Many of us have on our tourist trips visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. But did you know that the church is in fact modelled after an ancient Roman public building - more specifically, a courthouse? While this historical coincidence is mostly an amusing architectural fact, it serves as an apt metaphor for the relationship between religion and law: their histories are intertwined and exist, quite literally, in the same space. Even if law and religion are usually seen as separate and even opposing entities, they are both systems that comprise of rules and beliefs that dictate how a certain group of people should live, behave and act towards one another. These systems share a connection that goes beyond superficial and structural similarities.
Slotte thinks that the effect of religion on law can tell us something about certain, deep-seated understandings of law and how they are reproduced in historical contexts. In a way, the false narrative of the absolute secular nature of European law traditions prevents us from seeing and understanding how law came to be. Slotte reminds that we need to keep in mind that today’s context is very different from those circumstances in which the laws originally emerged.
The risk of exclusion
The interconnection of law and religion is not always explicit, and neither are the concepts and notions related to them. They might come across as neutral and normative at a first glance, which is why we are not always aware of how they affect different groups of people in different ways. According to Slotte, European Christianity and theology have affected our understanding of the role of religion in the society, what is the right way to manifest religious beliefs and behavior, and how to limit religion and markers of belief in the public space.
For instance, while the European Court of Human Rights vows to protect and support religious pluralism, some instances have shown how a certain bias of religious familiarity affects the Court’s decision-making. While European Christians’ ability to act in an apolitical manner in non-religious settings is rarely questioned, some groups’ religiosity is seen in an essentialist way. Their religiosity is not neutral or normal, but rather something that needs to be regulated.
“Law and legal thinking affected by religion can be excluding to certain groups”, Slotte says.
The best-known European example might be the French law of prohibiting face coverings in public places. The law has had a major impact on the Muslim minority in France as it means that no hijabs or other Muslim headscarves or veils covering the face are allowed. France is officially a secular state and the ban on covering garments has been at the center of controversy for years. “One could say that religion functions as a racialized category”, Slotte reflects. This year another layer was added to the discussion as the French government made face masks mandatory as a COVID-19 measure, yet did not budge on the ban on Islamic face coverings.
Questions of power and history
So why is it so crucial to be aware of the connection between law and religion?
“If we see law and religion as neutral, we fail to understand how they influence our thinking, societal structures, institutions and interpersonal relations”, Slotte explains.
For example, when answering the question of “What does freedom of religion mean in today’s Europe?”, it is important to think critically about what it actually means: is it the freedom to believe or not to believe in any way or only in a way that is acceptable to the (Christian) majority? Are religious groups and communities free to behave as they please, or are they obliged to comply?
Even in present-day Europe, its religious background and history still play an important role in how we perceive religious groups and control their behavior. Here, one of Slotte’s topics of interest has been to study Nordic countries and their similarities and differences regarding the intertwinement of religious and legal cultures today and in history since the 16th century Protestant reformations.
Nordic law of the land throughout history has addressed religious life and continues to do so even today. The “secular” law supports the activities of religious organizations by securing freedom of religion and allowing religious communities to fulfill tasks such as conduct marriages. In addition, some “secular” laws regulate religious life also with regard to taxation, buildings and employment.
In the context of the Nordic countries, particularly interesting are questions of governance and power: What kind of authorities exercise power to legislate and adjudicate? Are they secular or religious authorities, to whom are these powers granted in contemporary Nordic societies? According to Slotte, it is important to be aware of how certain ideas about law are related to ideas about religion and its place in the society. Otherwise we might fail to understand how these ideas and concepts have their roots in another time and place in history, just like the Basilica in Vatican City has its roots in another historical era.
Dr Pamela Slotte is the director of subproject 2, Discovering the Limits of Reason - Europe and the Crisis of Universalism. She is a Professor in Religion and Law in Åbo Akademi University as well as PI in the HERA funded research project Protestant Legacies in Nordic Law (2016–2019). She is a scholar of theology and law and has worked on topics of theological ethics and philosophy of religion, history of ideas, political theology, human rights, as well as the field of law & religion more broadly.