Miah pleaded guilty to actual bodily harm, but was spared jail and given a suspended sentence by Cherie, who said:
“I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before. You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”So, just so we have this clear, if you have any plans to punch anyone in the face, it's probably a good idea to go to a place of worship first, and tell the judge you're a religious person. But what if you're an atheist? If we're following Cherie's logic, you'd be heading straight for the slammer.
Naturally, the National Secular Society objected to this and lodged the complaint, with president Terry Sanderson saying “This seems to indicate that she would not have treated a non-religious person with the same latitude. We think this is discriminatory and unjust.”
Update: A lively debate has broken out about this story online since earlier this morning. The Guardian's Andrew Brown wrote a rather unfair piece accusing NSS president Terry Sanderson of wishing to make religious belief a mark of bad character:
"In Sanderson's world, judges should say things like 'Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence.'"If Brown could identify a time when Sanderson has suggested this, then fair enough. But he never has, and so the assertion is unfair and utterly ridiculous. Indeed, we have a piece by Sanderson in our current issue in which he points out that he's entirely indifferent about religion. He just wants it left out of public life. There's a lively comment thread on Brown's article, should you feel moved to join in.
A further debate around this issue centres on the issue of whether or not Booth's words amount to discrimination. When the story broke, legal blogger Jack of Kent – well known for his insightful analysis of the Simon Singh / chiropractic case – immediately called foul. The NSS state that the ruling "seems to indicate that she [Booth] would not have treated a non-religious person with the same latitude. We think this is discriminatory and unjust." However, Jack of Kent (who, in fact, has now commented on this post) and other legally-minded folk have pointed out that unless there is evidence of a case where a judge has imposed a heavier sentence on an atheist on account of their lack of religious belief, and thus implied lack of good character, then this can not be seen as discrimination. It is common for defence lawyers to point to their clients' good character when arguing for a lenient sentence, and this may involve reference to their group affiliations, including religion. Of course, there is an interesting debate to be had as to whether judges should be accepting religious belief as an indication of good character (which as the BHA have pointed out, it clearly isn't always). It seems that, rather than discrimination, is the real story with regards to Cherie's ruling.