NSS signs statement opposing religious ‘courts’

The National Secular Society has joined dozens of organisations and individuals in signing a joint statement raising concerns about the rise of religious ‘tribunals’.

The statement, which was co-ordinated by secularist and feminist campaign group Southall Black Sisters, calls for “one law for all”, has attracted over 50 signatures.

The statement was prompted by the opening of the world’s first “Sikh court” in London last month. Representatives of the Sikh Court describe it as an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism operating within the provisions of the Arbitration Act 1996. They say it will deal with family matters, including divorce.

The Sikh Court echoes tribunals set up by other religious communities, including Islamic ‘sharia councils’ and Jewish beth dins.

The joint statement warns that “parallel justice systems” are “a danger to women” and renounces the need for The Sikh Court and any other religious tribunals.

Both sharia councils and beth dins have attracted widespread criticism for their treatment of women and their potential to undermine secular law.

Religious tribunals ‘violate human rights’

The joint statement says religious ADRs “have been founded by men with narrow, conservative, and/or fundamentalist views of women, marriage and the family unit”.

It says they are “religio-political projects” which are “deeply invested in the institution of marriage and patriarchal family structures”.

The statement says there is “no evidence” that religious institutions have acted in the best interests of the most vulnerable within communities, including women, children and religious minorities.

In contrast, it says there is “considerable evidence” that they have “strengthened the power and control of husbands, male family members and mothers in law” and “violated human rights”.

This is particularly the case for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, it says, who are “consistently pressurised” to mediate with violent and abusive partners and extended families, as well as concede to child access demands “even when these jeopardise their safety and the wellbeing of their children”.

It said that example cases given by representatives of the Sikh Court “amount to support for coercive control”.

The statement calls for communities and public bodies to ensure everyone can “pursue their cases through a secular legal system” and urge the government “not to allow the Arbitration Act to be used in family matters as this discriminates against women and girls”.

NSS: New religious tribunal “a regressive step”

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: “It’s concerning to see another religious authority set up a parallel legal system.

“By their nature, religious ‘courts’ allow ideology to impede impartial justice – and this can be particularly detrimental to women within patriarchal religions.

“That’s why so many women who work in this area quite rightly regard tribunals set up according to the demands of religious leaders as a regressive step.”

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