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Public manifestation of faith

Published: 
Sunday, June 24, 2018

In The Wine of Astonishment, Lovelace interrogates the public manifestation of faith during the passing of the Prohibition Ordinance from 1917 until 1951. The wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical, or religious beliefs that are a manifestation of those beliefs without distinction has generated copious case law at the European Court of Justice. In the Caribbean, there was a period when African varieties-of-religious experience became ‘acts’ of political and ideological self-expression.

The Port-of-Spain Gazette in 1898 styled a congregation of worshippers as ‘Shouters’. They practised a religion rooted in West African faith which had much in common with the ‘Converted’ of St Vincent and the ‘Jordanites’ of Guyana. In the wake of the ‘Shakerism Prohibition Ordinance’ in 1912 in St Vincent which outlawed the Shakers, the local authorities were eager to mimic those efforts. By 1917 the legislature of T&T passed the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance. By 1927 Grenada’s ‘Public Meetings (Shakerism) Prohibitions Ordinance’ was also enacted. Prosecutions ensued and worshippers were forced to pray in ‘Secret Gardens’ with a perogun in one corner pierced by 20-foot bamboo stalks flying flamboyant flags, scattered stools, and a water trough. Inside the palais, candles burned in all four corners with olive oil poured intermittently. On the open-sided face—singing, dancing, and drumming. Inside the chapelle—a litany of lithographs of Saints, pots of water, and ceremonial brooms.

Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler called for religious tolerance and by 1951 the Ordinance was repealed and its anniversary observed as ‘Spiritual Shouter Baptist Liberation Day’. The first 16 words of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States state that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...’ There is no precise equivalent to this formulation in Europe. The ‘free exercise’ of religion is guaranteed, albeit with qualifications, by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which all members of the Council of Europe are signatory. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change faith or belief either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his faith in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. Article 9 goes on to say that freedom of religion can be limited in the interests of ‘public safety...the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’

Interestingly, there isn’t anything equivalent to the American ‘establishment’ clause because many European countries retain established or national churches as is the case in England, Denmark, and Greece.

Others accord certain historic privileges to the Roman Catholic Church as in Spain, Italy, and parts of Germany. This diversity of regime, ranging from church-minded Greece to ultra-secular France is guaranteed by the Treaty on the Functioning of the members of the European Union. Article 17 of that treaty states that the ‘Union respects...the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the member states.’ Brussels is therefore uninterested in imposing a uniform church-state system across its EU.

Despite the variances between the European and American positions, there is convergence. In both, jurisdictions lawmakers have leaned towards respect for the ‘autonomy’ of religious organisations—their right to set their own rules in respect of internal organisation and vital bits of legislation mandate, the equal treatment of people of different faiths. America’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 was intended to outlaw all discrimination on the basis of religion as well as race and national origin. In EU law, there is a directive outlawing all forms of discrimination in employment, as well as a broader equality directive which does not mention religion. Both in America and Europe, it is acknowledged that indirect discrimination—applying a rule which may disadvantage certain groups—may be permissible if the purpose is legitimate.

Within the tangle of constitutional principles, judges in both America and Europe have to pick their way through the claims of parties. While the principles are clearer in Europe the case law is equally tangled in both jurisdictions. Austria has moved to ban the burqa and niqab in schools and courts and is looking at head scarves in the public service. Many constitutions hold that all men are created equal in the eyes of God but not one has braved the question posed by Peter Minshall—Are all Gods equal in the eyes of men? The hope for humanity might lay in peace studies and faith-based education, not religious instruction.

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