The state should not fund construction of places of worship

Morning View
Morning View

The controversy caused by Pastor McConnell’s inflammatory remarks last month has begun to settle.

Peter Robinson’s highly successful visit to Belfast’s Islamic centre, after the first minister’s unfortunate contribution to the controversy, last week seemed to mark the advent of a period of mutual goodwill.

There is near unanimity that Northern Ireland’s Muslim community is a valued component of an increasingly diverse Province.

Acceptance of this point should not be incompatible with the belief that Britain’s proud history of free speech nonetheless permits people to make hard-hitting criticisms of religions (even when a critic might lack the wisdom or courtesy to couch such criticism in measured tones).

Amid the sense of healing in recent days, however, a new controversy has arisen over the prospect of public money for a new Islamic centre in Belfast.

The fact that any such complex is likely to be part community centre and part place of worship makes this a fraught matter.

It is reasonable for the state to contribute towards the former, in that groups of people who live in a particular area or who share a particular interest often receive state assistance to build a hall or centre.

But it is not reasonable for it to fund the latter. Funding the construction of new places of worship would open the floodgates. Northern Ireland is markedly more religious than the rest of the UK, and has thousands of churches, despite only having a population of 1.8 million people. If a mosque was to be funded on the basis that those who used it formed a small minority population, then small Christian churches would demand the same.

So while it would be a good thing for Northern Ireland’s mix of religious centres to include a range of buildings from churches to synagogues to mosques, like you would see in any middling sized American city, the separation of church and state must continue to preclude the funding of new buildings of worship.