The Pope on Trial – Prologue Extract

Ministers are wont to introduce a Bill initiating important social change by telling members of their legislative chamber what they would expect to hear, rather than the underlying reasons for intended reform — lest its impact be seen as effecting radical change – or change that was never intended. The Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs of the Confederation of Uniting Peoples may well have fulfilled that role when he stood at the lectern addressing his fellow members:

‘Madam Speaker, Brothers and Sisters – Good Afternoon’ [the Minister looked up to acknowledge the murmured greeting from the floor of the chamber] ‘ — there is a perception under our Constitution that those encouraging others to a belief in – worship of — or obedience to a supernatural power considered to have control of human destiny may exempt themselves from ethical best practice in the conduct of their religion.

 ‘For too long those promoting religious belief have been able to stand before their congregations and television audiences under a mantle of perceived constitutional protection claiming that they speak on behalf of a supernatural being or power that promises financial benefits in this life to those who give generously. Those financial benefits have been found to include bank loans to buy houses and businesses that they could not otherwise afford under any criteria for prudent lending. When seeking to avoid the opprobrium of those who, having given, complain that they did not receive benefits commensurate with the quantum of their donations, or that their loans have turned sour, the leaders of such prosperity churches are given to assert that it is not their promise, but “God’s promise” that has failed their expectations. Yet, they evidence no obligation to disclose their secret commissions ? only the veil of opacity: they claim they are not secret from God; and it is only God who could bestow such gifts upon them.

 ‘Confederation members are very much aware that cultures imported from differing lands and nationalities bring with them common religions that are thriving. Those ethnic groups have understandably sought to exercise their religious freedom with greater public exposure in our liberal pluralist society. Your Governing Council recognises that a strong democratic society is founded as much on the strength of those ethical values promoted by its religious institutions as those of an ethical secular society. Our Constitution has earlier ensured the separation of the state from church, shrine, temple and mosque. However, your Governing Council now perceives that such separation has failed to address the blurring of the distinction between those who are carrying on a business of religion and those who are wont to practise their religious beliefs in the privacy of their home or their thoughts. One falls within the proper purview of good governance of the state; the other is the expression of a given freedom guaranteed by the state. Each demands and is entitled to an equal right to compete, albeit ethically, on a level playing field without fear of each other — or favour of the state.

 ‘The Bill that I now table seeks to bring those conducting a business of religion under the same umbrella of legal obligations as those conducting trade and commerce. It seeks to have transparency and accountability applied to such dealings whilst at the same time permitting the consumer to remain free to practise his or her religion. It will protect not only those consumers offered the products and services of religion, but the Scheduled Religions themselves will be protected each from the other in relation to false, misleading or deceptive conduct — and its unfortunate consequence — extremism: which, by definition already embedded in Confederation counter-terrorism legislation, encompasses opposition to democratic values, the rule of law and the condoning of incitement to religious based violence. [The Minister paused to accept the vigorous applause of the body of the chamber]  ‘Members will also be pleased to read it has an overriding safeguard: it renders invalid any existing member-state legislation that seeks to give preference or advantage to any person or entity based upon religion or belief. All Scheduled religious institutions will be required to uphold Confederation multicultural and multi-religious values as defined in Chapter Five of The Universal Code of Conduct as a condition of retaining their tax exempt status.’ [The Minister was again interrupted by loud and sustained applause.] 

‘The Amendment to The Universal Code of Conduct seeks to address what your legislature perceives to be a yawning chasm in the duty of care owed by those who would seek to occupy themselves with the affairs of humankind after death. Your government believes it is the business and politics of religion which has subsumed the practice of religion and has made it our imperative to act. I commend the Bill to the House.’