The Role of Religious Beliefs in the Governance and Decision-Making Structures of a Liberal Democracy: Reliance on Religious Beliefs by Citizens, Legislators and Judges
What is the proper role of reference to and explicit reliance on religious beliefs in the governance and decision-making structures of a liberal democracy? Does the appropriateness of such reliance vary, depending on whether we consider citizens, legislators and judges? The argument that in a secular society religious beliefs should not be relied upon by citizens, legislators and judges when deciding matters of law and public policy is widely accepted in present-day Western society. When citizens or legislators explicitly ground their public arguments about social and political issues in their religious faith, this is frequently characterized as divisive, exclusionary, and ultimately antithetical to liberal democracy. Judges, it is commonly argued, must not be influenced or biased in any way by religious beliefs when rendering judgements, and to do so would be a breach of, and departure from, their role as judges. In our paper, we consider and evaluate the various arguments that are put forward for keeping public discourse and decision- making explicitly secular. A fundamental conclusion of the paper is that it is impossible for many persons of faith, whether citizen, legislator or judge, to decide issues of significance and complexity without being influenced in important ways by their religious beliefs. With respect to citizens, we conclude that rather than trying to limit religious discourse in the public square, we should welcome a rich diversity of ideas from a multitude of different perspectives. With respect to legislators, we conclude that individual legislators should be free to decide what role, if any, their religious beliefs should play when fulfilling their legislative role. With respect to judges, we conclude that judges should, as much as it is possible, avoid reliance on religious beliefs and also recognize and disclose the role of religious beliefs in their judicial deliberations and judgements.
Keywords: Religion, Religious belief, Faith, Liberal democracy, Citizens, Judges, Legislators, Governance, Decision-making
Prof David Laurence Blaikie
Professor, Faculty of Law, Dalhousie University
Prof Diana Ginn
Associate Dean, Faculty of Law, Dalhousie University