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Family courts judiciary are ‘secular judges serving a multi-cultural community’

Sir James Munby chronicles the changing stance of family judges towards religion

Delivering the keynote speech to the Law Society's annual family law conference, Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, addressed the issue of religion and culture in the family courts.

Having described at length the function of judges in former times 'to promote virtue and morality and to discourage vice and immorality', he described the current family law judiciary as 'secular judges serving a multi-cultural community of many faiths, sworn to do justice "to all manner of people". We live in this country in a democratic and pluralistic society, in a secular State not a theocracy.'

He continued:

'Religion – whatever the particular believer's faith – is not the business of government or of the secular courts, though the courts will, of course, pay every respect to the individual's or family's religious principles. Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950 demands no less. The starting point of the common law is thus respect for an individual's religious principles, coupled with an essentially neutral view of religious beliefs and a benevolent tolerance of cultural and religious diversity. A secular judge must be wary of straying across the well-recognised divide between church and State. It is not for a judge to weigh one religion against another. The court recognises no religious distinctions and, generally speaking, passes no judgment on religious beliefs or on the tenets, doctrines or rules of any particular section of society. All are entitled to equal respect, so long as they are "legally and socially acceptable" and not "immoral or socially obnoxious" or "pernicious."'

Considering family courts in particular, added:

'Within limits the law – our family law – will tolerate things which society as a whole may find undesirable. A child's best interests have to be assessed by reference to general community standards, making due allowance for the entitlement of people, within the limits of what is permissible in accordance with those standards, to entertain very divergent views about the religious, moral, social and secular objectives they wish to pursue for themselves and for their children.

'That said, reliance upon religious belief, however conscientious the belief and however ancient and respectable the religion, can never of itself immunise the believer from the reach of the secular law.

'Where precisely the limits are to be drawn is often a matter of controversy.'

The speech can be read in full here.