I had to remind myself what year it was the other day. I’m not losing my mental faculties, but was slightly worried that I’d either been plunged back into the dark ages or had somehow missed some sort of fundamentalist religious coup. Why? Well, it would appear that one Cherie Blair was taking religious belief into account when sentencing a man for a violent crime. That is, she spared him a jail sentence because he believed in god:
The former prime minister’s wife, who sits as a judge as Cherie Booth QC, told Shamso Miah that she would suspend his prison sentence because he was a “religious man”.
Miah, a devout Muslim, had been convicted of breaking a man’s jaw with two punches after a dispute in a bank queue in East Ham, London. The 25-year-old had gone to the bank from a local mosque.
Miss Booth, who has made no secret of her strong Roman Catholic faith, appeared to indicate that she was taking into account Miah’s religious beliefs as she opted for a lenient sentence.
“I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before,” she told him at Inner London Crown Court.
“You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”
This is wrong on any number of levels. Firstly, religion (or more accurately, professed religious belief) should have no bearing in a trial that does not have matters of religious belief at its very core (e.g. a religiously-motivated hate crime, religious discrimination claim etc.). This man, muslim or not, was guilty of a violent physical attack on another person and should have felt the full force of the law. Cherie Booth decided she knew better and spared him prison time because he was a “religious person”.
Secondly, as an atheist, should I be worried that the converse will also be true in future court cases? Will a lack of religious belief condemn me to a harsher punishment? Should I decide to stoop to Miah’s level and knock six bells out of someone on the street, will I automatically go to jail because I don’t go to a church/mosque/temple?
Finally, and most worryingly, is this evidence of a new trend of legal decision-makers projecting their own religious beliefs into the sentencing process? Will co-religionists go easier on convicted criminals because they believe in the same imaginary friend? Will they use the same “you should have known better” argument as Booth?
Shouldn’t this logic work in reverse if they really believe in what they profess? That is, as a convicted violent criminal, a religious man who claims to know right from wrong, you should know better and as a result I’m sending you to jail.
The bottom line: in a secular society, citizens should stand equal before the law, irrespective of where they thing we all came from and where we’re going to.
I’m happy to learn that the National Secular Society has made an official complaint to the Office for Judicial Complaints. I don’t anticipate Cherie Booth making any form of apology – I’m not even sure it’s possible without adversely impacting the conviction in this case. But I also don’t think we should sit silently while religion’s influence is felt in secular offices such as the court room.