Archive for April, 2011

Newsline – 22nd April 2011

Newsline is the weekly newsletter from the National Secular Society.  Every week we collate the stories and issues or most importance to our members and offer reportage and insight.  Our audio edition takes the main stories and offers them in an easy-to-listen podcast, available online and via iTunes subscription (for free).

Join Britain’s only organisation working exclusively towards a secular society


You can also subscribe to the audio version for FREE using iTunes: Newsline - The Weekly Newsletter from the NSS

In this week’s Newsline

  • Bishop admits that church schools succeed because of selection
  • NSS calls on PM to remove bar on Catholics in royal succession
  • Sectarianism in Scottish football runs deep
  • Christian group seeks to take over library from council
  • Opposition grows to Catholic school in Richmond
  • Vatican looking for new ally in ambition to dominate European Union
  • Sex allegations against clergy cost US Catholic Church $2.34 billion since 2004

Bishop admits that church schools succeed because of selection

The National Secular Society says that the Church of England’s new head of education, the Bishop of Oxford, Rt Rev John Pritchard, is the first high-profile Anglican to admit that Church schools get their league-topping results by using privileged admissions criteria to select the best pupils.

Mr Pritchard is likely to set the cat among the pigeons this week by telling the Times Education Supplement that he would like to open up church schools to more non-Anglicans – reserving only 10 per cent of places for the children of church-goers.

By doing so, he said:

“We may not get the startling results that some church schools do because of getting some very able children, but we will make a difference to people’s lives.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said:

“The Church has repeatedly denied that the strict selection criteria that are applied in some schools are the reason they perform so well. We are told that it is because of the ‘Christian ethos’. Now the cat is out of the bag and the Bishop of Oxford lets us know that the Church is fully aware of why their schools perform so well.”

Mr Sanderson said:

“It is astonishing that we are even having this discussion or that this is an issue at all. It is scandalous that state schools, paid for by the taxpayer, can refuse to admit children on the grounds of their parents’ religion or purported religion. In no other area would this kind of blatant religious discrimination be permitted.”

Mr Sanderson did concede that it was a step in the right direction, but he expressed doubt on whether any dramatic changes would be made in the near future, if at all. He said that voluntary aided schools control their own admissions policies and the church would not be able to force them to comply.

“Parents who access these schools won’t be too thrilled to see them opened up to the community at large,” he said. “We’ve all heard of pushy, non-religious parents suddenly becoming regular church-goers in order to get a letter from the vicar that is the open sesame to the local church school.

“The Church of England’s main focus these days is education, and if they give up their admissions privileges, their schools will become just like all the other schools in this country, and the resources that they hog to themselves will have to be more equally shared out.”

Mr Pritchard told the TES:

“I’m really committed to our schools being as open as they can be. Every school should have a policy that has a proportion of places for church youngsters… what I would be saying is that number ought to be minimised because our primary function and our privilege is to serve the wider community. Ultimately, I hope we can get the number of reserved places down to 10 per cent.”

Half of the 4,800 Church of England schools are voluntary aided, meaning they control their own admissions policies. He said that schools should not “collect nice Christians into safe places” but should serve the wider community.

The Bishop’s comments come ahead of the publication of new guidelines on admissions due in the summer.

The Bishop’s proposals are likely to face stiff opposition from others involved in education within the Church. Revd Clive Sedgewick, director of education for the dioceses of Bradford and Ripon & Leeds said there would be resistance from some parents who have come to regard Church schools as almost like a private education without the fees.

In an editorial in the TES, Gerard Kelly said:

“The vast majority of faith school funding is provided by taxpayers, who come in two varieties – the religious and the non-religious. Whatever the precise proportions, it is generally accepted that services paid for by taxpayers should be available to all. Except when it comes to faith schools. Here, believing taxpayers often take precedence over non-believing ones. One hundred per cent discrimination for the remarkably cheap price of 10 per cent contribution to building costs.

“This is patently unjust. Church leaders may retort that non-believing taxpayers have access to 80 per cent of schools that are non-faith. But that isn’t the point. Can you imagine a non-faith school refusing to admit a church-going pupil because there was a school for her sort locally? The Bishop has taken a principled stand. But it is time the state was equally brave and told faith schools to open their doors.”

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.

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.”

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.

Sectarianism in Scottish football runs deep

After parcel bombs were sent to high-profile officials and fans of the Celtic football team, NSS council member Norman Bonney and Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood accuse the state of playing its own part in perpetuating sectarianism in Scotland.

Norman Bonney writes:

The disciplinary difficulties with the European football authorities that currently face Glasgow Rangers Football Club with respect to sectarian chanting of its supporters in European games were claimed by Glasgow Celtic manager Neil Lennon at the weekend to be deeply rooted in Scottish society and to be passed down at home from generation to generation – a view supported by The Scotsman in an editorial on Saturday 16 April 2011. However, the problem is more far-reaching than this. Parliamentarians and church leaders need to examine and amend the very structure of the Scottish state.

A new monarch is required by law, as one of his or her first acts, to swear an oath to maintain and preserve the protestant religion and the Presbyterian form of church government in Scotland.

This ancient legal requirement, part of the Acts of Union of 1706/7, reflects the religious divisions of over 300 years ago, and should be abolished.

Unless this happens the next monarch will find that he (or she) is contributing to the continuation of sectarian religious divisions in Scottish society and the state.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg should also consider the removal of this UK constitutional provision alongside plans announced this weekend to remove gender discrimination in succession to the throne.

Removal of the Scottish oath is entirely a UK matter and relatively simple compared to the new measure being considered by the Deputy Prime Minister since it does not require the consent of the other Commonwealth countries of which the Queen is head of state.

Keith Porteous Wood says sectarian schooling also plays a part in perpetuating hostility between Catholics and Protestants. He writes:

Catholic schools were established, mainly in the 19th century, because the appalling treatment of (mainly poverty stricken immigrant Irish) Catholics by the indigenous largely Protestant population. No one is suggesting that the Catholic sectarian schools in Scotland are teaching sectarianism, but few will think that it is a coincidence that the epicentre of these difficulties, west central Scotland, is the very area where the Catholic Church is most opposed to integration with mainstream “non-denominational” schools.

They are even obstructive about joint campuses. A statement from North Lanarkshire Council in 2004 set out the requirements of the Catholic Church in respect of joint campuses, including the following: “separate non-pupil entrances and receptions; separate staff rooms; provision of separate libraries; avoidance of crossover of staff and pupils through self-contained design of the schools to preserve the identity of both schools; … and pupils in each of the joint campus schools will have their own separate entrances.”

This bunker mentality by the Church, which in my view is doing its flocks no service, may also be a panic reaction about its own survival evidenced by plummeting mass attendance. In North Lanarkshire this dropped by 40% in just 18 years between 1984 and 2002, the latest figures available. In the same area, attendance at the Church of Scotland, while less than half that of the Catholic Church, has declined much more slowly: by less than a quarter. While I suspect that the Catholics are on balance more victims in this sectarianism, the integration of schools — into ones with no confessional teaching — must be made an absolute priority in strife-torn areas. As with multi-religious/multi-ethnic/multicultural areas south of the border, a prerequisite to integration is children from the whole community being educated together.

Christian group seeks to take over library from council

As the cuts in the public sector deepen we are seeing more and more incursions by religious groups into services that were once considered the responsibility of local authorities. Last week in Perivale, west London, a Christian group offered to run the local library, which the Council was proposing to close as part of its economy measures.

At a meeting of local residents, Philip Edwards, pastor of Hope Community Centre, responded to the council’s request for volunteers to help run the libraries at reduced cost. Mr Edwards said:

“The library is open 33 hours a week at the moment. We could open it as a library for at least 25 hours from Wednesday afternoon to Saturday and we could use it the rest of the week.”

Indeed, the church is at present holding its services at Horsenden Primary School, so a nice little council-owned property that could be used for that purpose would be very welcome. It is significant that the group does not propose to open the library on Sunday – not for library purposes, anyway.

Pastor Edwards said:

“We want to be in the community, I realise that people are nervous of any religious group taking it over. We want to go along and change things in society for good. If we can do something together, let’s do it.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:

“The prospect of some evangelical group taking over a library raises all kinds of issues. Not only the fact that they intend to install their church rent free on the premises, but we do not know what kind of censorship policy — overt or covert — they would operate. Churches are for praying and saving souls, not running civic services. Let’s hope the residents of Perivale can find some other way of keeping their library open.”

Opposition grows to Catholic school in Richmond

After it was revealed that the counselling and welfare of school children in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames had been handed over to an anti-gay Catholic group, a new row has erupted over the establishment of a Catholic school in the borough.

Despite a poll by the local paper showing 63% of residents opposed the creation of the proposed Catholic secondary school, the local council has supported the plan.

At a packed public meeting, Lord True, leader of Richmond Council, said that the Pope’s speech to youngsters in Richmond last year made him realise “how sad it was” they had no Catholic secondary education in the borough.

He said: “I thought this is a long standing aspiration of this Council and community and it would be great if, in memory of the papal visit and in answer to those aspirations, we could do something.” He said:

“I am not a Catholic, but the challenge and the spirituality of the present Pope are of enormous contemporary relevance. He has put forward arguments which need to be listened to by people.”

But the newly formed Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign said it was disappointed no councillors spoke on behalf of residents who oppose the policy. Indeed, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for education and schools on the council, councillor Malcolm Eady, pledged his group’s support for the policy, but said he would be surprised if the Government offered funding.

The Inclusive Schools Campaign said the majority of its supporters were parents and included two school governors, along with religious and non-religious residents. Group member Jennifer Singer said:

“Given high demand for places among residents, Richmond’s new schools must be open to all children.”

Lord True said he hoped to announce details of the council’s plans by the summer.

But the Catholic Church is turning out its big guns to push its claims. The Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, stepped in to the argument, saying:

“I fully support the desire and aspirations of parents in Richmond for a Catholic secondary school. I understand that this is a matter which has been the subject of plans and wishes over a number of years, and that the local authority is keen to have, and is supportive of, such a project.”

What the Archbishop did not reveal was that when he was Archbishop of Wales he had said that gay people living in relationships should not be permitted to be teachers. In 2005 he told Wales on Sunday:

“It’s not just about somebody being a good teacher – it’s more than that. Someone living a life in manifest contradiction to the Church’s doctrine would not, in my view, be suitable to be employed by the Catholic Church. It would not give the right example to staff or pupils. When it comes to Catholic teaching, we expect teachers in all our schools to uphold the Catholic ethos. If someone is living a lifestyle which is in conflict to the moral teaching of the church then there is a real difficulty.”

Jeremy Rodell, chairman of the South West London Humanists, countered:

“Our campaign against this school is not anti-Catholic, we are saying the proposal is unfair and discriminative for taxpayers, including the 90 per cent who are not Catholic. To have to fund a school which is socially divisive against most people in the area and provides privileges to a small minority, that just seems completely wrong.”

Vatican looking for new ally in ambition to dominate European Union

The Vatican is supporting the ambitions of Croatia to become a full member of the European Union on the assumption that this overwhelmingly Catholic country will be an ally in the pope’s desire to see Europe once more under Catholic control.

“Affirming that Europe does not have Christian roots would be the equivalent to pretending that a person could live without oxygen or food,” the pope said in a message welcoming Croatia’s new ambassador, Filip Vucak, to the “Holy See”.

Mr Ratzinger also said that “irritating voices contest the reality of Europe’s religious roots with surprising regularity. And he urged Croatia, where nearly 90 per cent of the population is claimed as Catholic, not to be afraid to insist that the EU respect “its cultural and religious identity”.

Croatia hopes to become a full EU member in 2013 or 2014 after the expected passage of a national referendum later this year. The pope will reinforce his influence by visiting the Croatian capital of Zagreb on 4–5 June.

The pope told Mr Vucak:

“I am sure that your country will be able to defend its identity with conviction and pride, avoiding the new obstacles that, under the pretext of a misunderstood idea of religious freedom, are contrary to natural law, the family and — quite simply — morals.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said:

“Here we have the Vatican’s classic techniques of manipulation and control all summed up in a couple of sentences. The pope talks of Croatia’s ‘religious identity’ as though it was a foregone conclusion because 90% of the population were baptised as babes in arms. There is no reason not to think that the abandonment of the Catholic Church that is happening in other parts of Europe isn’t also happening in Croatia.  He talks of ‘natural law’. But in Vatican-speak ‘natural’ is whatever the pope decrees is natural. And when the pope involves ‘the family’, gay people had better watch out. And, as for morality – well, I wonder if the Church in Croatia — which has an iron grip on the country — is being more successful at covering up priestly child abuse than other societies? And as for the ‘irritating voices’ he complains of – that, presumably, would be anybody who dares to disagree with him.”

Sex allegations against clergy cost US Catholic Church $2.34 billion since 2004

In 2010 alone, the clerical abuse scandal cost American dioceses $123.7 million, according to an annual report released on April 11 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Only 70% of those funds were allotted to settlements ($70.4 million), therapy for abuse victims ($6.4 million) and support for offenders ($9.9 million). The rest was spent on attorneys’ fees ($33.9 million) and “other costs” ($3.1 million).

The clerical abuse scandal cost religious institutes an additional $25.9 million in 2010. These expenses brought the total cost of the clerical abuse scandal to American dioceses and religious institutes between 2004 and 2009 to $2.344 billion: $2.021billion for dioceses and eparchies, and $0.323 billion for religious institutes.

In addition, American dioceses spent nearly $21 million in 2010 on safe environment programs and background checks.

The report found that 428 new credible allegations of child sexual abuse were lodged against 345 diocesan priests or deacons in 2010. Only seven of the 428 allegations involved those who are currently minors; the other allegations were made by adults who allege they were abused as minors. In all, 74 abuse allegations since 2004 have involved those who were minors in the year of the allegation.

Of the 428 new credible allegations, 82% involved male victims, with 20% of victims under the age of ten.

“Two-thirds of new allegations (66 percent) occurred or began between 1960 and 1984,” the report continued. “The most common time period for allegations reported in 2010 was 1970–1974. This is approximately the same time pattern that has been reported in previous years, with most allegations reportedly occurring or beginning between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s.”

“Of the 428 new credible allegations reported in 2010, 71 new allegations (17 percent) were unsubstantiated or determined to be false by 31 December 2010,” the report added. “In addition, 25 allegations received prior to 2010 were unsubstantiated or determined to be false during 2010.”

Thirty of the allegations involved abuse that allegedly took place in 2010, rather than in a previous year. Following investigation by law enforcement, eight allegations (27%) were determined to be credible, seven (23%) were determined to be false, three (10%) remained under investigation, and 12 (40%) were determined to be boundary violations, not sexual abuse. Examples of boundary violations cited in the report included “kissing girls on top of the head, inappropriate hugging, and an adult patting a minor on the knee. In all cases civil authorities were called, and an investigation was conducted; also in all cases the civil authorities concluded there was no sexual misconduct.” Twelve (40%) of these 30 allegations involved foreign priests.

Only 72% of religious communities responded to a request for information by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. According to these surveys, male religious communities received “77 new credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor committed by a priest or deacon of the community, all of which are alleged to have occurred prior to 2010.” 77% of the victims were male; 19% were under age ten.


Newsline – 15th April 2011

Newsline is the weekly newsletter from the National Secular Society.  Every week we collate the stories and issues or most importance to our members and offer reportage and insight.  Our audio edition takes the main stories and offers them in an easy-to-listen podcast, available online and via iTunes subscription (for free).

Join Britain’s only organisation working exclusively towards a secular society


You can also subscribe to the audio version for FREE using iTunes: Newsline - The Weekly Newsletter from the NSS

In this week’s Newsline

  • NSS intervenes in school transport decision
  • NSS urges MEPs to support labelling of religiously slaughtered meat
  • Protest at creationists in CofE school
  • Government reinforces its support for religious schools
  • Britain will never be a unified nation until people are freed from religious labels
  • Catholic agency commissioned to give advice on contraception and abortion in Richmond schools
  • Faith-based welfare arrives

NSS Intervenes in School Transport Decision

Durham County Council has held talks with a group of Catholic leaders who are trying to persuade councillors to drop their plans to cut cash subsidies for transport to religious schools.

After the 45 minutes behind-closed-doors meeting at Durham’s County Hall the “faith leaders” said they had raised hopes that some kind of deal could be reached. Stephen Hughes, Labour MEP for the North-East and a Catholic, said: “I think we’ve hit the mark.”

But the National Secular Society has now intervened and said that such subsidies are discriminatory, unjust and long overdue for the axe. In a letter to Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council, Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, wrote:

The National Secular Society has been researching the costs incurred by local authorities in providing subsidies for transport to religious schools. Our latest Freedom of Information request on this issue showed Durham County Council to have the second highest school transport costs of around a hundred authorities checked. The average was less than £400,000 but for Durham the cost was over £2,000,000.

These huge subsidies provided to pupils at religious schools amount to religious discrimination. Although all taxpayers have to contribute towards the £2,000,000 cost, only a very small proportion can access this money. In all parts of the country including the North East (as we know from complaints), this has led to gross discrimination – such as children attending the same school and travelling on the same bus being treated differently. Some have to pay the full fare while those whose parents purport to be religious being funded fully by the taxpayer.

Although the Catholic leaders reported in the Northern Echo to have been granted special access to the Council have a right to make their voice heard, it should not be heard any more loudly than anyone else’s.

School transport to “faith” schools is already discriminatory; because much longer, and hence more expensive, journeys are routinely paid for to such schools than to any others. Indeed, because of the distances involved, subsidies on journeys to Catholic schools are on average almost certainly the highest per pupil and, and even more so, per family (arising from the number of children being subsidised).

… The Council has to make huge savings. It should stand firm in its proposals to cut this objectionable discrimination and ensure that the money saved can help reduce the impact of other service cuts on the whole community.

Stephen Hughes said:

“We’ve made clear how disproportionate an impact stopping school transport would have on the faith community.”

Keith Porteous Wood responded:

“This is intensively selfish special pleading for even more privilege for those who purport to be religious. We also know that many of them are not – they simply pretend to be to get their children into religious schools because they think they perform better. The whole community is suffering because of these cuts, and the Catholic Church is going to have to take its share of the pain.”

The NSS wrote in similar terms to the leader of Surrey County Council which is also under intense pressure from religious interests after announcing cuts in “faith school” transport .

If you live in Surrey, the Council’s consultation is still open.

NSS Urges MEPs to Support Labelling of Religiously Slaughtered Meat

The National Secular Society has written to members of The European Parliament ENVI committee (Committee on the Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety) urging them to support an amendment to food labelling legislation that would ensure meat from slaughter without stunning is accurately labelled.

The amendment, tabled by Dutch MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, restores the European Parliament’s first reading position which MEPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of last year, but was later dropped by the Council of Ministers.

The Committee is expected to vote on the latest amendments on Tuesday 19 April, ahead of reaching a second reading position in Parliament in July.

In a letter to European Parliamentarians Keith Porteous Wood said:

“An argument often put forward by religious groups against labelling of products from religious slaughter is that this proposal would be discriminatory and would cause prejudice. However, to uphold their objection is to discriminate against the majority of consumers, denying them any right of choice and deliberately misleading them about the source of their meat. We believe such concerns are not sufficient to deny consumers more accurate information.

“Another reason advanced against labelling is the potential loss of income to the kosher industry, making it uneconomic. This reason implicitly accepts two powerful arguments put forward for labelling: that a material proportion of those buying meat that is not pre-stunned would not do so if they knew its source and that the quantities involved are substantial. It glosses over two further — understandably unstated — ethically dubious underlying assumptions, that:

1. It is acceptable to mislead the public in this way, and the legislative process should be complicit in this deceit.

2. The necessity to subsidise the religious slaughter industry is more important than informing customers that meat they buy has been slaughtered in a way that they would not like and may consider unnecessarily cruel.

“The debate should, however, consider the impact on consumers in this regard, a significant number of whom would be alarmed to find that simply not buying or eating labelled halal and kosher meat does not mean that they have avoided it.

“As long as religious groups retain the privilege of an exemption from legislation aimed at ensuring animals do not suffer “any avoidable distress or pain”, we maintain it is only fair that consumers have the right to information that enables them to make an informed choice to avoid such products. We believe that the proposed requirement for non pre-stunned meat to be labelled fits with the current trend to inform consumers about the content and provenance of the food they buy.”

The NSS has also been in correspondence with James Paice MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, who despite stating that he would like to introduce labelling to inform consumers whether or not meat has been stunned before slaughter, failed to support the amendment at the Council of Ministers which would have made this possible.

Protests at Creationist in CofE School

A mother has withdrawn her children from worship at a Church of England school in Exeter following a controversial visit by a creationist.

Laura Horner claims that Philip Bell, who runs the UK arm of Creation Ministries International, visited St Peter’s Church of England Aided School (i.e. controlled by the Church but paid for by the state) with the aim of evangelising his young earth creationist views. Among its beliefs are that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and dinosaurs roamed the English countryside in Tudor times.

Mr Bell spoke for an hour and a half to all 250 students in Year 11, who are preparing to take their religious education GCSE.

Mrs Horner claimed the visit was inappropriate because the views were presented as scientific. She said:

“Mr Bell is a full-time employee of a fundamentalist evangelising organisation. The school has failed in its duty of care to the students and promoted religious dogma in place of objective teaching.”

Mrs Horner, who has a son in Year 11 and a daughter in Year 10, is very concerned about the proportion of time given to school visitors that are not from the Church of England.

She told the Express & Echo newspaper:

“When we chose St Peter’s, we thought the children would receive a C of E education and format of worship. We have concluded that the school has more leanings towards the fundamental churches and their teachings rather than the C of E. I think it’s important children are exposed to a range of beliefs, but at a C of E school the emphasis should be on C of E. Reluctantly, we’ve made the decision to remove the children from worship at the school.

“I’m concerned about what will happen if the school becomes an academy and has free choice over its curriculum.”

Her son Jamie, 16, claimed some pupils were left “confused” about their beliefs.  He said:

“It felt like he was advertising Christianity. I didn’t get much out of his visit. Also, the school has various visits from baptist churches but not many from C of E churches. I think the school should have more C of E visits.”

St Peter’s headteacher Mark Perry defended Mr Bell’s talk. He said:

“Creationism is on the GCSE syllabus so we had a creationist come to speak about it. I think it’s a terrific way of teaching kids RE. No one was suggesting he was right or wrong. He gave his point of view and answered questions. His visit was followed up in the classroom where the pupils examined the arguments. It’s our duty to give children access to lots of points of view. It in no way compromises our position as a Church of England community.”

Government Reinforces Its Support For Religious Schools

The commitment and enthusiasm of the Coalition Government to sectarian schooling shows no sign of abating. In fact, a reply written to one of our members (Steve Taylor) from the Prime Minister’s office indicates that it is getting stronger and a statement in parliament from the Minister for Education is even more extreme.

Writing to David Cameron about his speech on multiculturalism, Steve Taylor had made the point that “faith schools” were surely one of the elements that reinforced barriers between communities. But responding on behalf of the Prime Minister, Catherine Else wrote:

This Government greatly values the contribution that faith schools make to the education sector by providing high quality school places and choice for parents.

In our coalition document The Coalition: our programme for government and again in The importance of teaching: Schools White Paper 2010, we stated that we want to offer parents and children a diverse education system consisting of a wide variety of providers.

Faith schools have been, and remain, an important element of that provision and this Government remains committed in their support for them.

Faith schools are no less committed to community cohesion than other schools. Indeed an independent report commissioned by the Church of England (26th November 2009) analysing Ofsted judgments on the extent to which schools promote community cohesion highlighted that, for secondary schools, faith schools have higher on average gradings than community schools.

The same is true for promoting equality of opportunity and eliminating discrimination – faith schools have higher gradings on average than community schools.

Abolishing faith schools would mean taking around a third of our maintained schools out of the education system, something which I think you would agree would not be practicable, particularly as the majority of the faith groups that established these schools provided the land and buildings in the first place at no cost to the public purse. It is also important to remember that faith schools are very popular with parents and that abolishing them would give parents less choice, not more, of high quality school places.

And then this exchange happened in the House of Commons during a session on Education Questions on 21 March .

David Wright (Labour MP for Telford): There are many Members in the House, including me, who believe that religious education provides an important moral platform for life. There is a feeling, however, that the Secretary of State has downgraded religious education in our schools. Will he get up and confirm that he has not done so?

Michael Gove (Minister for Education): I do not know where that feeling comes from. Speaking as someone who is happy to be a regular attender at Church of England services, and whose own children attend a Church of England school, I recommend that the hon. Gentleman read the recent article that I penned for The Catholic Herald, a newspaper that is now required reading in the Department for Education. The article makes clear my commitment to faith schools of every stripe.

Britain Will Never Be A Unified Nation Until People Are Freed From Religious Labels

Editorial by Terry Sanderson

David Cameron has reopened the immigration debate this week with a speech that most political leaders make at some point in their career. It goes like this: “the voters are concerned about the level of immigration into the country. We recognise that, and this time we’re going to do something about it.”

At one point in the speech he says:

Real communities are bound by common experiences … forged by friendship and conversation … knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub. And these bonds can take time. So real integration takes time.

That’s why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods … perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there … on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate … that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.

So what’s the reality of this need to integrate and what is the Government doing to encourage it?

The Guardian ran two stories last week that tell us something not only about the Guardian (which increasingly seems to think that Muslim separatism is not only acceptable but even desirable) but also about the way that “multiculturalism” continues to build dangerous barriers between the people of this country.

The first story concerned efforts to bring children from a Muslim school and a Catholic school together so that they could get to know one another.

This sounds like a worthwhile thing to do until you suddenly realise that they aren’t being introduced to each other as people but as “Muslimchildren” and “Catholicchildren”. The barriers between them that this is supposed to break down are actually being reinforced by this emphasis on their religious differences.

They are being taught to relate to each other almost as though they were inhabitants of different planets rather than as citizens of the same nation.

It is tragic that children have to be given such an artificial opportunity to interact with each other on the grounds that their parents have a different religion. The tragedy is that they would never encounter each other if these totally contrived meetings weren’t arranged.

And why wouldn’t they ever meet? Because they are separated not only by different economic circumstances, but by a foolish insistence that their titular religion marks them out as different.

Tackling the lack of opportunity and education that some minority communities experience is something for the politicians. But the lack of social unity is something that could — and should be — addressed in schools.

If state religious schools were outlawed, children would automatically encounter each other. There would be problems, there would be racism, there would be a long process of integration. But for all our sakes the process should be started – and quickly.

But as the letter from the Department of Education (reproduced in the story above) shows, the Government is wedded to the idea that schools based on sectarianism and religious separatism are a good idea. They intend to create more and more of them.

And the result? Well, let’s take a look at the other story from the Guardian.

In this, we read of efforts to create opportunities for “Muslim girls”. In this story the nouns “women” or “girls” seem to be inseparable from the adjective “Muslim”. What are these creatures “Muslimwomen” and “Muslimgirls”? Is “Muslim” a sort of inescapable genetic characteristic like race or gender? You’d think so from this.

The whole thrust of this article seems to suggest that these girls are incapable of functioning outside the “Muslim” world, as though they are unable — because of their involuntary designation as Muslims — to be anything else.

They all seem to want to be something more than merely “Muslimwomen” or “Muslimgirls” but at the same time they are not permitted to think of themselves as people with all the potential that being a person, an individual with a mind of their own, can bring.

Mr Cameron might well bleat about the failure of “state multiculturalism” but while his Government colludes in this increasing insistence on giving everyone an identity that is primarily, and on occasion totally, religious, we will never have even a semblance of unity in this country.

Catholic Agency Commissioned To Give Advice on Contraception and Abortion in Richmond Schools

In a move that almost defies parody, the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames has awarded a contract worth £89,000 to the Catholic Children’s Society to “help and support students in the borough’s schools.”

Councillor Stephen Knight, leader of Richmond’s Liberal Democrat group, was quick to point out at a meeting on Tuesday that pupils who want advice on issues such as homosexuality or sexual health may be reluctant to ask a group that “requires counsellors to uphold the Catholic ethos”.

Councillor Christine Percival, cabinet member for education, youth and children’s services at Richmond Council, said Catholic Children’s Society staff were accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and its application for the job was “way better than anyone else’s”. She added: “I have no concerns that they will not carry out an excellent job.”

But Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said:

“What on earth was the council thinking about in appointing such a partisan and dogmatic organisation to provide counselling and support services? The Catholic Children’s Society went so far as to dump its adoption service because of the Government’s insistence that they consider gay couples as adopters. So what kind of reception would a gay child get if it came to one of their counsellors for advice? What sort of advice would a specifically Catholic agency with an instruction to uphold Catholic teaching tell a girl who came to them for contraceptive advice? Surely the council could have found a non-sectarian service that wouldn’t pose these sorts of problems?”

Mr Sanderson said the Council should think again about this decision and ask why it was made in the first place.

Faith-Based Welfare Arrives

The Government has been telling us long enough that it intends to hand over more and more welfare and support services to religious groups and now it has made a start.

The Guardian reported on Tuesday that the Eaves Housing charity that pioneered specialist services for victims of sexual trafficking, providing refuge and therapeutic support for hundreds of abused and exploited women has had its funding withdrawn. Its work has been handed to the Salvation Army with a Government contract of £6m.

Abigail Stepnitz, national co-ordinator for the Poppy Project said that, according to their calculations, the new contract would reduce funding by 60% per victim. This meant it would be impossible to offer anything more than a limited service to victims, many of whom need intensive psychological support, she said.

“We are concerned for the women in our care. We really do not know how we are going to be able to offer appropriate care for these women.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said Eaves Housing “had done a very good job” in recent years, but the Salvation Army had put in a stronger bid for the contract, which has been widened to provide support for trafficked men as well as women. “Eaves are upset and it’s not great for them, but it’s much better for victims of trafficking,” said the spokesperson.

The Salvation Army, which states that one of its main charitable aims is “to reach people with the Christian gospel through evangelism”, said its religious underpinning was not a factor.

“We are a faith-based organisation and we are motivated by our faith, but it’s really important that we provide holistic care for all those who come under the auspices of our care.”

The Poppy Project was held up as an exemplary project in a study by the analysts New Philanthropy Capital in a 2008 report. It said:

“Many of the experts that NPC consulted felt it was important that trafficked women be given support from specialist, women-only organisations with a track record in working with victims of extreme sexual violence and therefore have a deep understanding of what women need.”

In a letter to the Guardian, Professor Liz Kelly, Co-chair, End Violence Against Women Coalition and Vivienne Hayes, Chief executive, Women’s Resource Centre, wrote:

We are deeply concerned that this appears to be an ideological move to award public-sector contracts to religious groups in order to bring them into the “big society”, rather than an evidenced decision based on the interests of such women. There is a wealth of evidence to show that women who have experienced violence want a specialist service that understands their needs.

We question how the government will ensure that religious organisations will not discriminate against women and make moral judgments about their situations and needs. How will the government make sure that human rights standards to which they are committed are fulfilled? For example, how will the Salvation Army respond to lesbians or women who need abortion advice?

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said:

“The awarding of this contract is not only a means of saving money, it is also an ideological gesture towards the so-called faith communities which have been putting immense pressure on the Government to hand over services to them. We have no idea whether the Salvation Army will run this service in a non-evangelical manner – we have to take their word for it and wait for complaints. It is entirely wrong to put such a sensitive service, which will also have to serve the needs of women who are not Christian, into the hands of such an evangelical organisation.”

Meanwhile, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, warns that human trafficking could increase substantially during the Olympic Games in 2012. She said London could become a “magnet” for traffickers unless ministers launch an urgent crackdown.

She said:

“The Government must wake up to the risk that traffickers will seek to profit from the 2012 Games and take action to make sure this event does not make the situation worse.”

The Government has only recently opted-in to the EU Human Trafficking Directive—which seeks to combat the trade in sex slaves.

Newsline – 8th April 2011

Newsline is the weekly newsletter from the National Secular Society.  Every week we collate the stories and issues or most importance to our members and offer reportage and insight.  Our audio edition takes the main stories and offers them in an easy-to-listen podcast, available online and via iTunes subscription (for free).

Join Britain’s only organisation working exclusively towards a secular society


You can also subscribe to the audio version for FREE using iTunes: Newsline - The Weekly Newsletter from the NSS

In this week’s Newsline

  • Catholic Church hopes The Big Society will increase its influence
  • Bishops’ bench will survive in reformed House of Lords
  • Ending religious schools’ transport privilege “breaches human rights”, says churchman
  • Exploitative church rakes in millions from taxpayer – Charity Commission unconcerned
  • French secularism in trouble as it becomes a political football
  • Hand over the money, Irish government tells religious orders
  • Catholic Church Losing Influence in Latin America

Catholic Church hopes The Big Society will increase its influence

A conference this week showed just how the Catholic Church is preparing itself for increased social and political influence which it hopes to attain by exploiting the Government’s “Big Society” idea.

One of the speakers at the Catholic-organised London conference entitled “Building a new culture of social responsibility” was Baroness Warsi, co-chair of the Conservative Party. She said the Catholic Church “has the power, creativity and ability to change communities through its social action, now that the old system of top-down government has failed Britain and its deeply divided society”. She urged Catholics to continue their work that would help society move away “from a big, bossy state”.

The conference was attended by around 200 Catholic bishops, charity directors, politicians, Lords, academics and thinkers who are examining the methods by which they will be able to bring as much social provision under Catholic control as possible.

Baroness Warsi went on to say that the State had “sapped” responsibility from individuals and that the “top-down, big Government approach” had “failed Britain. She added: “This Government recognises and respects the role that religion and “people of faith” play in our society.”

The Conference was well aware that the Government was not going to provide the money for their big expansion plans, but as the Catholic propagandist Austen Ivereigh wrote in America magazine:

Church charities are more protected than others: nine out of ten of them receive less than 40 per cent of their support from the state. That means that in five years time Catholic and other faith charities are likely to play a relatively larger role; they’ll still be standing while other NGOs created by state funding have gone to the wall. This should lead to a bigger political influence.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:

“This gives us a glimpse into the future where religious organisations see themselves playing a very large and dominating role in many people’s lives. We have seen from the experience of the United States how ruthless and relentless the Catholic Church can be in pushing their teachings as the cost of accessing their social provisions. There is no reason to think it will be any different here once they have the reins of power.”

Bishops’ bench will survive in reformed House of Lords

It was revealed this week that the bench of bishops will be retained as part of proposed reforms to the House of Lords, although their numbers will be reduced. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Tuesday that the Government will be publishing a draft bill in May.

Mr Clegg has had to concede that his preference for a fully-elected second chamber would be unlikely to pass and about 60 peers will still be appointed, including a number of Church of England bishops.

At present 26 bishops sit as of right in the House of Lords and this number is likely to be reduced, probably to 16.

The Press Association reported the president of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, saying:

“The coalition has lost its nerve and as a result the House of Lords will remain a place of privilege and cronyism – as well as many ridiculous anachronisms, not least of which is the presence of the bishops. The abolition of the bench of bishops, in its entirety, is long overdue.

“How can a modern democracy function properly when it retains elements of theocracy? The UK is the only Western nation to invite clerics into its parliament, just like Iran.

“Instead, we now have a proposal to significantly reduce the number of bishops. But we fear that this will now result in even more representatives from other religions being introduced into Parliament.

“The Government should realise that it can’t win with this approach – where do you stop, given that there are hundreds of different religions represented in Britain. How do you avoid resentment from those who don’t get a place? The coalition should have the courage to secularise the new upper House and rid themselves once and for all of the unnecessary complication of religious representation.”

Ending religious schools’ transport privilege “breaches human rights”, says churchman

Plans by Durham County Council to cut subsidised transport to religious schools have been condemned by a Catholic leader as being a threat to the “human rights” of parents.

Joseph Hughes, director of the Roman Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle’s education service who oversees much of the region’s Catholic education, said Durham County Council’s proposals undermined a 60-year-old legal principle that there should be financial help available for faith school travel costs and threatened a parent’s right to freedom of choice.

He said:

“We are strongly opposed to these proposals. I can’t make it any clearer than that.”

But Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:

“I don’t know what legal principle Mr Hughes is talking about, it’s not one that I know of. The provision of these financial privileges solely to people who claim to be religious is discriminatory, unjust and probably illegal.”

Catholic priests in the area are urging parents to complain to the Council, which is carrying out a consultation on the issue which closes on Tuesday.

Exploitative church rakes in millions from taxpayer – Charity Commission unconcerned

According to The Times, the Charity Commission is refusing to investigate the activities of a controversial Pentecostal church, The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), which the paper says is exploiting its congregations and amassing a fortune on the backs of some of the poorest people in London. The Times says UCKG has encouraged its members to get themselves into debt and ignore bills in order to donate more money to the church.

The Times investigation showed that since 2003 the UCKG (the Church) had also benefited from almost £8 million in taxpayer subsidies through the Gift Aid scheme. Gift Aid is a government scheme that allows registered charities, including churches, to claim back the income tax paid by supporters on donations, including their collections. (Changes to the Gift Aid rules announced in the Budget last week are likely to make it even easier for all churches to claim a public subsidy despite the serious concerns raised about its conduct.)

The paper reports:

The Church’s accounts also reveal that the UCKG owns a large portfolio of freehold and leasehold property. In 2009–10, the church reported that it had £33.7 million in fixed assets, despite having operated in the UK for only 16 years. Last year it spent three quarters of total donations on the purchase of more than £7 million of fixed assets. A spokesman for the church says: “We acquire properties because, unlike other churches, we have not had the chance to build a portfolio over a thousand years. We currently own 11 freehold properties, which were purchased over a 16-year period from 1995. We also work from a further 14 leasehold properties. All 25 properties operate as ‘Help Centres’.”

The Church’s accounts also state that services collectively brought in £9,683,234 of donations, equivalent to £248,288 per congregation — more than ten times the amount raised by the Church of England per congregation.

Times Money‘s initial investigation in November found that the Church was encouraging worshippers to sell all their possessions and even default on bills to make large donations. Pastors taught that gifts to the church, which they represented as gifts to God, were necessary to secure the Lord’s intervention and bring about earthly prosperity and salvation.

The Church even used sessions supposedly designed to help worshippers with financial troubles to elicit more cash. At one such session, witnessed by Times Money, the pastor encouraged his congregation to give money in exchange for strips of his tie, which he said were invested with God’s power to make financial miracles. Our investigation also uncovered that the Church was using demonstrably false testimonies by worshippers to encourage donations from others. At the time of Times Money‘s initial investigation, the Church said that it asked people at financial help sessions to donate money because it gave them “a sense of self-worth and communal involvement”. However, the Church now denies encouraging worshippers into debt.

Despite The Times‘ findings, the Charity Commission said last month that it would not investigate the UCKG, saying the investigation did not demonstrate either “a serious risk of harm to beneficiaries” or “pressure on vulnerable beneficiaries”, the grounds on which it might have intervened.

French secularism in trouble as it becomes a political football
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

On Monday, France will implement a new law against face-coverings in public places. Women who wear face-covering Muslim veils, including the hijab and burka, in “the street and areas open to the public, as well as cinemas, restaurants, stations, public transport or schools” will be fined £125 or ordered to follow citizenship classes, or both. Veils must also be removed while driving, while crossing borders or taking part in official ceremonies to acquire French nationality.

Husbands and fathers who force such veils on women and girls risk a year of prison and a £25,000 fine, with both penalties doubled if the victim is a minor.

But the authorities in France know in their hearts that this is a law that cannot work. The Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, has issued a nine-page document telling the police to move carefully and with great diplomacy when trying to enforce the law. He says that women wearing the full veil cannot be forcibly obliged to remove it in public.

Officers who stop a woman wearing the garment must instead “invite the person to show their face in order to check their identity and establish a fine.” If the woman persists, officers are instructed to take her to the nearest police station “as a last resort,” but not to either place her in custody or keep her waiting for more than four hours. If she still refuses to comply, the rules state that police should contact the public prosecutor.

Rather than force, police are invited to employ “persuasion” and, where possible, involve a female officer.

The guidelines emphasise that the full veil ban does not apply in the home or to car passengers. Nor is the ban to be enforced in or around mosques, so as not to be “interpreted as an indirect restriction of religious freedom.” Police are also told not to go on “veil hunts” or to seek confrontation over the veil.

The law to “forbid concealing one’s face in public” was voted through last October after a year of heated national debate over the issue. Nine out of ten French people back it, a recent poll suggested.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has already described the burka as a “sign of debasement”, and women’s rights campaigners denounced it as “a walking coffin”. Michele Alliot-Marie, the former interior minister, said it “cuts [women] off from society and rejects the very spirit of the French republic, founded on a desire to live together.” Around 2,000 women, out of France’s 5 million Muslims, are estimated to wear the face-covering garments, according to interior ministry figures.

France banned wearing conspicuous religious symbols such as veils, Jewish skullcaps and crucifixes in schools in 2004.

The guidelines came as France’s ruling UMP party initiated a highly controversial debate on Islam and secularism on Tuesday. Organisers say it was to address changes in French society such as a growing demand for building mosques in a country where a 1905 law formally separates the Church and state.

It is quite clear that the issue of Islam is being used by established parties on the right to appeal to those French people who would otherwise be attracted to the ultra-rightwing National Front.

Secularism is being seen as a tool and an excuse by these right-wingers to punish and isolate Muslims. And this is probably something that has the Islamic extremists rubbing their hands with glee.

There is nothing they would like better than a Muslim population that feels aggrieved, discriminated against and even persecuted. It will drive more and more of them into the arms of radicalism. It will also enrage the liberals and leftists who feel it is their duty to protect Muslims from the bullying right.

At the same time, there is little doubt that Islamists have engineered many of the challenges that are being made to the secular ideal of France, and which enrage republicans.

French people who are deeply attached to the idea of separation of religion from the state are enraged by demands for only halal meat to be served in school canteens, for separate hours for Muslim women only in swimming pools, for state subsidies for the building of mosques, for special treatment in hospitals.

It is also clear that the new law will create confrontations over the burka with women refusing to remove it, refusing to pay fines and eventually being threatened with prison. It is a nightmare in the making.

The main casualty in all this will be laïcité — the French form of secularism — which will now be portrayed as discriminatory and Islamophobic. Many religious leaders boycotted the debate this week, saying it was an attempt to further push religion from public discourse. The Catholic Church, again using its age-old tactic of playing the victim, see how this wicked secularism creates disadvantage for Catholics as well as Muslims, they say.

During the debate it was said that France’s law of 1905, which separates church from state, needs to be updated to take into account the changes in French life. There were few Muslims in the country when it was implemented, but now there are between five and ten million and many new challenges to the concept of laïcité.

It was suggested that 26 changes would be made that would strengthen secularism in the light of the rise of Islam in the country.

But debating anything to do with Islam is fraught with danger. Even the title of the debate had to be changed from “Secularism and Islam” to the more anodyne “Secularism: Living better together”. Now the interior minister Claude Guéant has been threatened with prosecution by The Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples for supposedly “Islamophobic remarks” after he said: “This growth in the number of (Muslims) and a certain number of behaviours cause problems. There is no reason why the nation should accord to one particular religion more rights than religions that were formerly anchored in our country.”

So debate is rendered next to impossible by hair-trigger sensibilities that detect “Islamophobia” in anyone who tries to move the debate on.

It is this kind of chaos that the Islamists thrive upon. And it poses a severe threat to France’s secular tradition.

Hand over the money, Irish government tells religious orders

The Irish government is to ask religious orders to hand over title to property worth up to €200 million, the Department of Education has confirmed.

The €200 million is the shortfall the State considers it is owed by the 18 religious orders which agreed to share the cost of the €1.36 billion bill for survivors of institutional abuse.

Last year the 18 congregations named in the Ryan report on clerical sexual abuse agreed to pay €476 million towards the cost of compensation. As this is €200 million short of an even split of the bill with the State, proposals for the remaining payment are being sought.

It is understood the religious orders paid €128 million in 2002. Some €110 million was promised in cash and €235 million was promised in property. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has pointed out this amount leaves the €200 million shortfall, and he is now seeking the transfer to the State of the legal ownership of religious-owned schools to meet this deficit.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education last night confirmed Mr Quinn was seeking transfer of ownership of the some of the schools to the State, but even these are likely to become multi-denominational rather than secular schools.

Mr Quinn has indicated he did not want to bankrupt the religious orders and was not intending to change the structure by which the religious orders were able to continue to be in charge of the schools. The Church is still talking of a ‘minimum non-negotiable requirement’ with any schools transferred, insisting on no change on confessional religious instruction.

The Minister’s concern is said to be in relation to the amount of the total compensation bill which will have to be paid by the taxpayer, as well he might, given his Government’s parlous financial position. The current overwhelming dominance in the publicly funded sector of Catholic schools insisting on confessional religious instruction as part of the school day is believed by the Irish Human Rights Commission to breach the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The Executive Director of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, observed: “The Irish state is in unprecedented need of hard cash and the promised transfer of assets by the Church to the State achieves virtually nothing unless those assets are ones that can be realised, which cannot be true of the schools. The citizens of Ireland are in danger of being duped and abused yet again by their church and their Government.”

Catholic Church losing influence in Latin America

A leading expert on religion in Mexico has said that “Catholicism is destined to be abandoned” in the country and across Latin America. He bases his prediction on an analysis of census returns that show about 1,300 Mexicans leaving the church every day.

Roberto Blancarte said that this added up to some 4 million Mexicans defecting from the Church between 2000 and 2010. He said the decline had continued uninterrupted for 60 years and was escalating.

Blancarte — from the Colegio de Mexico and the National Autonomous University of Mexico — said that one of the main conclusions to be drawn from the 2010 census is that Mexico is no longer a predominantly Catholic country and has become a nation of religious pluralism. One of the fastest growing demographic groups is those who profess to have no religion: 5.2 million.

In 1950, 98.21 percent of Mexicans said they were Catholic; the latest figure shows that this has dropped to 83.9 percent.

Blancarte said that this change is not exclusive to Mexico but extends across the region. In Brazil, for example, surveys have found that Catholics make up less than 70 percent of the population.



Newsline – 1st April 2011

Newsline is the weekly newsletter from the National Secular Society.  Every week we collate the stories and issues or most importance to our members and offer reportage and insight.  Our audio edition takes the main stories and offers them in an easy-to-listen podcast, available online and via iTunes subscription (for free).

Join Britain’s only organisation working exclusively towards a secular society


You can also subscribe to the audio version for FREE using iTunes: Newsline - The Weekly Newsletter from the NSS

In this week’s Newsline

  • Gideons stopped from handing out Bibles in schools
  • Ending of transport subsidies outrages religious
  • Vatican disappointed by lack of enthusiasm for beatification
  • Pope is further out of step with American Catholics
  • Survivors Voice Europe launched in London
  • UN and defamation of religion
  • French secularism debate


Gideons Stopped From Handing Out Bibles In Schools

Fundamentalist Christians are furious about being banned from two schools in East Staffordshire.

The Gideons, a proselytising sect famous for leaving Bibles in hotel rooms, have been handing Bibles to young children during school assemblies but have now been denied entry to Abbot Beyne School in Winshill and Paget High School in Branston. John Taylor High School, in Barton under Needwood, has also ended the “tradition” of handing out Bibles to first-year pupils.

According to the Burton News, Gideons supporter Barry Martin fumed: “We live in a Christian country. I think that if the Gideons want to offer Bibles to children then they should be allowed to do so. Banning them is not right because these schools are trying to silence Christianity and we must fight to defend it. Christians make this world a better place.”

Maggie Tate, deputy head teacher of Abbot Beyne School, said:

“The reason we stopped the Gideons coming in is that we are a comprehensive multi-faith school. We felt it was inappropriate to allow one faith group to distribute material in school.”

She said all Abbot Beyne pupils were given moral-themed assemblies and that the school had the highest proportion of pupils in Staffordshire sitting GCSEs in religious education.

Paget High School head teacher Don Smith said:

“As a non-denominational school we do not allow any religious groups to come in and give out literature. If we allowed the Gideons into school then we would have to allow other groups too. While we teach pupils about different religions, we do not want people coming in to the school and pushing their own religious views.”

Last week the NSS received an email from an angry parent who said that her nine-year old son had been given a Gideon Bible at school and told it was the “most important book you will ever read – far more important that any science book.”

Ending of transport subsidies outrages religious

Catholic parents in Hampshire, Durham, West Sussex and Suffolk are protesting because they will have to pay the transport costs of their children to go to religious schools as local authorities cut back on subsidies. One mother, Helen Tyler in Hampshire, has branded the plans “discriminatory”, complaining that he will be forced to pay more than £2,000 over 12 months to send her daughter and three sons to their nearest Catholic secondary school — Oaklands in Waterlooville — compared with the £380 she paid this year.

Her children are among 808 who benefit from subsidised travel to faith schools, which the council wants to scrap to make £325,000 savings. Mrs Tyler claimed: ‘We are being discriminated against because of our faith.”

County education boss Cllr Roy Perry said the council had to make £20m savings out of the children’s service budget. He said: ‘This proposal is not intended to be discriminatory – some people would argue giving extra benefits to faith school pupils to get heavily subsidised travel to a school far away from their home is an additional benefit and at taxpayers’ expense. However, I have to stress proposals are still under consultation and all views will be taken into account.’ Consultation ends on 8 April.”

As Durham County Council also moves towards removing the subsidies, Maria Matthews, headteacher at St Bede’s Catholic School, in Lanchester, has written to parents calling for urgent action. The proposals were “largely prejudicial against Catholic families”, she wrote, adding: “St Bede’s must not become a school for families who can afford the bus fare.”

Durham County Council, which faces cuts of £125m over four years, wants to cut £5.5m from its home-to-school and college transport budget, including more than £1m from faith school transport. Council chiefs are proposing to axe such free transport from September next year, except where legal requirements exist (for the children of less well-off families, for example). The Consultation closes on Tuesday, 10 May.

West Sussex council is also proposing to cut transport subsidies to faith schools and is presently consulting on the matter. So is Suffolk County Council where a protest group called Parents Against Public Transport Cuts has been formed. One member, Eleanor Davison, whose three daughters attend St Louis Middle School, said:

“These proposed cuts and additional charges effectively put a stop to parental choice for those of a lower or lower-middle income. Those who send their children to the Roman Catholic schools in Bury usually have very strong religious reasons for doing so. Many families will be unable to afford to send their children to their nearest faith school.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:

“Cries of discrimination are misplaced when you consider that these subsidies are a privilege reserved for religious people alone and are of questionable legality. Apparently not satisfied with the provision of segregated schooling at taxpayers’ expense, these vested interests think we should also pay huge amounts to transport the children large distances to get to them. The ending of this scandalous discrimination is long overdue. It is just a shame that it took a financial crisis to bring it about.”

Vatican disappointed by lack of enthusiasm for beatification

After the over-the-top coverage of the pope’s visit to the UK last year, the BBC has surprised the Vatican by declining to give wall-to-wall coverage of the “beatification” ceremony of the previous pontiff, John Paul II. The ceremony, on May 1, will only be covered by BBC News and Radio 4’s Sunday programme, which will broadcast its edition from St Peter’s Square before the service begins.

Similarly, Sky News — which also gave hours of ludicrously fawning coverage to the pope’s visit — said that it would have a crew present in Rome, but the amount of time it gave to the event would depend on other news that day.

There is little interest among Catholics for the “beatification” ceremony. The Vatican has downsized the event from its original prediction of 2.5 million attendees to 300,000.

Even Polish tour operators are reporting problems finding customers interested in going to the Vatican, for what is regarded as a major step in the canonisation process of the Polish Pope.

“We still have many vacancies,” says Agata Mueck from Orlando Travel, quoted in the Metro daily, which offers a 6-day trip to Rome in an air-conditioned coach.

“Nobody has contacted us yet about the trip to the Vatican. We’ll wait until 5 April and if we don’t find any clients, we’ll cancel the reservation in a hotel near Rome,” says Artur Krowiak from Barthur.

Churches, which also are also organising beatification trips, have not managed to attract many people, either. Priests from St. James the Apostle Church in the eastern city of Lublin admit that only a half of the coach heading to Rome for a 6-day trip will be filled.

Pope is further out of step with American Catholics

Two polls in America illustrate just how out of step the Catholic Church is with the people it purports to represent – at least in the USA. The polls show that Catholics are significantly more supportive of gay rights than even the population at large.

One was for the Washington Post-ABC News and the other was from the Public Religion Research Institute which showed a more comprehensive portrait of Catholic attitudes on gay and lesbian issues.

Protection of gay people against workplace discrimination is favoured by 73 percent of Catholics, versus 68 percent of the general public. Gays serving openly in the military got support from 63 percent of Catholics compared with 58 percent of the general public. And adoption by same-sex couples was given a nod by 60 percent of Catholics, but only 53 percent of the general public.

There are two more significant data points from the PRRI report.

A majority of Catholics (56%) believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is not a sin. Among the general population, less than half (46%) believe it is not a sin (PRRI, Religion & Politics Tracking Survey, October 2010).

Catholics overwhelmingly reject the idea that sexual orientation can be changed. 69% of Catholics disagree that homosexual orientation can be changed; and 23% believe that it can be changed.”

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life noted that Catholics have been the “biggest losers” in the American religious market place. More than 1-in-10 Americans are former Catholics, and approximately half of all former Catholics remain unaffiliated with any faith. Among this group, majorities said they moved away from their former faith because they stopped believing in Catholicism’s teachings overall (65 percent) or became dissatisfied with Catholic teachings about abortion and homosexuality (56 percent).

Dr. Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, summed up the future options for the Catholic Church hierarchy on the heels of these findings. As a practical matter, winning over rank and file Catholics to official church teachings seems highly improbable, he said; rather, “the question facing the American bishops, who oppose same-sex marriage on doctrinal grounds, is how they will choose to address this momentum.”

Meanwhile, the liberal Catholic group Catholics for Choice, based in Washington DC, has gathered data about Catholic attitudes to social issues from various polls and studies and brought them together in a booklet called “Catholics and Choice” (pdf). The headlines are:

  • Number of Catholic women who use a form of contraception banned by the Vatican: 98%
  • Sexually active Catholic women who use Vatican-approved method as primary contraceptive: less than 2%
  • Catholics who approve of abortion when the woman’s health is endangered: 86%
  • Catholics who approve of abortion if pregnancy is result of rape: 78%
  • Catholics make up 27% of the US population. The percentage of women having an abortion who identify as Catholic: 28%
  • Catholics who favour sexuality education in public schools: 95%
  • Catholics who believe family planning information should be available to teens: 83%
  • Catholics who believe condom use is pro-life because it prevents the spread of AIDS: 79%
  • Catholics who believe Government-funded Catholic hospitals should provide condoms for AIDS prevention: 73%
  • Catholics who support medical research using embryonic stem cells left over from in-vitro fertilisation: 69%
  • Percentage of Catholics who think the views of their local bishops are “very important” in deciding how to vote: 8%

Survivors Voice Europe launched in London

Building on alliances consolidated during the demonstrations around the Pope’s visit and a later demonstration at the Vatican itself, Survivors Voice Europe was inaugurated in London’s Conway Hall on Saturday, 26 March 2011. The two American founders of Survivors’ Voice came to tell their story and give their support.

Even when those leading the organisation spoke, the trauma they had endured was painfully evident. Despite the passage of decades since the abuse ceased and many years speaking out, most still could not do so without obviously fighting back tears. All were adamant that, even now, the Church does not care and is only interested in damage limitation. And this view remained after some of them had spoken to bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the Pope himself. Indeed the most damning comments were about the Pope’s cynical handling of the press and even more of meetings with child abuse survivors where promises were made that were never kept.

The fast tracking by Benedict of his predecessors’ beatification — with the abandoning of the usual five-year minimum rule — drew particular contempt. It was seen as a desperate attempt to close down enquiry into JP II’s questionable record, and — in so doing — closing the door on Cardinal Ratzinger’s own less-than-glorious activities during that period.

What was so striking about the people leading this organisation is that they are just ordinary decent people who have had enough. They are not publicity seekers; they just want to do whatever they can to try to prevent what nearly destroyed their lives destroying those of others.

It was also evident how much courage it had taken to declare what they have suffered. But it was also clear that abuse survivors derived immense solace from each other. That they talk of an instant bond in such circumstances is, sadly, also testimony to the extent to which their experiences dominate their lives, even in some cases half a century later. They spoke of such experiences transforming them from victims into survivors, a hugely positive psychological step.

But for those who have not shared their experiences, it must be even worse – as the suicide, crime and mental and physical breakdown statistics show all too clearly. One man who was later to become one of the American founders was so afraid, even as an adult, of his devoutly religious family’s reaction, that he “came out” by letter, telling them that in the next few days the story would break in the press. Having written the letter, he went to the airport and flew to the furthest place he could.

It later turned out that his father had been abused too, and that it had sullied his life. The other co-founder feared that taking on the church would ruin his business – it pretty well did. But he is also convinced that had he not faced up to the truth, he would have died by now from drink or drugs. Both testified that the abuse had hugely undermined their ability to be able to form and sustain relationships, and their ability to trust others.

One of the European organisers spoke of his time in Opus Dei. He said it was like a 19th-century secret society. Potential members were identified around the age of 11, when their preparation started for admission as aspirants at 14. From this age, they were progressively isolated from their families, whose role was insidiously replaced by the organisation and a nominated father substitute who took down and preserved in meticulous detail the aspirant’s personal thoughts.

This man said he was even required to transfer to an Opus Dei doctor, who, when he left the Order refused to transfer his medical records. The organiser said that, despite denials, Opus Dei members still use a cilice (metal chain with barbs worn around the upper thigh for a couple of hours at a time) and knotted rope to whip themselves. The aspirants are forbidden from taking the sadistic instruments home, or for discussing with their parents what happens within Opus Dei.

Apart from the Pope’s strategic attempts, noted above, to close down investigations into his predecessors pontificate, the greatest concern was for those parts of the world where abuse that is surely happening, but is not yet in the public eye such as Africa, the Far East and South America.

But that does not mean to say that there is not still a huge amount to come out in countries where abuse is already known. David Greenwood, a Yorkshire solicitor, was adamant that the hundred abuse cases he is dealing with are just the tip of the iceberg, even in this country. He felt that, for many, opening up the wounds was just too painful. Nor can the attitude of the Church help. David has gone on record as saying that, still now, the Church fights every case tooth and nail. Even after a hundred cases, David admits to being shocked anew by the depths of depravity to which abusers and their protectors stoop.

What has motivated the organisers to endure still more pain in bringing their suffering to the public’s attention is a determination to break the cycle of abuse in the future: for today’s children and future generations, all over the world. And they have made a very good start.

Encouraging individuals to bring cases and demand compensation is a major priority, with the added bonus of the publicity this brings the cause. Publicity will also follow from public demonstrations. Both should encourage others to come forward, helping them to become survivors rather than victims. Keith Porteous Wood urged the organisers to designate a formal national day for Catholic abuse survivors, worldwide.

As well as pursuing individual cases, David Greenwood suggests Survivors Voice’s strategy should be to maximise publicity. He also wants the Church to be challenged as an institution up to the very highest levels; and he has some promising avenues in mind. Keith is well advanced with challenges at the United Nations. He had recently returned from making his third intervention at the United Nations Human Rights Council. After his first intervention, in 2009, the Vatican representative had sought to pardon the unpardonable and spawned a media frenzy around the world – fifty articles, none of them favourable to the Church.

This time Keith presented the UNHRC with a powerful report demonstrating that his earlier accusations of the Church having broken multiple articles of the UN Convention of the Child had now been endorsed by Geoffrey Robertson QC. On the basis of his intervention, Keith had been invited to meet officials at the UN High Commission and this had opened up promising new lines of challenge. “This is not the end, it is the beginning” he told the enthusiastic audience.

UN and defamation of religion

The United Nations’ top human rights body has replaced its traditional condemnation of religious “defamation” with a resolution supporting an individual right to freedom of belief. The unanimous vote by the U.N. Human Rights Council was welcomed by free speech advocates.

Previous resolutions backed largely by Muslim countries sought to criminalise any criticism of religion that believers found offensive.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says the new resolution “properly focuses on protecting individuals from discrimination or violence, instead of protecting religions from criticism.”

The nonbinding vote calls on countries to guarantee people’s right to have or adopt a religion or belief of their choice.

Although the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), which represents the 57-nation Islamic bloc, supported the resolution, they were far from happy with it. They voted in favour as a “goodwill gesture”, but they made clear that they have not yet abandoned the previous resolution, which basically calls for an international blasphemy law that would protect Islam in particular from criticism.

French secularism debate

Religious leaders in France have expressed concern over the debate on secularism and the place of religion that is being proposed by the President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The text of the letter, signed by Roman Catholic, Protestant, Christian Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders, described secularism as “a pillar of our republican past, a basis of our democracy, a foundation of our desire to live together.”

“Let’s take care not to squander this precious gain,” they warned, saying it was “capital during this pre-election period, to calmly stay the course by avoiding lumping things together and the risks of stigmatisation.”

“Debate is always a sign of health and vitality… But is a political party, even in power, the right authority to carry out the debate alone?” they wrote in La Croix daily.

Sarkozy, whose UMP party is trying to avoid losing votes to the far-right National Front (FN) ahead of next year’s presidential election, in February called for the debate on secularism and the role of Islam in French society. It will now be held on 5 April.

France’s Muslim population of five to six million — the largest in Europe — has already voiced concern over the debate, labelling it “divisive”. Some members of the UMP also disagree with the debate which they say is taking the party too far to the right while also legitimising the far-right National Front’s political agenda.

The six religious leaders said they were ready to reflect with:

“our country’s authorities and forces so that the religious factor can be an element of peace and progress.” But “the acceleration of political agendas risks, ahead of important elections for our country’s future, blurring this perspective and causing confusion that can only be detrimental.”

Islam is increasingly challenging the secular nature of France and there have been recent confrontations over hijabs in schools and the wearing of burqas in the street. While the school restrictions were eventually accepted as a legitimate expression of state secularism, the banning of full face veilings in public places is being widely flouted.


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