A question of morality

February 19, 1999

Graham Zellick urges the government not to ask people about their religion in the next census

In the next national census - a form of state prying that has been accepted for over a century and that has yielded much valuable information for governmental purposes - there are plans to include, for the first time,a question about religious affiliation.

This is astonishing, not least because the ink is only just dry on the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. Asking people about their religious affiliation would constitute a clear violation of the convention.

Questions in the census about one's house and its plumbing arrangements, ownership of motor cars, number of children, occupation, and factual matters of that kind have long been accepted as a useful and legitimate exercise of state power. In recent years, we have also come to accept questions about colour, race and ethnic origins. Indeed, ethnic monitoring now forms a part of what is generally regarded as good personnel practice.

But two areas have always been regarded as peculiarly sensitive and private: one is politics, the other is religion. (Salary is perhaps another, but with the introduction of income tax and other developments, attitudes to that have changed.) For years, religious groups were opposed to the inclusion of any religious question. The leading opponent was probably the Jewish community, where memories of state persecution are so recent and so real.

Yet now all the major religious groups, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews which speaks on behalf of British Jewry, have urged the government to include a religious affiliation question in the next census. To include such a question would almost certainly require new legislation and it is this legislation that would fall foul of the European Convention.

To ask a question is not, of course, a violation of anything - provided one has the right to refuse to answer. But that is not how the census works. To refuse to answer a question is a criminal offence. To demand to know someone's religious affiliation, on pain of a criminal penalty, is an unprecedented exercise of state power in this country and one which, I am certain, would be judged to be a manifest transgression of human rights.

It is said that the information would be useful for a whole variety of social and planning purposes - by charitable bodies, by local authorities, by government and by the religious communities themselves. Even if that were the case - and it has to be seriously doubted whether the data yielded would be of any value at all - a violation of human rights is no less a violation because some social, public or political advantage is secured thereby.

Next it is said that, since a majority of the religious groups themselves want this change, and only a small minority opposes it, it must be all right. Even if it is the case that only a small minority oppose it - which in the case of the Jewish community I rather doubt - it is entirely beside the point. The whole purpose of human rights protection is to safeguard the minority from the views of the majority.

It is then said that it is not religious belief that is being asked about,but religious affiliation. This is the most disingenuous argument of all. If it is affiliation, then presumably the religious bodies already have this information, unless "affiliation" is being given some strange new meaning. It would be very interesting to see how it is proposed to word the actual question and how affiliation in particular is to be defined. If it is in terms of membership, the information must be there; if it is in any other terms, we are into dangerous territory.

Why are the religious bodies so keen to have this information? It is, as it seems to me, precisely because it is not membership numbers or the numbers of those truly affiliated that they wish to discover, but to inflate the figures to include large numbers of those who have no real connection with the religious bodies at all. We know how many people nominally claim allegiance to the Church of England. There are similarly people who broadly regard themselves as Jewish, and who indeed are Jewish according to religious law, but have no connection with the organised Jewish community. And why do the religious bodies wish to inflate their numbers? It is so as to extract more funding from those bodies that disburse monies for social and charitable purposes.

The whole thrust of human rights thinking in the second half of this century is to constrain government power. It saddens me that as we celebrate the introduction of a human rights law in our country and as we come to the end of a century that has been disfigured by human rights abuses, the government is apparently seriously thinking of acceding to this request. We must hope that it will be rejected. If it is not, the argument will doubtless be fought out before the European Court of Human Rights.

Graham Zellick is a human rights lawyer and vice-chancellor of the University of London.

* Should great apes have human rights? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk Hill

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