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).

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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.

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