More than 300 years of state-sponsored sectarian discrimination and bigotry against Catholics was challenged by an opposition party in England this week with a legislative motion calling for its end.
Liberal Democrat equality spokesperson Lorely Burt announced May 23 that the party has introduced in the House of Commons the “Discrimination Against Catholics” motion that takes aim sections in the Bill of Rights 1688, Act of Settlement 1700 and the Union with Scotland Act 1706 which prevent a “monarch from being a Catholic and the spouse of the monarch from being a Catholic.”
"There is a fundamental principle of discrimination here,” said Burt, reported Independent Catholic News. “It is unacceptable that in 2007 we still have ridiculous laws on our statute books that, for example, prevent a Catholic from marrying the heir to the throne.”
Burt called upon British Prime Minister Tony Blair to “consider removing this institutional discrimination” before stepping down on June 27.
"After all,” Burt said, “if reports are to believed, he may have a rather more personal interest in Catholic affairs when he leaves Number 10” Downing St., the residence and office of the prime minister, referring to rumors of Blair’s imminent conversion to Catholicism. “He should act whilst he still has the chance.”
The text of the Early Day Motion 1532 reads as follows: “That this house believes that nobody should be subject to unfair discrimination on grounds including, but not limited to race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age, gender identity or religion; notes that the laws of this country continue to discriminate against Catholics in a completely unjustifiable manner; resolves to remove the bar on a Catholic marrying the heir to the throne; and further resolves to allow a Catholic diocese to be given the same name as an Anglican diocese and calls on the government to include such measures in its forthcoming Single Equality Bill."
“Currently the Bill of Rights 1688, Act of Settlement 1700 and the Union with Scotland Act 1706 prevent the monarch from being a Catholic and the spouse of the monarch from being a Catholic. These laws concerning Catholics have not been repealed. The Roman Catholic Relief Act (1926) ended punishment for naming a Catholic diocese that same as an Anglican diocese, but doing so still remains technically illegal.” Last year, a Scottish cardinal launched an attack on the 300-year-old Act of Settlement, decrying “state-sponsored sectarian discrimination” which leaves a blight on the cultural landscape.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, in remarks to the Glasgow-based Scotland on Sunday published Aug. 6, said Scotland remains afflicted by a “shadowy sectarian culture.
He said that sectarianism is codified in law through the Act of Settlement.
"Our constitution contains legislation which describes my faith as 'the popish religion' and defines me and my co-religionists as 'papists'. That this arcanely offensive language enjoys legal sanction is outrageous,” Cardinal O’Brien said.
He said that sectarianism will continue to thrive until the British constitution is changed to amend the settlement act.
“Anyone who seriously believes that introducing legislation aimed at eradicating sectarian attacks, which are often verbal, while elements of the very lexicon of hate they seek to abolish remain on our statute books is indulging in willful ignorance."
"How can the state … claim that religious discrimination is wrong,” he asked, “when the state in the form of an act of Parliament states that it is right?"
Cardinal O’Brien called upon “all those involved in anti-sectarian initiatives, at every level to accept and acknowledge that this legislation constitutes a blight on their efforts and its repeal would dramatically improve the prospects of their work bearing fruit."
Change in the Act of Settlement would have to be ratified by 15 parliaments of the British Commonwealth and would require amendments to at least eight separate acts stretching as far back as 1688, and including the Union with Scotland Act of 1706.
Opponents of repeal believe that repeal could lead to a Catholic assuming the throne, and could lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England as the state religion, as the English monarch must swear to defend the faith and be a member of the Anglican Communion.
Earlier in 2006, Blair rejected calls for repeal.
British Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor of Westminster urged repeal of the law in June 2002.
The Act of Settlement, he said, "is not so much that it is an act of discrimination against Roman Catholics - which it is - but it seems to me to be discrimination against the royal family."
He said at the time the law needed changing so that Prince William could marry someone of any faith. "I think the future monarch should be able to marry who he wants," he said.
"Talking about Prince William, he can marry by law a Hindu, a Buddhist, anyone, but not a Roman Catholic,” he said. "That seems to me anomalous and I think it should go."
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