• My colleague is forced to go to Mass by the UK courts

    Yes, you heard it here. My colleague on the Skepticule podcast, Anonymous Steve, has been instructed thusly. It is just an incredible story. For those of you in Britain, such stupidity must change. Here is how Paul Orton (thanks to him for this piece), one of the hosts of the show where we do our segments, puts it, from his blog Missing God Gene. Please note an important edition concerning whether it is all Masses of just Christmas Mass. If you can help, or know someone who can, then let us know. Please spread the word, spread the link and let’s get this sorted: 

    What’s the problem?

    Steve, a British citizen of my acquaintance, has been instructed by a British judge to attend Roman Catholic mass with his children when he has custody of them, as part of a divorce settlement.

    The instruction to attend church was something the judge introduced without being requested by the mother.  The judge declared his Roman Catholicism to the court.  The children only occasionally attended church with their mother before the divorce.

    Steve appealed the judgement as far as he could as a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) but the Appeals Court has ruled that the original ruling should not be overturned.  This would appear to set a precedent whereby it is in the remit of the British court system to demand that citizens attend services of a particular denomination.

    Steve chooses not to take his children to mass, thereby leaving himself open to a charge of Contempt of Court and a prison sentence.

    Steve needs to raise awareness of the case and has done so through the Skepticule podcast, of which I am a presenter, but has to remain anonymous to protect his children from being identified, hence being known here and on the podcast as Anonymous Steve.

    The facts

    Steve went through a difficult divorce case, the ramifications of which are still involving the legal system in one way or another, at the time of writing.  My interest here only relates to the matter of forced church attendance and not the divorce case itself.  The term ‘children’ here is used to avoid being gender and number specific.  The number of children is not important for this article.

    After protracted hearings concerning family law, Steve was before a Circuit Judge in a County Court in the north of England in relation to family arrangements for his children.  Steve was designated regular time with his children.

    During the hearing the Roman Catholic judge introduced the requirement for Steve to attend Roman Catholic mass if Steve has the children when there is a mass, including at Christmas [EDIT JP – actually, Steve is denied weekend access for no discernible reason apart form a religious one, so as to avoid some religious ramifications? He definitely has to attend Christmas Mass].  This was not asked for by the mother and the children had previously only occasionally attended mass with their mother, a Roman Catholic.  The judge required a promise from Steve that he would take them to mass, thereby preventing Steve from arranging for them to be taken by someone else.  Steve must attend Roman Catholic mass with his children but Steve’s ex-wife does not.  The children must attend mass when they are with their father, but not with their mother.

    The judge declared his Roman Catholicism in court and mentioned that it might be better if Steve had the children for the ‘pagan’ festival of New Year rather than Christmas itself.

    Steve felt the ruling was deeply wrong and went to the Court of Appeal to contest, amongst other things, the point about the County Court judge being able to instruct him to attend mass with his children, on the basis that this was a breach of his and his children’s ECHR Article 9 rights.  The Court of Appeal ignored this aspect of his appeal.

    Steve also opened a case with the Office of Judicial Complaints (OJC) about the judge’s conduct on this point and others. The OJC upheld the other aspects  of his complaint but stated that the matter of his and his children’s Article 9 rights would be a matter for an appeal of the original decision or of Judicial Review.

    As the Appeal Court had already ignored Steve’s appeal on the ECHR Article 9 rights, the option was to commence a Judicial Review in the High Court.  However, like the Appeal Court, the High Court ignored his assertion of his Article 9 rights.  At this point, the two avenues to a decision had led to judgements, but neither had addressed, or even referred to, his ECHR complaint.

    Steve’s only remaining option was to force an answer to the question of whether his and his children’s Article 9 rights had been infringed by appealing the decision of the High Court.  The Appeal Court judge ruled that the infringement, which was of sufficient importance for Steve to take it thus far, was too small to amount to a breach of Steve and his children’s Article 9 rights.

    So this is where the matter stands .

    Steve acted for himself throughout the process without access to legal representation.

    Why is this a problem?

    There are many issues at stake here:
    1. The state is ordering a citizen to go to church.  The recusancy laws, which required citizens to attend church, were abolished in 1650.  Somehow they still apply to Steve though.
    2. Given that religion had not been an issue in the case, the judge felt it was his responsibility to introduce it.  It would appear that he was placing his own religious feelings about Christmas over the cultural importance of Steve celebrating Christmas with his children.  Saying that it might be better if Steve had the children for the ‘pagan’ festival of New Year rather than Christmas itself implies the judge was imposing his own religiosity into his decision.
    3. The original court judgement referred to all decisions being made in the interests of the children, but there is something wrong when the court imposes terms that were not sought, in what seems to be in the interests of promoting a particular religion, which happens to also be the religion of the judge.
    4. In my work, if there is a conflict of interest I have to declare it to those concerned.  The judge seems to have had a conflict of interest here but there was no mechanism to take account of it.
    5. Steve has specifically to attend Roman Catholic mass.  This only applies when he has the children and when the mass is happening.  Some churches have two masses a day.  Does he have to attend both?  This point wasn’t clarified by the judge.
    6. Steve is prevented from attending a religious service of his choice if it is on at the same time.  This clearly restricts his freedom of religion.
    7. The state is hindering the opportunities for Steve to foster  the relationship with his children.  They like to attend secular activities together.  If Steve wants to take his children out for the day, he cannot do this unless he fits in a church service along the way.  If his children want to go to a football match he would have to choose one around times of the services.
    8. The state is risking the relationship between the father and the children by making Steve do something against his and the children’s will.  As it happens neither Steve nor the children wish to go to mass, which actually brings them together in a conspiratorial way.
    9. What business is it of a judge to decide whether parents should bring their children up in a particular religion, and whether church attendance should be compulsory?   Steve has made no commitment to bring his children up in a religion so why was the judge imposing it?
    10. On what grounds is the judge seeking to dictate the religious affiliation of the children?  Don’t they have any rights in this matter?
    11. This ruling is in place until the children are 18.  They can opt out of religious education of their own volition at sixteen but by the ruling of this judge they must be taken to mass by their father until they are eighteen.
    12. Many people would expect that being forced by law to attend church as a child would guarantee a rejection of that faith.  The judge presumably thinks differently.
    13. If the children refuse to go to church, Steve gets into trouble.
    14. Steve does not take his children to mass, thereby risking his limited custody of the children and exposes him to a charge of Contempt of Court, which carries a maximum two-year prison sentence.
    15. Steve makes the point that the precedent has now been set that a judge can require a person to attend a religious occasion, for any belief system or lack of belief system.  So if a Muslim judge demands a Christian attends a mosque, or a Jewish judge demands a Muslim attends a synagogue, the ECHR Article 9 rights could not be used to fight it.
    16. Should he lose custody of the children or be accused of Contempt of Court it might give an opening to the Human Rights legislation.
    17. Steve has effectively had no right of appeal to the original ruling.
    18. Most worryingly, he has no access to the Article 9 of European Convention of Human Rights Act legislationbecause the courts can choose to just avoid answering the question.  So although we seem to have certain rights, we do not in practice, because there is no arena in which we can raise a complaint.
    19. The state can decide whether or not to apply the ECHR or not, according to its whim.  Steve makes the point that when the ECHR was absorbed into English law, many thought that our unwritten constitution now had a written codified element, effectively a bill of rights with constitutional strength.  The ECHR was our bill of rights, it stated as fact what we are entitled to, and determined what issues can be raised in court and what protections a court must observe.  However, if a blatant breach of a key element enshrined in that codified element can be ignored by courts when it is specifically raised as an ECHR complaint at a higher court, then effectively that equivalent to a bill of rights is vacuous.  Effectively, despite the trumpeting we hear of ECHR, our rights are effectively as they have been for centuries – not worth the paper they aren’t written on.

    The Other Point Of View

    When I raised a discussion on the principle on a Facebook forum where believers and non-believers come together to discuss things, I was surprised how many Christians felt that the original ruling was perfectly justified, whereas most non-believers felt there was an injustice.  The strongest view was that if the court was just imposing an obligation on Steve to attend the regular activities that they normally carry out (such as piano lessons), then there was no harm in that.  This argument falls down as it was the court that introduced the requirement to attend church and also that Steve is obliged to attend with them rather than waiting outside.

    What Next?

    Steve raised awareness about this injustice on the Skepticule podcast, and now makes regular contributions as ‘Anonymous Steve’.  The Skepticule Podcast (skepticule.co.uk) addresses matters of skepticism and other issues of interest to those who loosely define themselves as skeptics.  I am one of the presenters of it.

    Steve has also sought help from Liberty and the British Humanist Association, and I raised it with the National Secular Society.  None of these worthy organisations have felt able to get involved, possibly because it is such a complicated case and it is difficult to differentiate between this particular aspect of it and the wider, complicated divorce case.

    If Steve was in the USA then the Freedom From Religion might be able to take it on, on the basis of the constitutional principle of freedom of religion, but the FFRF has a team of lawyers on hand and a constitution to sue against.  There is no such organisation in the UK and no constitution.

    Steve is hoping to elicit help or advice on how he can get access to the ECHR about his complaint about this breach of freedom of religion.  He has recently received an expression of interest from a member of the Lawyers’ Secular Society.

    I am hoping that laying out the facts of the case will enable someone to offer help, or a least to raise awareness of the issues involved.

    Although I can’t speak for Steve, I have a quote on my office wall from a Richard Beake of Kentishtowne that seems to resonate.  He stated athe Middlesex Assizes on 6 December 1625, “That he cared not a f. for the Justices, and that he had not been at church for tenn yeares, nor wold goe to church for all the Justices could doe.  Lett the Justices kisse his A.”


    Some journalists have sown interest in this case, as has social media, which is great. I thought it might be interesting to add this text from an email that Anonymous Steve copied me in on to one such journalist whilst talking about the complexities of such cases. I thoought this would be important to add to answer a few questions that have arisen on the case:

    I fear that this is why judges in family courts are able to ignore the law, and the European Convention – that journalists will not cover these stories because they are complex, partly private, and there is probably “fault on all sides”.

    However the official transcript of the hearing shows:

    (1) that the mother and her lawyer did not request this

    (2) that the judge mentioned his own Catholicism in an irrelevant anecdote

    (3) that the judge brought this idea up, completely out of the blue, with no invitation or provocation

    (4) that it only applies to me, not my former wife

    And hence that I feel justified in fearing that the judge’s own religion was more important to his overall decisions, than what was best for my children.

    The problem is that judges are permitted to impose their religious or other prejudices, where people find it just too tricky to report the fact that they do this.  And this judge has “form”, in relation to his dodgy decisions (link can be provided on request).

    Note too that my complaint to the Office of Judicial Complaints was upheld, but in this one Article 9 matter, I was told I may only take that to appeal or to judicial review.  Both of whom ignored entirely- would not even comment upon – this key matter.  Without press attention, and without courts addressing the actual complaint, we don’t have protection under ECHR – its not worth the paper it is written on, if it is just ignored, and the fact of it being ignored remains unreported.

    Kind regards,

    official transcription (redacted by me) attached

    Steve talks about his case in our latest podcast offering here.


    This has now, due to social media assistance, been written up in the Daily Telegraph and Christianity Today. Hopefully we will get some movement out of this.

    Category: AtheismFeaturedMoralitySecularism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

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    • rockhopperpenguin

      Is this a spoof? How will this be enforced? When social care is being decimated, no decent person would want to see taxpayer’s money being diverted to ensure a man took his children to see a bloke in a dress jabber superstitious nonsense in Latin.

      • As Poe-ish as this sounds, I spoof you not.

        • rockhopperpenguin

          In which case he should ignore the ruling and see what happens. Should the authorities come after him the BHA etc who have ignored him so far would surely support (?). Anyway I would if it helps.

    • Graham Martin-Royle

      This is just un-fuckin-believable. I cannot even begin to comprehend how our justice system can do this. I have no legal knowledge so I am unable to help but I wish Steve the best and hope there is some way of overturning this.

    • im-skeptical

      It’s a shame that there no organization like the ACLU that would take up this case and challenge it in the courts.

    • the one

      I would immediately go into the pulpit at these services and give a
      lecture on secularism and or play music or play various lectures from
      you tube on secularism
      Perhaps a group of supporters could also assist Steve in this endeavour

      • Fingers crossed – a very large national newspaper has this morning shown interest.

    • ronmurp

      Are there court records confirming this?

    • Tony_Lloyd

      Surely the Humanist Society would be willing to fund a supreme court/ECHR action?

      One thing that I was impressed by following the “twitter joke” case was the combination of the intelligence and reasoning abilities of our higher judges and the lack of such ability in the lower courts.

      • There Isnogod Getoverit

        it would be nice, but not sure you are right – that they would find it

    • roygrubb

      I wonder if there’s anything in the ruling to prevent him raising points of disagreement with the priest during the sermon and saying they can’t expel him because he’s required to be there on pain of contempt of court.

      • There Isnogod Getoverit

        yes, tempting, but I guess those who attend normally have their freedom (from me) as well, don’tcha think?

    • Peter Hinchliffe

      I know you have said this is not a spoof, but seriously, is it? If not then it would seem such a blatant injustice that it would not stand any higher scrutiny- its just insane.

      • There Isnogod Getoverit

        insane but true

    • epicurus

      I couldn’t imagine this happening in Canada, where I live – the media and govt opposition parties would be all over it. We often view England as being more secular than we are – and we even have a prime minister who is an evangelical protestant! This makes it doubly confusing. It’s simply unbelievable.

      • I get the impression it is a one-off judge judgement, with the judge’s personal views getting in the way of objective quality evaluation. It needed to get some publicity, and thankfully, with this social media and now media attention, it’s getting it. We couldn’t have asked for more within 24 hours.

      • alandeon2 .

        Ahhh, What do you know Epi ;-)

      • There Isnogod Getoverit

        wholeheartedly agree

    • Ed Hornby

      So does he have to get a note from a vicar each week in a register? Or has the court specified which church? If it’s the latter then there is a case for free movement, what would he do on holiday?

    • There Isnogod Getoverit

      Hi, I’m Steve, happy to hang around here awhile to answer questions.

      So far…

      (1), not its not a spoof

      (2) yes there is court documents

      (3) here is a fairly good news report (national newspaper) about it


    • There Isnogod Getoverit

      Do I get a note from the vicar?

      No, I defy the court to make me go. Forget me, my kids deserve freedom of thought, and I intend to give it to them, even if the legal system doesn’t agree. However, anonymity does still seem wise….

      • Gary J Parker

        absolutely. Of course, one could always attend the disgusting blood and death cult ceremony in a severed goats head wearing a Sodom heavy metal t shirt carrying a copy of the Necromicon.

        • There Isnogod Getoverit

          Well I could, but I feel I would like to make such attendance a special occasion – the stuff I wear to the shops would not seem fitting.

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    • There Isnogod Getoverit

      Do I go to church and pick a fight with the priest?

      No, just as I believe I have freedom of thought, those who choose to go to church don’t deserve me there, tempting though the suggestion is.

      • rockhopperpenguin

        Well as I said before, if they come for you I for one will want to stand with you – hope that helps in some way.

    • There Isnogod Getoverit

      Well thank you Rockhopper – my internet just vanished for an hour – its easy to get paranoid when you are the subject of absurdity !!!

      • Travelman

        Good luck Steve. I’ve practised law (in banking) all my working life and I’m astonished by the decision. It is challengeable in so many ways, and that’s ignoring the countless illogicalities that Jonathan outlined. I wonder if there was some procedural error that allowed it to remain in place on appeal?

      • alandeon2 .

        Gawd did it :D

        • There Isnogod Getoverit

          I think its unlikely. And experiencing the incredible does not justify believing the untenable.

    • There Isnogod Getoverit

      Thanks Travelman, As far as I see it, I conducted every step as I should – and by the way as I was directed by the Office of Judicial Complaints – I think some on here may have a point. If you do not have a lawyer, you are basically scum to be kicked around. At the end of the case you have a judgement. You need a judgement to mount an appeal. I could not appeal for getting on to a year, because the judge would not write a judgement. I had to prosecute him in order to force him to do so!! I think that judges just have a basic disgust for uppity mortals who are obliged to do it themselves, lacking funds to employ someone else to say exactly the same thing.

    • Roger Cavanagh

      I posted a link to this article on the BHA forums. They have subsequently (I’m not claiming a necessary connection) posted on Facebook, but in response to another comment from me they wrote: We’ve asked all the relevant people in the office and no one is aware of having been contacted about this case.


      • Thanks!

        I have tweeted them about this, and am awaiting a reply from Steve. Thanks so much!

    • There Isnogod Getoverit

      re BHA. I have been in contact with them, and there was some understandable confusion their end. They do now recollect the communications I had with them. Simple error, no harm intended or done.

    • Alex Bede

      If married in catholic church you sign a document agreeing to raise kids as catholics AFAIK

      • There Isnogod Getoverit

        no you don’t – at least I didn’t

        • Alex Bede

          as a declared unbaptised non catholic in order to marry my catholic wife in a catholic service I needed to sign a document declaring I would not stand in the way of my children being raised as catholics (which would include going to church every sunday) http://catholicexchange.com/do-catholics-have-to-raise-their-children-as-catholics

          • There Isnogod Getoverit

            ok, when we went to see the priest, I said that pretending I was Catholic would be a disgrace to him and me. He agreed and allowed me to be excused anything hypocritical. I signed nowt.

            And by the way, I respected his position on not demanding I lie, and I got the feeling he respected mine, for the same reason.

            • Alex Bede

              what is your point? if your priest didn’t get you to sign a declaration he was going against doctrine.

              ETA if the judge in the case knows Catholic doctrine then he will have assumed this was the case and made the ruling due to that IMO, I’m not saying it’s right but that’s probably why it happened in the first place.

            • There Isnogod Getoverit

              Obviously I signed secular paperwork !! The judge’s assumptions concerning what is or isn’t doctrine (I don’t care, frankly) are his error. But the whole point of a divorce is to end “the contract”, so even if it is doctrine (I don’t care), and even if I did sign something (which I didn’t), then all this is irrelevant. In fact, what I did or didn’t do, did or didn’t agree to, do and don’t want is irrelevant. The only relevant thing is that I might have to drag my perhaps Muslim sons to Catholic Mass when they are 17. What IS relevant is THEIR freedom of thought.

            • Alex Bede

              dude, I never said it was right, but it seemed you wanted to know how it was possible, IF you did sign such a declaration (and Im not saying you did) then that was not a contract that ended with your divorce, because it was a contract between you and the church, not you and your ex wife. I feel for you, and if it were me I’d stick 2 fingers up at the court and do my own thing, if you are confident you didn’t sign anything saying you agree to raise them as catholics then you will win IMO but if you did sign something then odds would not be stacked in your favour, atleast untill your kids get to a legal age when they themselves can sign some kind of release (I would guess 16).

            • There Isnogod Getoverit

              Sure, I think if we concentrate on our disagreement rather than our agreement, we appear in conflict.

              Parking that, I still disagree. If the judge intended to be responding to some kind of contract (implied or actual, or even made up), then he could have said so.

              I had to prosecute him, in person, in the High Court, in order to make him explain himself – since he had not given a single reason for any of his bizarre decisions.

              So when he (eventually) complied (following criticism from the Office of Judicial Complaints), he did so in 126 paragraphs (of nonsense) prior to his apology at para 127. I can’t show you those, for legal reasons, but you have to take it from me that he used 126 paragraphs to explain himself without ever once referring to any church of any kind, any promise of any kind, any contract of any kind, or (in my view) no actual sensible reason of any kind.

              What can I say? If it was a reason, he was supposed to state that, and he had every opportunity to do so. And when he took that opportunity to, he did not state that. As far as I see it, that’s case closed for the “contract with the church” argument.

              As it has seemed to have gone without saying, for which my apologies, that does not mean I argue with the bulk of your proposition.

    • Alan Wilkinson

      I suggest that if the Appeal Courts can ignore the appeal he can ignore the ruling. It is obviously considered too trivial a matter to worry about.

      • There Isnogod Getoverit

        well yes, but do my kids really need me to test this with my other liberties? It can get up to 2 years inside.

        • Alan Wilkinson

          If you think this is a serious threat then plan B is the kids simply refuse to go. So you call the police with media present and some friends to video the action at home and at the church while screaming kids demonstrate to the silly old fools masquerading as judges that actually they do not have power to make it happen and fry them in the court of public opinion.

          • There Isnogod Getoverit

            yes, I see the appeal, and if it were just me then fine – but you said it best when you said “screaming kids” – perhaps when they are old enough to ACT like that, rather than BE like that, eh?

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    • Roger Cavanagh
      • There Isnogod Getoverit

        None whatsoever – never heard of him – but I am very appreciative of his efforts in a matter that relates to him in absolutely no way whatsoever.

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    • poniesinjudah

      This is so outrageous and awful. It makes me so angry but also so sad. And where the hell are your secular and etc organizations in Britain, but also civil rights ones? Don’t you have those? (Writing from Canada.) This judge is clearly off his nut. That’s not unheard of in family court cases. There was a family court judge in Pennsylvania who would send teenagers to prison, and require them to be fully shackled in the court room, for offenses that were like you get detention for in high school. There’s a book about it called Kids for Cash. Really really shocking stuff. Conspiracy of silence by everyone involved, including the legal aid lawyers. Eventually it was exposed by a reporter I believe. But we know about this guy in Britain now. There’s the obvious extreme human rights abuse of being made to go to any religion that isn’t yours, but in particular to go to scary superstitious Catholic mass! Is the judge going to require that the kids go to confession? That they take communion? How would the priest and the congregation where this is supposed to happen feel about all this? Well I guess in the Catholic system they don’t really have any say. You couldn’t pull this crap with a Protestant church or at a synagogue, the regular congregants could simply refuse to allow it.

      But this isn’t solely about religion. Family Court judges are simply not allowed to do this stuff. He’s breaking the rules. I’d like to know more about the decision by the judicial complaints entity. They found him guilty of something, is it not enough to have him turfed off the bench? Not only does this ruling need to be rescinded but this guy needs to be removed from the bench. Like now. Just horrifying. Also Steve needs a real lawyer. For all we know the action of simply ignoring his article 9 complaint by the two appeals entities maybe being justified on the basis of he didn’t fill out some particular form correctly or hand it in before some deadline. The law is like that. And of course that’s what civil rights organizations are for. To provide lawyers for people who can’t afford the bazillion dollars it would cost for some crazy case like this. Really really bad showing by all of the British bodies involved. The Civil rights organizations as well as and especially the appeals courts and whoever the hell is supposed to make sure Family Court judges aren’t crazy as a loon. I mean my god! now that this is in the paper it should it should automatically trigger a review of this judge by some kind of judge quality control body. Not that I have an illusion it will. Very best of luck to Steve and his children, who of course are having their rights severely abused. 17th Century bullshit.

      • There Isnogod Getoverit

        Thanks Ponies, as far as I know all paperwork was fine – nobody has challenged any of it. But you may have a point. if you don’t have a lawyer, you are a nobody. And nobody cares if you are nobody – you can just be kicked around. The internet seems to say different. All equal before keyboard. Thanks for your support.

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