Discussion around Myriam Hunter-Henin’s book: Why Religious Freedom Matters for Democracy. Comparative Reflections from Britain and France for a Democratic vivre ensemble, Hart, Comparative Public Law Series, 2020

The event, organised by Dr Yseult Marique (Essex University) under the auspices of the British Association of Comparative Law, was presented by Dr Sophie Turenne (Cambridge University), Chair of BACL, and chaired by Dr Uta Staiger (European Institute, UCL).

Following a brief presentation of the motivation behind the book and its main argument by the author (click here for a summary of the book), a general discussion ensued with insights from human rights, political science and comparative law.

Professor Colm O’Cinneide (UCL, Laws) opened the debate with a discussion of the political philosophy argument made in the book, namely the argument, under the proposed ‘democratic approach’, that democracy and religious freedoms can reinforce one another. A stimulating discussion followed as to the reasons why and the extent to which the democratic approach differs from the disaggregationist approach, or analogous-to-secular approach, which may grant extensive protection to religious interests but only to the extent that there are underlying secular interests worthy of protection.

The debate also revolved around considerations of theories of democracy and the role of courts. Prompted by questions by Professor Colm O’Cinneide, Dr Sophie Turenne, Dr Uta Staiger and Dr Oliver Gerstenberg, participants discussed the role of courts in promoting a democratic approach at times against locally elected authorities and, beyond the State, the role of supranational courts in fostering a democratic approach even when national social consensus has not yet been reached.

The French story, from a political scientist perspective, notably the uneasy relationship of French society as a whole to Islam was the focus of discussions initiated by Professor Philippe Marlière (UCL, SECL). It led to stimulating debates about the tensions and oscillations in France between a separatist type and a militant type of secularism and the likelihood of overcoming these tensions, through a third liberal and inclusive paradigm. The difficulty of fostering inclusive secularism in a context in which on the ground the questions are more and more often framed in terms of a “culture wars” was raised both by Professor Phillipe Marlière and Professor Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez (Paris Nanterre University), the latter taking the Baby Loup French Cour de cassation decision as a case study for the discussion.

From a comparative perspective, Professor Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez asked about the lines of convergence towards contemporary exclusionary dimensions in both England and France, taking the rhetoric of Fundamental British Values as an illustration of these trends in Britain.

The final words related to the consequences of Brexit for the protection against religious discrimination in the UK and its repercussions for anti-discrimination law in France.

The recording of this discussion is available here.