion of Christ Jesus, the preaching of his Holy Word, and the due and right Ministration of the Sacraments, now received and preached within the Realm of Scotland; and shall abolish and gainstand all false Religion contrary to the same, and shall rule the People committed to our Charge, according to the Will and Command of God, revealed in his aforesaid Word, and according to the laudable Laws and Constitutions received in this Realm, no ways repuguant to the said Word of the Eternal God; and shall procure, to the utmost of our power, to the Kirk of God, and whole Christian People, true and perfect Peace in all time coming. That I shall preserve and keep inviolated the Rights and Rents, with all just Privileges of the Crown of Scotland, neither, shall we transfer nor alienate the same; that we shall forbid and repress in all Estates and Degrees, Reif, Oppression and all kind of Wrong. And we shall command and procure, that Justice and Equity in all Judgments be kept to all Persons without exception, us the Lord and Father of all Mercies shall be merciful to us. And we shall be careful to root out all Heretics and Enemies to the true Worship of God, that shall be convicted by the true Kirk of God, of the aforesaid Crimes, out of our Lands and Empire of Scotland. And we faithfully affirm the Things above-written by our solemn Oath.’

In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, does any Scot want ‘King’ Charles to be constitutionally bound to discriminate against Catholics and burn heretics, or to be their ‘King’ at all for that matter?

Scots of all faiths have nothing to fear in a secular Scotland, and everything to gain. Secular Scotland will not be anti-religious, it will simply treat all religions equally under the law, and not interfere in any religion or religious practice which conforms to secular law. All religions will be able to flourish, not just the one the Monarch is constitutionally bound to uphold.

Vote ‘yes’ to a secular Scotland and set all religions free.

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