Influence of Religion in Scots Law to be assessed

Matthew Sharpe          

Religious figures in Scotland are expressing concerns about the ‘secularisation of society’, following the news that the Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) have funded a study to ascertain the level of privilege Religion receives in Scots Law.

The research, which the HSS have paid £40,000 to fund, will be conducted by several University of Glasgow professors. Professor of History, Callum Brown, the only HSS member on the study, will lead the project along with  Professor of Law, Jane Mair and Research Assistant Dr. Thomas Green.

Jane Mair is a Professor of Private Law at the University of Glasgow, and this area has been a particular focus of her academic writing, including her book ‘The Place of Religion in Family Law’.

Professor Mair said: “I have a long-standing interest in the influence of religion in law – particularly family law and employment law. I hope that this will make a significant contribution to our understanding of the place of religion in contemporary Scots law.”

In reaction to news of the study, Rev. David Robertson of the Free Church in Dundee had described the move as “propaganda dressed up as research”

Professor Mair has been dismissive of this criticism, stating: “There is a great deal of research and discussion about religion and law in many European jurisdictions but very little in Scotland and this was an excellent opportunity to begin to address that gap.

“The relationship between religion, belief and law is currently one of the most dynamic areas of research. The kinds of issues we will be looking at are also increasingly arising in court actions and it is very clear that there are many difficult and relatively unexplored questions.”

However, reaction from the University’s religious societies has been more sceptical. The University’s Chaplain to the Staff, Reverend Stuart D MacQuarrie, is concerned about the potential impact of the study for people of faith: “I agree in principle with it, but like all research – and there are plenty lessons from history – it depends on what it is used for. If it is going to be another stick by which humanists/secularists beat up those who have a religious faith then I would think this is wrong.

He continued: “The Humanist Society of Scotland itself has a privileged position by which it conducts marriage ceremonies and effectively taxes couples who wish to get married by a Humanist Celebrant and makes them members of HSS”

The £40,000 project will involve working closely with the Scottish Government, with a view to amending existing legislation to reflect the current values of the public.

The Reverend added: “I think it’s more to do with history, than anything else. Christianity has been a major influence in the UK for some 1500 years – some of it good, some of it not good.

“I think in Scotland we have always had a healthy questioning of religion and its place in our civic life. I don’t think society is becoming more secular, but I do see people have issues and concerns about organised religion – I share some of these myself.”

The President of the Glasgow University Christian Union, Sam Steen, stated: “I welcome any steps that we can take to become a fairer society, and as a fundamental part of this I firmly believe in the freedom of religion and the right to express your faith.

“I think that as society strives towards a seemingly fairer society there can be at times a worrying tendency to marginalize groups whose rights should still be protected and upheld”.

The study will continue as planned, with the HSS planning to produce reports on their findings in several aspects of the law, including education and Human Rights.


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