Are the law’s Judaeo-Christian roots withering?
Peter and Hazel Bull are two devout Christians who, until a judge told them otherwise, sought to run their Cornwall hotel on principles they perceived to befit their religion. Judge Andrew Rutherford ruled that, under new equality laws, their policy of not allowing unmarried partners to share double rooms directly discriminated against civil partners Martyn Hall and Steve Preddy.
Rutherford began his judgment with that increasingly rare thing: judicial creative writing; in this case, a short lesson on the architecture of the Royal Courts of Justice. I think his introduction is worth reproducing in full:
‘In 1882 Her Majesty Queen Victoria opened a new court building. It is in the Strand just at the entrance to the City of London. It was built to house the superior courts of this land with the exception of the House of Lords. No one who enters can fail to be struck by the similarity of the great hall with the interior of those gothic cathedrals with which this kingdom is so richly endowed. But if, before entering, you gaze upon the façade of the building you will notice four statues.
‘There you will find King Alfred who made such a notable contribution to Saxon England by codifying the laws of his day. You will find Moses to whom was given the ten commandments and to whom, by tradition, is ascribed authorship of the first five books of the Bible in which you will find in great detail the laws governing the children of Israel. Also there on the façade is King Solomon whose wisdom has become a legend and who displayed outstanding qualities as a judge when sitting in the family division in the only reported case of which we have details. And the fourth statue is that of Jesus Christ who, I imagine, needs no introduction to those involved in this case.’
Rutherford suggested that the statues ‘emphasise the Judaeo-Christian roots from which the common law of England was derived’, but noted: ‘a great deal has however happened since King Alfred and his Saxon laws, and even more has changed since Moses, King Solomon and Jesus Christ walked upon this earth. Those Judaeo-Christian principles, standards and beliefs which were accepted as normal in times past are no longer so accepted'.
Thus, the law and religion are not equals; and furthermore, the law reigns supreme over religious belief…in the eyes of the law, that is. But what if the law is truly a reflection of our society’s ethical and moral standards? If this is the case, does Rutherford’s rejection of Peter and Hazel Bull’s orthodox beliefs reflect society’s rejection of one orthodox Christian principle – or perhaps all such principles?
The Bulls did not appear to be in any way vicious towards Hall and Preddy: Rutherford was convinced that their beliefs, whatever anyone thought of them, were honestly held orthodox Christian beliefs. This was no crusade. But according to their defence, the Bulls held the belief that ‘monogamous heterosexual marriage is the form of partnership uniquely intended for full sexual relations between persons and that homosexual sexual relations (as opposed to homosexual orientation), and heterosexual sexual relations outside marriage, are sinful.’ To many people, including myself and probably most moderate Christians, such a view appears to be outdated.
Be that as it may however, I don’t believe that the law is the arbiter of society’s moral will, but rather, a delayed and imperfect reflection of the moral thinking of the majority. Still, it often serves as an excellent bellwether.