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State vs. Religion: that old rivalry rears its ugly head again in the UK

28 July 2007 at 19:34 | 1323 views

By Hassan-Morlai,UK.

In today’s world, no one needs a lesson in history or any social science discipline to discern that the State, manifested in all its apparatus, is the absolute authority in society when it comes to ordering the lives of people. However, if one still needs reminding, then the final stand-off recently in Wales (UK) is just the perfect reminder.

Since April this year, Hindu monks in the Skanda Vale temple in Llanpumsaint, West Wales, have been engaged in legal battles with the political authorities to spare the life of their sacred bullock. Shambo, the bull, is considered the holiest animal by Hindu monks. However, this divine animal tested positive with bovine tuberculosis in April and the Welsh authorities believed that allowing Shambo to live would constitute a serious health risk to the public. The Hindu monks disagree. For them, Shambo is sacred and that all cows serve as surrogate mothers to all mankind as they produce milk that nourishes human beings.

Both the Welsh authorities and the Hindu monks have been to the High Court to settle their legal dispute. The Welsh authorities’ contention was centred on public health risk posed by Shambo and stressed that no bull should be exempt from the strict rules designed to stop the spread of bovine TB; whilst the Hindu monks argued that to take their divine symbol of worship away from them would amount to an justifiable interference with their human rights to freedom of religion and worship. The monks further argue that Shambo was healthy and that its slaughter would be "an appalling desecration of life".

Last week, a High Court judge ruled that two slaughter orders against Shambo “were unlawful and will be quashed". But on Monday this week, the Court of Appeal in London overturned the High Court ruling. As every legally trained person will tell you, very few human rights are absolute; the right to religion and freedom of worship is one such non-absolute right. This is one clever way the State, through legislation (the Human Rights Act 1998 of England & Wales), has entrenched its hegemony over religion. Accordingly, it was no surprise when the Court of Appeal ruled after weighing the arguments of both the political Welsh authorities and religious Hindu monks, that the interference in the Hindus’ religious right was a justifiable and that Shambo should be slaughtered on public health grounds.

Thursday, 26th July 2007 was the day set aside for the slaughter of Shambo(photo). In the early hours of the morning, veterinary and police officers attended the Skanda Vale temple to pick up Shambo to join the estimated 2.6 million cattle slaughtered annually in England and Wales. This was not to happen, at least at that time. The Hindu monks refused to let the officers into their temple as the officers failed to produce a warrant. At 16:30 hours, the officers returned with the warrant. However, the over 200 Hindu worshippers in the Skanda Vale temple from Wales and those from as far as New Zealand and Switzerland who had come to patronise, put up a last resistance. They argue that the State authorities do not have legal powers to interrupt an act of worship. Hindu monk, Brother Alex told the BBC, "We are not protesting, we are worshipping God. This is about the freedom of human beings to express their religious values. We are simply determined to do our duty, no more, no less than that. We can’t be party to the destruction of life." The veterinary and police officers however, approached the worshippers individually and took them away one by one and gained access into the sacred prayer house. So at 19:20 hours, six year old Shambo the bull was led to his fate.

The wider issue is beyond the mere slaughter of a bull. If any thing, this episode reinforces the point that religion, as an institution that helps to organise society or mould people’s way of life is and cannot be a State apparatus nor can it be at par with the State in the 21st Century. The ancient church structure, perhaps represented by the Roman Catholic Church, has long had its ties with the State severed. The Ottoman Empire, which had Islam, occupied Southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (at the height of its power in the 16th and 17th Centuries), did not leave these regions as Islamic states, save for the majority of states in the Middle East.

In America and Canada like other Western countries (perceived as Christian countries), Christianity has long ceased to be the official state religion. The first of the ten amendments (1789) to the Federal Constitution of America reinforced the separation of state and religion: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

However, in England, the Church of England continues to be the official religion of the State. The Queen is its official head and any changes in church policies must be approved by Parliament at Westminster. Another worrying concern relates to fact that the offence of blasphemy in England can only be committed against the Christian faith of Anglican denomination. A BBC publication in 2004 states that “[d]uring a private prosecution in 1977, the trial judge said blasphemous libel was committed if a publication about God, Christ, the Christian religion or the Bible used words which were scurrilous, abusive or offensive, which vilified Christianity and might lead to a breach of the peace... [However], Some British Muslims unsuccessfully called for author Salman Rushdie to be tried under the law after the publication of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses. But the law only recognises blasphemy against the Church of England.”

Although separation between religion and state is apparent in many Western countries, England appears to practise its own form of separation in preference to the Church of England. But if the words of US Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun in the Lee v. Weisman ruling in 1992 are anything to go by, (“[w]hen the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some...”), then the political authorities in England will need to have a rethink about their approach. Who knows, may be this could be a factor explaining why some Muslims and other religious practitioners feel very uneasy when terrorism if linked to religious fundamentalism.