Joan Smith: So are Anglicans more honest?

Why not offer them preferential treatment in other areas, such as interviews for jobs in the Civil Service?
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The Independent Online

It's official: people who believe in the supernatural are more trustworthy. To be specific, Anglicans are so much more honest than the rest of us that they deserve - and in some cases, since February last year, have been able to get - special treatment from that most stony-hearted of government departments, the Home Office.

Incredible as it sounds, until this week, when the High Court struck it down, ministers had been operating an exemption to strict new rules applying to non-European migrants who wanted to get married, as long as they were prepared to go through a Church of England ceremony.

When I first heard this bizarre news item two days ago, I rushed to check it, convinced I hadn't been paying sufficient attention to the radio. Even after nine years of watching the Government suck up to faith groups, from evangelical Christians to the loopiest Creationists, I never believed it would take its unseemly religiosity quite so far.

When I was a child, growing up in a household without religion, I occasionally wondered what went on in the church across the road. Later, during the brief period before I was thrown out of the Brownies for a variety of offences, including atheism and republicanism, I attended one or two services and was bored (literally) beyond belief. I certainly never witnessed anything that seemed likely to make regular attenders more upstanding citizens, less likely to practise deception, than atheists or members of other faiths.

Yet the Government, when it was coming up with regulations to combat "sham" marriages designed to get round immigration controls, seems to have arrived at quite the opposite conclusion. It decided that people from non-European countries who wished to marry would have to apply for a certificate of approval from the Home Secretary if they were here on an immigration visa or were failed asylum-seekers, unless they were prepared to dress up in white and trip down the aisle of St John-and-All-the-Angels. (I hope the Home Secretary sent the lucky couples a nice floral tribute along with the coveted certificate.)

Given the empty condition of most Anglican churches on a Sunday morning, it is tempting to regard the entire business as a rather desperate recruitment drive. The Government has already had some success in this area, dragging lapsed Christians back to the fold through the simple device of allowing state schools, still mostly funded by taxpayers, to be run by churches which select pupils according to faith. Sham religious conversions are so much more acceptable, it seems, than sham marriages.

But why stop there? If the Government really believes Anglicans are more honest than the rest of us, why not offer them preferential treatment in other areas, such as interviews for jobs in the Civil Service? Presumably they never cheat on their expenses, so can be trusted to present them without receipts, and it goes without saying that devout church-goers would never, ever, tell falsehoods - least of all about weapons of mass destruction in faraway lands.

Last month there was an international outcry after it was reported that a man who had converted from Islam to Christianity 25 years ago had been detained and might be put to death for apostasy in Afghanistan. In the modern world, we are rightly uncomfortable with the notion of the state telling people which religion they should follow. So what are we to make of the case of Mahmoud Baiai, a Muslim from Algeria, and Izabela Trzcinska, a Catholic from Poland, who were banned from marrying in this country because Baiai was an illegal migrant and fell foul of the new regulations?

It would all have been so different if only they had converted to the dear old CofE, which long ago stopped being the Tory party at prayer and became New Labour on its knees. The ungrateful couple chose instead to allow the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants to go to court on their behalf, winning a ruling that the Home Office regulations discriminated against migrants, breaching the right to marry and start a family under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The problem, as Mr Justice Silber pointed out with forensic logic on Monday, is that "it is not clear why those using an Anglican church ceremony would be less likely to engage in a sham marriage than those who use, say, Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim ceremonies". It is all a bit of a puzzle: either the Government believes that Anglican priests are shrewder than rabbis and registrars when it comes to detecting a sham marriage, or it really does regard worshippers in CofE churches as more honest than anyone else.

The Home Office hailed the regulations as a success, revealing that reports of suspicious marriages from registrars has fallen from 3,740 in 2004 to fewer than 300 since the clampdown began last year - figures which suggest, incidentally, that people who conduct civil marriages are just as quick to spot fraud as ministers of religion. Perversely, the department responded to Monday's judgment by suspending the requirement for a certificate for non-Anglican weddings pending an appeal, when the blindingly obvious course of action was to apply the same regulations across the board.

I suspect the Government didn't do that because it is incapable of thinking clearly about the subject of religion, as it has demonstrated more times than I can remember. Ministers persist in regarding faith as an essentially benign force, inviting religious groups to have an ever greater say in public life. In doing so, they are threatening the principle of secularism which has spared us the horrors of religious conflict, with the grim exception - which should also act as a warning - of Northern Ireland.

This preposterous rule on migrant marriages may have affected relatively few people but it says a great deal about the unspoken assumptions of the political class which governs us. The clash of civilisations we fear so much will come about, as it did in the past with such disastrous consequences, if religion is ever allowed to become again the prime means by which we make decisions about the decency or otherwise of other people.

Ministers have already gone much too far in this direction, restoring privileges to religion without any regard for its historical role in obstructing progress and individual freedom. Now the Government has been caught discriminating against foreigners who don't happen to belong to the same Christian denomination as the Prime Minister and his cronies. It's hard to think of a more convincing rebuttal of the proposition that having an imaginary friend helps you to be good.

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