Christian prayers in the military: Commodore Royal Bahamas Defence Force

Background

Colours parades have been a tradition in the Royal Bahamian Defence Force since its creation in 1980 and, at some of them, Christian prayers are said at one point in the parade [1]. From 1993 to 2006, pursuant to Coral Harbour Temporary Memorandum No 20/93, non-Christians could excuse themselves by falling out during the prayers and falling back in after them; but that was revoked by a further Temporary Memorandum No 67/06 in 2006 [2].

In Commodore Royal Bahamas Defence Force & Ors v Laramore (Bahamas) [2017] UKPC 13, former Petty Officer Gregory Laramore, a Muslim who objected to being obliged to attend Christian prayers on parade, challenged the constitutionality of the 2006 Memorandum [3]. After the 2006 Memorandum had been promulgated, on 24 April 2007 he requested “to be exempted from all Christian activity in the [Force] and other religion other than Islam”. Twice in 2007 he left a parade during colours ceremonies when prayers were about to take place: he was charged with disobedience, but before the resulting disciplinary proceedings could be concluded he challenged the constitutionality of the 2006 Memorandum and sought damages. He was successful at first instance and an appeal in July 2014 was dismissed by a majority of the Court of Appeal. The Commodore of the Force, the Attorney General and three individuals involved in charging or seeking to discipline Mr Laramore then appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, arguing that the 2006 Memorandum did not infringe Mr Laramore’s rights and/or was justified to ensure the efficient administration of the Force [4].

The arguments

The Constitution of the Bahamas provides inter alia in Article 22 that:

“(1) Except with his consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience, and for the purposes of this Article the said freedom includes freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and both in public and in private, to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

(2) Except with his consent (or, if he is a person who has not attained the age of eighteen years, the consent of his guardian) no person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if that instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own.

(3) No religious body or denomination shall be prevented from or hindered in providing religious instruction for persons of that body or denomination in the course of any education provided by that body or denomination whether or not that body or denomination is in receipt of any government subsidy, grant or other form of financial assistance designed to meet, in whole or in part, the cost of such course of education.

(4) No person shall be compelled to take any oath which is contrary to his religion or belief or to take any oath in a manner which is contrary to his religion or belief or to take any oath in a manner which is contrary to his religion or belief.

(5) Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this Article to the extent that the law in question makes provision which is reasonably required –

(a) in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or

(b) for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons, including the right to observe and practise any religion without the unsolicited interference of members of any other religion,

and except so far as that provision or, as the case may be, the thing done under the authority thereof is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society” [6].

The appellants accepted that the Constitution – and in particular Chapter III, “which protects and entrenches fundamental rights and freedoms to which all persons in the state are to be entitled” – was to be given “a generous and purposive approach” but argued, inter alia, that the concept of being “hindered” in Article 22(1) was carefully delimited. Whether Mr Laramore was “hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience” had to be judged objectively; and there could only be such hindrance if he was forbidden by his religion from staying on parade in the manner prescribed by the 2006 Memorandum or, at the least, if the interference with his freedom of conscience was substantial and/or more than “merely indirect, incidental or inconsequential” [9]. Moreover, they argued, the provisions of Article 22(2) about education confirmed that Article 22(1) did not cover the present military context [13].

The judgment

The Board disagreed: delivering its judgment, Lord Mance said that freedom of conscience was, in essence, a personal matter:

“It may take the form of belief in a particular religion or sect, or it may take the form of agnosticism or atheism. It is by reference to a person’s particular subjective beliefs that it must be judged whether there has been a hindrance. No doubt there is an objective element in this judgment, but it arises only once the nature of the individual’s particular beliefs has been identified. This is not the place to address the relationship between faith and works, still less their relationship to salvation, in religious history or thought. In the United States the First Amendment … has been seen as involving a dichotomy between two concepts – freedom to believe and freedom to act, it being said that ‘That the first is absolute, but, in the nature of thing, the second cannot be’: Cantwell v Connecticut (1940) 310 US 296, 303-30. But beliefs feed into action (or inaction) as Chief Justice Berger noted in Wisconsin v Yoder (1972) 406 US 203, 220, where Amish parents had been convicted for their ‘actions’ in refusing to send their children to the public high school” [14].

As to the contention that there could only have been a hindrance if Mr Laramore’s religion had forbidden his staying on parade during prayers:

“What matters is not what the Islamic religion says, if that were examined and found to have a clear rule on the matter. What matters is Mr Laramore’s religiously based beliefs and conscience. In any event, the word ‘forbad’ puts the barrier too high. What is required is ‘hindrance’, which is not the same as prevention: see eg Olivier v Buttigieg [1967] AC 115,.”

The Board also addressed the point that because Mr Laramore had voluntarily joined and remained in the Force he had therefore accepted its rules [19], suggesting that the nearest case in context was Kalaç v Turkey [1997] ECHR 37. However, citing para [83] of Eweida & Ors v United Kingdom [2013] ECHR 37 it pointed out that Strasbourg thinking had moved on since Kalaç  [21].

The Board had no doubt that Mr Laramore had been “hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience” in the present case [22 & 28]; and any suggestion of justification under s 22(5) of the Constitution or on any other basis failed [32]. Appeal dismissed [33].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Christian prayers in the military: Commodore Royal Bahamas Defence Force" in Law & Religion UK, 16 May 2017, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/05/16/christian-prayers-in-the-military-commodore-royal-bahamas-defence-force/

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