NSS calls on PM to remove bar on Catholics in royal succession

The National Secular Society has written to The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister calling for Parliament to debate the removal of discrimination against Catholics in royal succession.

David Cameron has said that, in principle, he supports the removal of discrimination against Catholics in royal succession.

The letter from the Society’s Executive Director, Keith Porteous Wood, opened by welcoming steps being taken towards the removal of the discriminatory primogeniture provisions in respect of the heir to the throne. However, he pointed out that “It is unacceptable that any change in this area could be made without removing the equally inexcusable prohibition on the sovereign marrying a Roman Catholic.”

He continued: “If consultation is to take place with Commonwealth leaders over primogeniture, it is unthinkable not to include the question of discrimination against Catholics, and indeed the former Government undertook to do this, two years ago.

“The question was discussed during the Royal Marriages and Succession to the Crown (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill introduced by Dr Evan Harris. The then Lord Chancellor concluded that debate with the phrase ‘I shall certainly ensure that soundings are taken among Commonwealth Heads of Government.’

“We call upon you to confront this indefensible discrimination that would be illegal in every other situation by submitting it to the will of Parliament at Westminster. Positive feedback has already been given by senior representatives of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly .

“As all legislation has to be interpreted in the light of the Human Rights Act, the Government may care to seek advice as to whether, as it seems, succession determined free of discrimination on grounds of sex or religion would already be lawful without any legislative changes.”

Later in the week, Mr Cameron was challenged on the Today programme by Evan Davis to explain his approach to the discrimination against Catholics and women in the royal succession. He replied that he supported the necessary changes “in principle”. But he warned that “The Queen is not only the Queen of the United Kingdom, but of many other jurisdictions, so discussions have to take place between the UK Government and other governments around the world and also the Palace to bring this about. So it will take time.”

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John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, said that he agreed with the need to change the rules on primogeniture: “New Zealand supports that view.” But he cautioned: “I don’t know whether those changes will happen any time soon.”

Government sources in Canada and Australia have warned however that there is no political appetite in those countries for changing the royal succession, for fear it reopens the debate on republicanism and leaving the Commonwealth.

Permitting Catholics to inherit is expected to pose more of a constitutional and diplomatic problem than permitting females to inherit. Downing Street has said in the past that changing that rule would be “difficult and complex”.

The Act of Settlement was passed by Parliament to settle the royal succession on the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her Protestant heirs - the ancestors of the Windsor dynasty - and to exclude any claims by the deposed King James II, a Catholic, and his heirs. Along with the 1689 Bill of Rights, it remains one of the main constitutional laws governing the UK and the Commonwealth.

Changing it is fraught with difficulty. The British monarch is the head of state of 16 Commonwealth countries. The Act of Settlement cannot be altered in any realm except by that realm’s own parliament and, by convention, only with the consent of the other 15 realms, as it touches on the succession to the shared throne