U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - United Kingdom

Section I. Freedom of Religion

Governmental policy and general practice ensure freedom of religion for traditional and nontraditional worshippers. The 1998 Human Rights Act, which is to enter into force in 2000, provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to change one's religion or belief. There are two established (i.e., state) churches, the Church of England (Anglican) and the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). The Queen is the "Supreme Governor" of the Church of England and must always be a member of the Church and promise to uphold it. The Queen appoints Church of England officials on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Crown Appointments Commission (which includes lay and clergy representatives). The Church of Scotland appoints its own office bearers and its affairs are not subject to any civil authority. There are no established churches in Wales or Northern Ireland, but the Church in Wales, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Ireland are members of the Anglican Communion.

No church or religious organization – established or otherwise – receives direct funding from the State. Religious bodies are expected to finance their own activities through endowment, investments and fund-raising. Since 1977 the Government has appropriated funds for the repair of historic church buildings, such as cathedrals, but such funding is not restricted to Church of England buildings. The Government also contributes 70 percent of the budget of the redundant churches fund, established by the Church of England in 1969 to preserve "redundant" Church of England buildings that are of architectural or historic significance. In 1993 a similar body, the Historic Chapels Trust, was founded with the aid of a grant from the Department of National Heritage to preserve, repair, and maintain non-Anglican houses of worship, such as mosques, temples, or synagogues. No such bodies exist in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.

Most religious institutions are classified as charities and as such enjoy a wide range of tax benefits. (The advancement of religion is considered to be a charitable purpose.) In England and Wales, the Charity Commission reviews the application of each body applying for registration as a charity. Commissioners base their decisions on a substantial body of case law. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, this task is performed by the Inland Revenue. Charities are exempt from taxes on most types of income and capital gains, provided that the charity uses the income or gains for charitable purpose. They are also exempt from the value added tax. Donors to charities also enjoy tax relief for their donations. Transfers to charities are exempt from the inheritance tax, capital gains tax, and stamp duty.

There are no official statistics collected on religious beliefs or church membership, except in Northern Ireland. Although their methodologies differ greatly, the numbers collected by individual religious communities highlight patterns of adherence and belief.

About 65 percent of the population (estimated to total 58.5 million in 1996) would identify with some form of Christianity. About 45 percent of the population identify with Anglican churches, 10 percent with the Roman Catholic Church, 4 percent with Presbyterian churches, 2 percent with Methodist churches, and 4 percent with other Christian churches, but only about 8.7 percent attend a Christian church on a regular basis. Church attendance in Northern Ireland is estimated at 30-35 percent of the population. An additional 2 percent of the population are affiliated with non-Trinitarian churches, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Church of Christ, Christian Scientists, and Unitarians. A further 5 percent of the population are adherents to other faiths, including Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism.

About 28 percent of the population are nonreligious. About half of all parents choose to have their children baptized. A similar proportion of all weddings (41.3 percent) are conducted as religious ceremonies, but the number has decreased in recent years. The vast majority of funerals are religious, and recent surveys suggest that 63 to 70 percent of the population believe in God.

Between the reformation and the mid-nineteenth century, Britain was a predominantly Protestant country. The Jewish community dates from 1656, with the arrival of Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, but it experienced much of its growth during the 1800's and 1900's, when Ashkenazic Jews arrived from Eastern Europe. Irish immigration during the 1800's fostered the resurgence of Roman Catholicism, and later immigration from British colonies (and now the Commonwealth) led to the establishment of thriving Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu communities. These latter communities tend to be concentrated around larger cities.

Employment discrimination on religious grounds is proscribed specifically by law in Northern Ireland, although not in the rest of the country. Those who believe that their freedom of religion has been infringed have the right to appeal to the courts for relief. The 1998 Human Rights Act, which is to enter into force in 2000, prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

While it is not enforced and is essentially a legal anachronism, blasphemy against Anglican doctrine remains technically illegal. Several religious organizations, in association with the Commission for Racial Equality, are attempting to abolish the law or broaden its protection to include all faiths. Responding to a parliamentary question on removing blasphemy from the statute book, the Home Office stated in July 1998 that there were no current plans to change the law.

The country has both active interfaith and ecumenical movements. The Council of Christians and Jews was founded in 1942 to promote Christian-Jewish understanding. It continues its work to advance better relations between the two religions and to combat anti-Semitism. In the postwar period, as other religious communities arose in Britain, new interfaith organizations evolved. The Interfaith Network was established in 1987 and links a wide range of religious and educational organizations with an interest in interfaith relations, including the national representative bodies of the Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian communities. The newest vehicle for the promotion of interfaith cooperation is the Inner Cities Religious Council, which has helped to encourage inter-faith activity through regional conferences and support for local initiatives.

An active ecumenical movement also thrives in Britain. The main ecumenical body is the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. The Council serves as the main forum for interchurch cooperation and collaboration. Interchurch cooperation is not limited to dealings among denominations at the national level. At the local level, for example, local Anglican parishes may share their church with Roman Catholic congregations.

In general, membership in a given religious group does not confer a political or economic advantage on individual adherents. However, on the national level, the House of Lords provides an exception to this rule. The Anglican Archbishops of York and Canterbury; the Bishops of Durham, London, and Winchester, and 21 other bishops, in order of seniority, receive automatic membership in the House of Lords, whereas prominent clergy from other denominations or religions are not afforded this privilege. It is not clear whether this arrangement is to be changed by the Government's recently-proposed reforms of the House of Lords.

The conflict between Republicans and Unionists in Northern Ireland has been drawn along religious lines, but the avowed policy of the Government remains one of religious neutrality and tolerance.

Some "voluntary schools" provided by religious groups enjoy state support. While the majority of these schools are Anglican or Catholic, there are a small number of Methodist and Jewish schools. There are also privately funded schools with religious foundations, including a growing number of Muslim schools.

Religious education in publicly maintained schools is required by law throughout the country. According to the Education Reform act of 1988, it forms part of the core curriculum for students in England and Wales (the requirements for Scotland were outlined in the Education Act of 1980). The shape and content of religious instruction is decided on a local basis. Locally agreed upon syllabuses are required to reflect the predominant place of Christianity in religious life, but they must be nondenominational and refrain from attempting to convert pupils. All parents have the right to withdraw a child from religious education, but the schools must approve this request.

In addition, schools have to provide a daily act of collective worship. In practice, this is mainly Christian in character, reflecting Christianity's importance in the religious life of the nation. This requirement may be waived if a school's administration deems it inappropriate for some or all of the students. Under some circumstances, non-Christian worship may instead be allowed. Teachers' organizations have criticized school prayer and called for a government review of the practice.

Where a student body is characterized by a substantial population of religious minorities, schools may observe the religious festivals of other faiths. Schools also endeavor to accommodate religious requirements, such as providing halal meat for Muslim children.

The Government makes an active effort to ensure that public servants are not discriminated against on the basis of religion and strives to accommodate religious practices by government employees whenever possible. For example, the Prison Service permits Muslim employees to take time off during their shifts to pray. It also provides prisoners with Jewish and Muslim chaplains. The military provides soldiers who are adherents of minority religions with chaplains of their faith.

According to sources in the religious press, a radio station called United Christian Broadcasters, which presently broadcasts to the United Kingdom by satellite, has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights the existing ban on nationwide broadcast licenses for religious broadcasters. According to the 1990 Broadcasting Act, groups whose objectives are "wholly or mainly of a religious nature" are barred from obtaining a national license. Digital radio multiplex licenses provided for in the Broadcasting Act (1996) are also unavailable to groups whose objectives are wholly or mainly of a religious nature. The act allows religious groups to compete for licenses for local radio stations, for some cable and satellite television channels, and to advertise.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the various religious communities are generally good.

While the troubles in Northern Ireland are the product of political, economic, and social factors, conflict between the Republicans and the Unionists in Northern Ireland has been characterized by Catholic and Protestant sectarian overtones.

As evidenced by the recent efforts to negotiate a settlement to the troubles, the vast majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland remain determined to resolve these differences.

Despite government efforts and the lowering of the overall unemployment rate in Northern Ireland, the unemployment rate for Catholic men remained nearly twice that of Protestant men. The Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act of 1989, as amended, aims to end even unintentional or indirect discrimination in the workplace, and a fair employment tribunal adjudicates complaints. All public-sector employers and all private firms with over 10 workers must report annually to the Fair Employment Commission on the religious composition of their work force and must review their employment practices at least once every 3 years. Noncompliance can bring criminal penalties and the loss of government contracts. Victims of employment discrimination may sue for damages. Although critics of the act asserted that its targets and timetables are too imprecise, most leaders of the Catholic community regard it as a positive step.

In the March 1998 publication of its White Paper, "Partnership for Equality," the Government set out its responses to the 1997 report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights (SACHR) on fair employment legislation. The Government accepted about two-thirds of SACHR'S recommendations and added others. Proposed legislation aims to ensure equality of opportunity for Catholics and Protestants. It provides for oversight and enforcement by the new Equality Commission.

There have been improvements in fair housing, education, and provision of goods and services; although, other than Northern Ireland, no specific legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

While the active recruitment of Catholics by the Northern Ireland civil service produced rough proportionality in overall numbers, the service acknowledges that Catholics remain significantly underrepresented in its senior grades. Service-wide employment cutbacks thus far have hampered efforts to overcome the imbalance. Government efforts to increase the recruitment of Catholics into the police force (currently 92 percent Protestant) and related security jobs in Northern Ireland have been hampered by IRA killings and death threats, as well as by widespread antipathy in the Catholic community to the security forces. Despite recruitment efforts, the percentage of Catholic officers in the police force has not changed significantly. However, following the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement there was a surge in applications to the Royal Ulster Constabulary by Catholics. Of the 3,200 applications, 23 percent were received from Catholics, up from 15 percent in previous years.

In the aftermath of the Drumcree standoff, which began in July 1998, a number of Catholic churches were the target of arson attacks, and a number of Orange halls were targeted in sectarian reprisals.

According to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain declined in 1997 for the fourth consecutive year. A Jewish communal monitoring body recorded 218 anti-Semitic incidents, representing a 5 percent decrease from the 1996 figure of 228. The overall reduction was ascribed to more effective policing, more criminal prosecutions, and a more determined attitude on the part of the Jewish community. Public expressions of anti-Semitic attitudes are largely confined to the political fringe, either far-right or Islamist. The figures for the first 9 months of 1998 show a 6 per cent increase over the same period in 1997 in the number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded, from 169 to 179. The small 1998 increase is ascribed to the overspill of recent tension in the Middle East.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues worldwide with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. In Northern Ireland, longstanding issues related to religion have been part of the political and economic struggle between Protestants and Catholics. As an active participant in the peace process, the United States has supported efforts to diminish sectarian tension and promote harmony between the groups.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.