The laws and other policies protect religious freedom and contribute to the generally free practice of religion. There is one state church, the Church of England, and one national church, the Church of Scotland. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland do not have “official” religions. Legislation establishes the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church, but it is not dependent on any government body or the queen for spiritual matters or leadership.
As the “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England, the monarch must always be a member of and promise to uphold the church. The monarch appoints Church of England officials on the advice of the prime minister and the Crown Appointments Commission, which includes lay and clergy representatives. The General Convention of the Church of Scotland appoints its own office holders. The monarch becomes a subject of the Church of Scotland when she crosses the border into Scotland. In February Queen Elizabeth II stated, “The church’s role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of all other religions. Instead the church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”
Sharia (Islamic law) is managed by Sharia councils that operate parallel to the national legal system. The councils deal only with civil cases, have no legal powers, and may only rule in areas such as dispute mediation, marriage, and finance in ways that do not contradict the law, and with the consent of both parties. Sharia law is rarely used in either Northern Ireland or Scotland.
The law prohibits religiously motivated hate language, including demonstrations where insulting and abusive language is used. The law also prohibits “incitement to religious hatred” and defines religious hatred as hatred of a group that may be determined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief. The law does not define religion or what constitutes a religious belief, but leaves that determination to the courts. Offenses under the law must be considered threatening and intended to incite religious hatred. The maximum penalty for inciting religious hatred is seven years in prison, while those convicted of “religiously aggravated offenses,” where there is evidence of religious hostility in connection with a crime, face higher maximum penalties.
The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “religion or belief” or the “lack of religion or belief.” The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is responsible for promoting equality, diversity, and the elimination of unlawful discrimination and harassment. The EHRC receives public funds, but operates independently of the government.
The EHRC can investigate unlawful acts of religious discrimination and bring legal proceedings against violators of the law. In Scotland the EHRC covers only human rights matters reserved for parliament and major government ministries. The Scottish Human Rights Commission covers human rights matters for issues devolved to the Scottish parliament. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland functions in a similar manner to the EHRC. In Northern Ireland, the law bans employment discrimination on the grounds of religious opinion.
In the rest of the UK, outside of Northern Ireland, the law prohibits employment discrimination based on religious belief, except where there is a “genuine occupational requirement” of a religious nature.
Citing a limited broadcast spectrum, the government prohibits religious groups from holding a national sound broadcasting license, a public teletext license, more than one television service license, or radio and television multiplex licenses.
In Scotland the law requires that courts consider the impact of religious bias when sentencing. On March 1, due to the ongoing problem of sectarian violence at soccer matches in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament passed a law targeting religiously aggravated violence at soccer matches; the new law also targets religiously motivated threatening communications.
Throughout the United Kingdom, the law requires religious education for all children between the ages of three and nineteen in state schools, with the content decided at the local level. The curriculum must reflect Christian values, be nondenominational, and refrain from attempts to convert students. The teachings and practices of other principal religious groups in the country must also be taken into account. All parents have the legal right to request that their children not participate in religious education.
The government does not mandate uniforms for students, but requires that schools consider the needs of different cultures, races, and religions when setting dress code policy.
Daily collective prayer or worship of “a wholly or mainly…Christian character” is practiced in schools in England and Wales, a requirement that may be waived for students who obtain permission from the school authorities. The law permits sixth form students (generally 16-to-19-year-olds in the final two years of secondary school) to withdraw from worship without parental permission or action, but does not exempt them from religious education classes. Non-Christian worship is permitted with the approval of the authorities. Teachers have the right to decline participation in collective worship, without prejudice, unless they are employed by faith-based schools.
In Bermuda, the law requires students attending public schools to participate in collective worship, but prohibits worship “distinctive of any particular religious group.” In practice, the majority of worship is Christian in nature. The law allows parents to withdraw their children from participation. Homeschooling is an approved alternative for religious or other reasons.
There are approximately 7,000 state-funded “faith schools” in England and 377 in Scotland. These schools include religious education and/or have formal links with religious organizations, but must follow the national curriculum and are inspected by the Office for Standards in Children’s Services and Skills.
Almost all schools in Northern Ireland receive state support, with 93.5 percent of the students attending predominantly Protestant or Catholic schools that are state-run. Religiously integrated schools educate approximately 7 percent of school-age children, with admissions criteria designed to enroll voluntarily equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children, as well as children from other religious and cultural backgrounds. These integrated schools are not secular, but are “essentially Christian in character and welcome all faiths and none,” according to the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education.
The government requires that visa applicants wishing to enter the country as “ministers of religion” must have worked for at least one out of the last five years as a minister and have one year of full-time experience or two years of part-time training following their ordination for religious groups where ordination is the sole means of entering the ministry. A missionary must also be trained as such or have worked previously as a missionary.
It is government policy to provide religious accommodation for public servants whenever possible. For example, the Prison Service permits Muslim employees to take time off during their shifts to pray. The military generally provides adherents of minority religious groups with chaplains of their faith. The Chaplaincy Council monitors policy and practice relating to such matters.
Twenty-five senior bishops of the Anglican Church are given places in the House of Lords as representatives of the official church.
The government is a member of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas.