Keeping the faith

Posted by on 23 October 2013

Remember the film Witness – Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis tentatively dancing to Sam Cooke’s song “Don’t know much about history” in a barn? The 1980s film drew attention to the Amish, a Christian community which shuns modern technology; preferring to ride around in horse-drawn buggies rather than petrol-guzzling cars.

I don’t think there are any Amish in this country, but there are still people who reject aspects of the modern world on religious grounds. In a real David and Goliath battle, two Seventh Day Adventist beekeepers have won the right not to have to file their VAT returns online because they consider computers “worldly” and prone to diverting people from the path of righteousness.

Representing themselves, Cornish beekeepers Graham and Abigail Blackburn argued before the First Tier Tribunal Tax Chamber that HMRC’s requirement that they file their VAT return online breached their right, under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to manifest their religion and belief. The Tribunal agreed with them. Although other Seventh Day Adventists might take a less absolutist line on the use of computers for business purposes, the judge accepted that the Blackburns’ refusal to use computers was the fulfilment of what they genuinely considered to be a religious duty. There was no reason to exclude them from an exemption from the obligation to file VAT returns online that already exists for members of religious organisations which collectively oppose the use of electronic communications.

This judgment follows the European Court of Human Rights ruling in the case of Nadia Eweida. What both cases highlight is that it’s an individual’s understanding of his or her religious obligation that matters – not whether others share that view. The judgment is a welcome recognition of the personal nature of religious belief and the importance of accommodating, where possible, the many ways in which people express their faith.