Archive for May, 2011

Newsline – 27th May 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

  • Church school criticised for abusing entrance privileges
  • Faith school transport developments
  • Just how many concessions to religion would atheist Miliband make?
  • Christian Legal Centre goes into bully mode as doctor claims religious persecution
  • British vets call for labelling of meat from religious slaughter
  • Fundamentalist Christians may now hold balance of power in Dutch senate
  • Australian school chaplaincy scheme challenged

Church school criticised for abusing entrance privileges

A North London Church of England school has been criticised by an independent schools inspector for refusing a place to a girl because her parents didn’t take part in church activities – something they were unable to do because they were taking care of another of their children who was disabled.

St Paul’s Church of England School in Mill Hill was also slated for its inadequate appeals procedures, which the inspector said were structured incorrectly and in such a way as to “dissuade” parents from appealing against decisions.

The inspector was also critical of the fact that the chairman of the school’s governors, Reverend Michael Bishop, was not only responsible for writing references for prospective parents but then judging them when they were considered for a place. The inspector said this was a clear conflict of interest. Rev Bishop has since been replaced as head of governors.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “The Church of England repeatedly assures us that they operate their privileged entry criteria fairly. This shows that often they don’t. It still shocks me that parents are forced to engage in church activities in order to get a vicar’s letter that will get them a place in a state-funded school. It is blatant religious discrimination that would not be permitted in any other context, yet it is perfectly legal.”

Faith school transport developments

Local authorities around the country are suddenly discovering that subsidies provided for transport to faith schools are discriminatory.

The NSS has been trying to persuade them of this for years, but it is only now that huge cuts in budgets are required that the councils have started to argue about discrimination. They have latched onto it as a justification for their actions in the face of scorching attacks from churches, who see this costly privilege disappearing.

Durham County Council this week approved the cutting of free transport to religious schools after a major consultation on the issue. The changes will only affect new applicants and not those already receiving free transport.

As a concession, the council’s cabinet said it would look at setting up a self-financing concessionary transport scheme. The idea would be to keep home to school transport for those attending faith schools – but the cost would be down to parents.

Wiltshire County Council is similarly aiming to save £170,000 a year. At present, parents in Devizes pay £400 a year to send their children to St Augustine’s Catholic College in Trowbridge, which sum is matched by the Council. 

Parish priest Father Jean-Patrice Coulon has written to Wiltshire Council leader Jane Scott saying: “I have many families in my parish who are not financially rich. “If the subsidy is taken away many will no longer be able to exercise their choice to have their children receive a Catholic education.” 

Keith Porteous Wood notes that “predictably, no mention is made by this priest in his self-serving letter of the statutory obligation still in place to pay for school transport for children of parents on low incomes, and that that obligation extends to sending children up to 15 miles to religious schools on religious grounds, but only six miles in any other case. The NSS continues to fight for the removal of this privileged extravagance.”

Councillor Richard Gamble, portfolio holder for transport, said: “In the face of the current budget issues we are addressing all discretionary expenditure. One thing that stands out is that this provision favours one group over another.”

This argument was expanded on by Councillor David Pugh of the Isle of Wight council, which is also cutting transport subsidies to religious schools. He makes the point about the discriminatory nature of the subsidies in a letter to a local blog .

Schools in the Cheshire West and Cheshire Council area will also be affected if the council carries through its plans that are subject to consultation at the moment. This is already prompting protests from the local diocese, which obviously does not think that Christians should take their share of the pain that these cuts are bringing.

The council, however, is also defending itself with the discrimination arguments. Council leader Miles Jones said: “This is very much an issue of equality and fairness.” He argues that removing the subsidy for transport to faith schools would make the policy fair to all parents and save council tax payers a significant sum each year. 

Just how many concessions to religion would atheist Miliband make?

The Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, spoke at the 50th Anniversary of the Christian Socialist Movement on Monday. He said that he hoped to “translate the values of CSM into our party and into our movement” and to “build a country… true to the values of the Christian Socialist Movement”. 

Earlier this week, the Daily Mirror reported that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had said at a Downing Street reception for Christians that church leaders would be “absolutely right” to claim that Jesus founded the Big Society. “I’m not saying we’ve invented some great new idea here,” he was quoted as saying.

Mr Miliband — a self-proclaimed atheist — who marries his long-term partner, Justine Thornton, today, was given a copy of The Poverty and Justice Bible by the director of the Christian Socialist Movement. Mr Miliband joked that the Bible would make “great honeymoon reading”.

But if the CSM think that Mr Miliband is going to join the reactionary “family values” brigade, they may be disappointed. Earlier this week he told BBC Breakfast that he was “pro-commitment” but that, “unlike David Cameron, I am not going to say that those families that aren’t married are automatically less stable than those families that are. Marriage is a good institution; it is right for me and Justine; but the thing that really matters to people is stable families, and they come in different forms.” 

Christian Legal Centre goes into bully mode as doctor claims religious persecution
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

The latest Christian who claims to be suffering disadvantage because of his religion is a GP by the name of Richard Scott. Apparently Dr Scott — along with his colleagues at his practice, the Bethesda Medical Centre in Margate, Kent — think it is perfectly OK to try to evangelise patients and encourage them to attend the Alpha Course. Dr Scott is a “Christian doctor”, although how this makes him different from a “doctor” when you go to his surgery for medical treatment will soon become apparent.

On the website of the practice it says:

The 6 Partners are all practising Christians from a variety of Churches and their faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients and employees.  The Partners feel that the offer of talking to you on spiritual matters is of great benefit.  If you do not wish this, that is your right and will not affect your medical care.  Please tell the doctor (or drop a note to the Practice Manager) if you do not wish to speak on matters of faith.

So, if you are unlucky enough to be on the list at the Bethesda practice and if you have, say, tonsillitis, you might find your doctor as likely to stuff the Bible down your throat as he is to prescribe antibiotics. And the onus is on the patient to say in advance that they don’t want to be introduced to Jesus, but just to have their clicky hip seen to. And all this on the long-suffering budgets of the National Health Service.

Dr Scott says that he has evangelised “thousands” of people in his surgery and has been complained about on several other occasions. The latest complaint came from the mother of a 24 year old man (not a Christian, although we are not told what religion he is) suffering from depression. When he returned from a visit to Dr Scott he told his mother that the doctor had been more concerned to discuss Jesus with him than the problem he had gone with. Dr Scott denies this.

Understandably, she complained to the General Medical Council which has written to Scott suggesting he accept an official warning over his behaviour, which is contrary to accepted guidelines.

But Dr Scott is one of the new breed of muscular Christian who thinks that the whole world is out to destroy his religion and that he is a victim who must stand up for his faith.

So, naturally, he took himself off to the Christian Legal Centre, source of all such paranoia, telling them that he had no intention of having a warning on his record and that he wanted to fight the case.

The Christian Legal Centre was thrilled to have a new “martyr” to represent and immediately contacted its friends at the Telegraph and the Mail with the usual one-sided, exaggerated and misleading version of events. These so-called newspapers then printed the farrago of half-truths and partiality verbatim with no dissenting opinion sought, knowing that the GMC would be unable to defend itself because it is bound by rules of confidentiality.

Niall Dickson, the chief executive of the GMC, said:

“The GMC does not discuss individual cases but our guidance, which all doctors must follow, is clear; doctors should not normally discuss their personal beliefs with patients unless those beliefs are directly relevant to the patient’s care. They also must not impose their beliefs on patients, or cause distress by the inappropriate or insensitive expression of religious, political or other beliefs or views.” (GMC’s Personal Beliefs guidance)

We now hear that Dr Scott has opted for an oral hearing before the GMC’s investigation committee, which has the power to confirm that a warning should be issued, conclude the case with no action, or, if new evidence emerges, refer the case to a fitness to practise panel, which has the power to strike a doctor off the medical register.

Speaking on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine programme, Dr Antony Lempert of the Secular Medical Forum said:

“Many patients are very vulnerable, GPs often fail to recognise the massive imbalance of power in the patient/GP relationship. Dr Scott referred to the World Health Organisation’s recommendations that health care is also partly spiritual, but this does not necessarily mean religious. Treatment should be about the patient, not the doctor. There are times when talking about the patient’s faith can help them (e.g. end of life) but doctors should always be led by the patient’s needs. The GMC guidelines say it is important doctors don’t try to impose their personal beliefs, as this may upset the patient.”

Dr Scott is being advised by the Christian Legal Centre’s star barrister Paul Diamond, who was humiliated last time he appeared in court for the CLC when the judges expressed concern about his “extravagant rhetoric” and said his claims about the persecution of Christians in the UK “are for the greater part, in our judgment, simply wrong as to the factual premises on which they are based and at best tendentious in their analysis of the issues.” They also said: “Mr Diamond has sought to rely on material which is unsupported by any evidential evaluation. We are not in a position to assess, let alone evaluate, any of the material relied on.”

So, let us step back and look at what all this means. Well, to start with, it adds another chapter to the growing mythology of Christian persecution in Britain that the Christian Legal Centre and the right-wing press have cleverly created.

Bringing one case after another of Christian activists seeking to be treated differently to everyone else, the CLC has managed to persuade a growing number of people — most of whom should know better — that there is some kind of “secularist attack” on Christianity in this country.

But in all instances when these cases come to court they have been shown to be completely without merit. By that time, though, the myth has been well and truly imprinted in the public mind. Now, instead of a bunch of unpleasant bigots who are trying to get themselves exempted from the law, everyone imagines we have a whole gaggle of poor, persecuted Christians who have done nothing wrong but to stand up for their faith.

In the case of Dr Scott, we have a man who has signed up to abide by the rules of his professional body, the GMC, but then decided that, because he is a Christian (and therefore special) he shouldn’t have to obey them.

So, although this case probably wouldn’t stand a chance in court, we’ve yet to see whether the GMC has the guts to see it through and to insist that its rules apply to all. Unfortunately bodies such as the GMC tend to shrink from controversy, particularly religious controversy, and the Christian Legal Centre and Dr Scott may well be able to bully it into submission.

Given Dr Scott has decided to play hardball, the NSS and Secular Medical Forum have written to the GMC commending their decision, and bringing to their attention relevant information in the public domain, including transcripts of what the recalcitrant Dr Scott has said on air.

British vets call for labelling of meat from religious slaughter

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has called for the labelling of meat from animals slaughtered without pre-stunning in response to the increase of ritually slaughtered meat ‘unknowingly’ entering the general market.

Delegates at the BVA Welfare Foundation Discussion Forum were told that meat should be clearly labelled according to whether the animal was stunned before it was slaughtered or not, so that customers can make an informed choice.

Their call echoes calls from the NSS who have long argued that the absence of labelling of meat from religious slaughter without pre-stunning deprives consumers of important information that could affect their purchase and consequently serves to subsidise the religious slaughter industry.

Current legislation states that all animals should be stunned prior to slaughter, but grants exemptions for ritually slaughtered meat destined for a specific religious community. The BVA have argued that meat from non-stunned animals being placed on the secular markets was possibly against current legislation.

Bill Reilly, veterinary public health specialist and former board member of the Food Standards Agency, told delegates that there are no official statistics for the number of abattoirs where non-stun was practised.

He also called for full utilisation of the carcases of kosher-slaughtered animals, saying that, at present, only the forequarter is consider kosher and used by the community the animal was slaughtered for. He said that, as a result, 70% of kosher cattle meat is not used by the Jewish community and enters the secular market.

Stephen Evans, Campaigns Manager at the NSS said: “We have consistently campaigned for an end to exemptions from welfare legislation that religious groups have been granted by the Government, against the independent advice from the Farm Animal Welfare Council. As long as such exemptions remain, it is important that consumers are given accurate information that informs them if the meat they are purchasing comes from animals slaughtered under such exemptions.”

In July MEPs will vote on an amendment to food information legislation that will require labelling of meat from slaughter without stunning.

Write to your MEP requesting that they support amendment 359 at the Second Reading on the Food Information Regulations in July to require labelling of meat from slaughter without stunning. This amendment simply restores the European Parliament’s first reading position which MEPs voted in favour of on 16 June 2010.

Fundamentalist Christians may now hold balance of power in Dutch senate

A Christian fundamentalist political party in the Netherlands — which has only one seat in parliament — has suddenly found that it might hold the balance of power as the coalition Government fell one seat short of a majority in elections for the country’s Senate on Monday.

The failure of the coalition government to win a majority in the Dutch parliament’s upper house means it could be forced to rely on the support of a tiny conservative Christian party, the SGP, that does not permit women to be members, doesn’t believe in votes for women and thinks homosexuality should be outlawed.

Political observers said the outcome had forced cultural politics back to the forefront in the Netherlands, after a period in which the issue took a back seat due to economic debate around the eurozone crisis. The results may lead the government to rein in its ambitions in areas such as budget cuts in education and healthcare.

As the price for gaining the SGP’s support, the coalition government has reportedly abandoned proposals to allow widespread opening of shops on Sundays, and to scrap the country’s outmoded law against blasphemy.

The SGP represents conservative Protestant voters in the Dutch “bible belt” and holds a single seat in the Senate. It believes the Netherlands should be governed according to Biblical principles and has two seats in the lower house of parliament. The SGP has asked the European court of human rights to uphold its ban on women becoming MPs under freedom of religion rules.

Australian school chaplaincy scheme challenged

The Australian Government’s decision to give a $222 million expansion budget to the school chaplaincy programme is to be challenged in the High Court as unconstitutional.

Instead of trained counsellors, children in need are left to access services provided by people appointed because of their religious convictions. The chaplaincy programme compromises the ability of parents and their children to choose a free and secular education.

The funding guidelines suggest chaplains must not misuse the special access they gain to children by seeking to convert them. But evidence is emerging that this is exactly what is occurring. The court this month gave permission for the challenge to be heard in August.

Although Australia’s constitution does not separate church and state, section 116 says the Commonwealth cannot make any law for ”establishing any religion”, ”imposing any religious observance” or ”prohibiting the free exercise of any religion”.

That section also says ”no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth”. A Queensland parent, Ron Williams, is relying on this in mounting his challenge. He argues the programme is invalid because it sets a religious test for anyone who wishes to be a Commonwealth-funded chaplain.

The Government’s funding guidelines support his case. A chaplain need not possess expertise or training in counselling, despite providing guidance to students on ”human relationships” and assisting ”student welfare services”. Instead, a chaplain is appointed due to ”formal ordination”, ”endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution” or the like.

But the High Court’s record of cases on section 116 suggests a tough battle. In the 110 years since the constitution came into force, every argument that a federal law breaches the section has failed.

The first case was in 1912 with an attempt by Edgar Krygger to avoid compulsory peacetime military training. He said such training was ”a sin in the sight of God” and so conflicted with his religious beliefs. The court dismissed his argument that the law was ”prohibiting the free exercise of any religion”. Justice Edmund Barton said the case was ”as thin as anything of the kind that has come before us”.

Another failure was the attempt to strike down the federal funding of church schools. In the Defence of Government Schools case in 1981, the court rejected an argument that such funding amounted to ”establishing any religion”.

The majority took a narrow view of these words in holding that they would stop the Commonwealth only if it sought to create a single, national religion for Australia.

Williams hopes to sidestep these cases by basing his attack on the unexplored ”religious test” limb of section 116. To succeed, he will have to convince the court not to apply the narrow interpretation applied elsewhere.

Even if Williams loses on the ”religious test” point, he may still have a winning case. The High Court has agreed to hear a second set of arguments based on the funding power of the Commonwealth.

In 2009 the court nearly struck down the Rudd government’s $900 stimulus payment. Although Bryan Pape lost that case, he established the important principle that the Commonwealth can spend money only where it has legislative or executive power. The question in the school chaplain litigation will be whether the funding falls within such power. It is far from obvious that this is the case.

Win or lose, the challenge reveals how little the constitution does to separate church and state. Maintenance of this democratic principle rests on the actions and good sense of the politicians.

Unfortunately, this has often proved a frail shield. Governments of all persuasions have shown themselves ready to mix politics and religion to win political favour.



Newsline – 20th May 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 meets with Education Department officials to discuss religious schools admissions 
  • Suffolk school transport proposals revised 
  • “Missionary zeal of obsessive secularists” blamed for loss of interest in RE 
  • Richmond moves to reassure critics over Catholic “counselling” body in schools 
  • Nick Clegg unveils Lords reform plans 
  • American religious women pay no heed to religious teachings when making decision about contraception 
  • Australia rejects call for sharia law 

NSS meets with Education Department officials to discuss religious schools admissions

The NSS’s Keith Porteous Wood and Stephen Evans met with senior officials from the Department of Education’s admissions policy team this week to discuss concerns over religious schools ahead of the imminent publications of the new admissions code. Stephen Evans, NSS Campaigns Manager, said;

“while we’re more than happy to accept a simplified code, what we can’t accept is a weakened code that gives religious schools wiggle room to use backdoor selection to cherry pick children from more affluent families.”

There is clear evidence that the discriminatory admissions policies operated by some religious schools, in addition to being unfair, encourage social segregation and are detrimental to community cohesion.

New ‘free schools’ must take 50 per cent of pupils without reference to religion, but concerns were raised earlier this year when Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, told the Jewish Chronicle that, once the 50 per cent quota had been reached, new Jewish free schools would still be able to fill the remainder of places with Jewish children. The Department assured us there was no mechanism whereby this could be achieved. Officials at the Department assured us that the new admissions code would be at least as rigorous as the current code. It is open to question however, how many parents not of the faith would wish to send their children to a minority religious school.

A senior official of the faith schools extremism unit, who also attended the meeting, assured us that groups advocating creationism and those with an ethos “inconsistent with British democratic principles” would automatically have any free school applications refused.

The NSS also raised concerns over proposals in the Education Bill that could spell the end of local admissions forums and a weakening of the powers of the Schools Adjudicator. While no agreement was reached, it was made clear that new proposals in the admissions code could go some way to increasing local accountability of schools in relation to admissions.

This was the first time the NSS has met with the Department since last year’s election and the meeting was very positive.

See also: Bishop admits that church schools succeed because of selection

Suffolk school transport proposals revised

A fresh injection of Government cash has enabled Suffolk County Council to delay its cuts to subsidies for transport to religious schools. But campaigners (i.e. parents who benefit from this outrageous religious discrimination) realise that the reprieve is temporary. The Council recently completed a consultation process over its original proposals to withdraw discretionary subsidised bus passes used by the 68 children travelling to St Louis Middle and the 62 who go to St Benedict’s Upper schools – all from the Haverhill area.

The proposals would have also seen the third-child-free element currently available ended by the council, leaving families with three children facing a rise in fares from £780 to £2,340 a year from September.

The council is now to receive additional Government funding over the next two years, and so is now proposing an increase of just £20 per term, although the third-child-free element will end.

Haverhill resident Eleanor Davison, a member of Parents Against Public Transport Cuts (PAPTC) whose three daughters attend St Louis Middle School, said:

“From our point of view it’s welcome, but it’s actually a proposal they are putting forward. It’s not going to be ratified (by Suffolk County Council’s cabinet) until May 24. It won’t necessarily go through. We hope so. It’s nice that it just increases it by £20 per child until 2012. If you are in the same school it goes up from £150 to £160 (in 2012/13) and from 160 to £170 the next year.”

From September 2012, students moving to a new Catholic school will be unable to apply for a bus pass, and Mrs Davison said:

“That’s when it goes to £2,340 so it’s still going to happen at some point.”

Meanwhile, the vested interests on the Isle of Wight — whose council is also proposing to cut free transport to religious schools — are getting themselves into campaigning gear. And in Durham, the County Council seems certain to cut religious school transport subsidies. Now Trafford Council in Manchester is to consult on the issue as is Chester West and Chester, whose consultation closes on 31 July .

“Missionary zeal of obsessive secularists” blamed for loss of interest in RE

Liberal Democrat MP John Pugh attacked the “missionary zeal of obsessive secularists” for leading to a diminished emphasis on RE teaching. The comments came in a debate in Westminster Hall which sought to pressure the Government into including RE in the new English baccalaureate (see the debate ).

The debate was packed with pious, even evangelical, MPs anxious to promote religion in schools, each making more inflated claims for the “essential” nature of RE than the last.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said that he would “take on board” the concerns of the religious establishment, which is panicking at the prospect of the gradual loss of interest in Religious Education. The reason RE has been left out of the English baccalaureate (E-Bac) is that the Government wants to encourage students to choose vocational subjects that will benefit them in later life rather than subjects such as media studies and religious education that have little practical value.

Winding up the debate, Education Minister Nick Gibb said that RE should be part of a “broad and balanced curriculum” and that he wanted to “get away from the mentality that a subject is only important if it is mentioned in the National Curriculum.”

Meanwhile, The Bishop of Birmingham kept up the pressure in the House of Lords. He asked education minister Lord Hill of Oareford:

“Are you aware of the deep and widespread concern that, in narrowing the compulsory subjects in the E-Bac, there will likely be a reduction in religious studies and religious education learning — rigorous academic subject that it is — and a consequent reduction, which is already happening, in places for PGCE training of RE teachers?  Underlying that, there is the likely erosion of religious literacy, particularly among more able and older teenagers, which is essential in our diverse society. Would you be prepared to consider adding religious education to the other excellent humanities subjects of geography, English and history?”

Lord Hill replied that he understood the views expressed by the churches and church schools. He added:

“The choice of subjects currently in the E-Bac is not meant in any way to imply that subjects that are not in are less worthy or less academically rigorous.”

And he said the number of children taking RE GCSE had been increasing while those taking history and geography had been decreasing. “In seeking to redress that balance, I understand the strength of the feeling that there is in church schools, which do a wonderful job in educating our children,” he said. “It is always the case that the E-Bac is not fixed in stone, and these things need to be kept under review.”

See also: BBC happy to support the “more RE” campaign – no dissenting voices necessary

Richmond moves to reassure critics over Catholic “counselling” body in schools

The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames has tried to reassure critics about its decision to award an £89,000 contract to the Catholic Children’s Society to offer counselling and support to children in the borough’s schools. It comes after Baroness Jenny Tonge — an ex-MP for Richmond Park — said:

“It is unfair and irrational for the council to impose Catholic thinking on the entire population of young people in this borough, the vast majority of whom are not Catholic or may have no religion at all.”

But Richmond Council insisted that staff from the Catholic Children’s Society were committed “first and foremost” to their professional standards and “not by standards of the Catholic Church”.

The Society, which is accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said in a statement that its counsellors respect other beliefs and would not try to convert or pass judgement on children.

It said:

“Issues raised in counselling are therefore explored in a way which respects the autonomy of the individual receiving counselling. On matters pertaining to sexual health, such as contraception and teenage pregnancy, we ensure that young people are referred to medical health services where the appropriate professional advice and guidance can be given. In particular, young people who come to our counsellors because they are unsure about their sexuality and may be frightened and confused are treated with sensitivity. On the matter of homophobic bullying in schools, we work with students to use the appropriate policies and procedures within schools to address this.”

The Society was required to sign the Council’s equalities policy before it won the contract in February.

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

“If the Catholic Children’s Society is so detached from Catholic teaching, why is it called the Catholic Children’s Society? I am highly dubious about claims of impartiality from an organisation that has in its title the name of a religious body whose teachings are so at odds with modern thinking on human nature.” 

Nick Clegg unveils Lords reform plans

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has just announced plans to reform the House of Lords. The draft Bill proposes that 80% of peers would be elected from 2015. The number of Church of England bishops would be cut from 26 to 12, with full voting rights. However, as the new upper chamber would have only 300 members this actually represents an increase in the percentage of bishops.

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

“Britain is the only western democracy left that reserves seats for clerics in its Parliament – elsewhere only theocracies have such arrangements. For the proportion of bishops to rise in the slimmed down chamber is an affront to democracy and a regression, not modernisation”.

Mr Clegg’s proposal also has an option for a 100% elected chamber, which would have no bishops.

Dr Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, said:

“As Convenor of the bishops in the Lords I am pleased that the Coalition recognises that ‘in a reformed second chamber which had an appointed element, there should continue to be a role for the established Church’.

“I and my colleagues on the Bishops’ Benches look forward to playing a full and active role in the discussions and debates to come on how we should best reform our second chamber.”

Nick Clegg, speaking in the Commons yesterday, said:

“The White Paper includes the case for a 100%-elected House of Lords. The 80:20 split is the more complicated option, and so has been put into the draft Bill in order to illustrate it in legislative terms. The 100% option would be easy to substitute into the draft Bill, should that be where we end up.”

Last month it was reported that Prime Minister David Cameron was studying plans for a multi-faith revising chamber. He is understood to oppose it being entirely secular.

Many commentators were sceptical about the prospects of any of the proposed changes getting through, but the possibility was increased when Mr Cameron said that he would be prepared to use the Parliament Act to ensure that any changes agreed by the Commons could be forced through the Lords. However, the amount of parliamentary time required to achieve any change could frustrate such plans if the House of Lords employs delaying tactics. 

American religious women pay no heed to religious teachings when making decision about contraception

New analysis of research carried out by the Guttmacher Institute in the USA of American women shows that “Contraceptive use by Catholics and Evangelicals, including those who frequently attend religious services, is the widespread norm, not the exception” and “Only 3% of married Catholic women who do not want to become pregnant rely on natural family planning”. The research has been carried out in response to repeated attempts by the religious right — particularly the Catholic authorities — to have restrictions placed on family planning.

The research shows that among women of reproductive age (15–44), 83% claim to have a religious affiliation. Nevertheless, 75% of never-married women — whatever their religion — are sexually experienced by their early 20s. Both younger and older women of reproductive age and no religious affiliation are just over 10 percentage points more likely to have been sexually experienced than those who are religiously affiliated.

And most sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant practice contraception – whether they are unmarried, currently married or previously married. This is true of all women, including Catholics.

Given that for most women, the issue of contraceptive use is now settled, why do the religious hierarchies still find an ear in government for their demands that access be restricted?

The 83% religious affiliation is broken down as 48% Protestant, among whom 53% were evangelical; 25% Catholic; 11% other religion, e.g. Buddhism, Islam, Judaism.

See the report (pdf).

Australia rejects call for sharia law

The Australian government has rejected a call from a leading Muslim group for the introduction of a “non-extremist” version of sharia law. In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into a new policy on multiculturalism, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils had urged the government to consider “legal pluralism” for Muslims.

But AFP reports Australia’s attorney-general, Robert McClelland, has ruled out any such change and says local laws would always win in any clash of cultural values. In its submission, the Federation said while some Muslims saw sharia law as immutable, others argued it could be amended to respond to social change.

But McClelland says people who migrate to Australia do so because it is a free, open and tolerant society where men and woman are equal before the law irrespective of race, religious or cultural background.

Anne Marie Waters of the One Law for All campaign (to which the NSS is affiliated) welcomed the news that Australia has rejected a call for sharia law, and what she described as legal pluralism for Muslims.

“Sharia is discriminatory and arbitrary, and a weapon of the political Islamist movement globally. It places women and children in particular danger; denying equal rights for women in divorce, child custody, and inheritance. To protect the equal rights of men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims – there must be only one secular law applied equally and impartially to all people.”

Newsline – 13th May 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

  • Bishops to remain in reformed House of Lords
  • Big push to get RE further into schools
  • Teachers attack “abusive” religious schools
  • Is Michael Gove about to cut all school transport subsidies?
  • NSS supports new campaign against creationism in schools
  • Why is the Catholic Church not brought to heel, ask Irish abuse victims – and Amnesty names Vatican as a human rights abuser
  • Council of Europe gets religion big-time

Bishops to remain in reformed House of Lords

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s White Paper setting out his plans to reform of the House of Lords is due to be published next week. It will include the proposal that the number of Church of England bishops be cut from 26 to 12. They will retain full voting rights.

Other suggestions include that the number of peers be cut from the present 790 to 300 by 2015. Alternatively, no peers would be forced to leave until 2025, when death and retirement would have reduced the numbers anyway.

Mr Clegg realises that he is up against enormous resistance to any plan to reform of the second chamber and has had to make a number of concessions – including being unable to recommend the complete abolition of the Bishops’ Bench.

Hillary Benn, shadow leader of the Commons, demanded that Clegg did not backtrack on a wholly elected second chamber, saying: “This is an issue of principle and must not become one of tactics. At a time when people are taking to the streets across the Middle East and North Africa demanding to have a say in who represents them, how could anyone contemplate reforming our system on any other basis than full democracy?”

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “How can Nick Clegg say that he wants a democratic second chamber and then agree to retain vestiges of a medieval theocracy within it? He should face up to the self-serving Church of England and demand that the Bishops’ Bench be abolished. It is a ridiculous anachronism and totally inappropriate for a modern, diverse nation.”

Big push to get RE further into schools

Pressure on the Government to include Religious Education in the new English Baccalaureate was intensified this week after a petition calling for it gained 110,000 signatures – including 100 MPs.

The petition was organised by the RE.ACT campaign. Before last year’s election, Mr Cameron said any petition with more than 100,000 signatures would be eligible for debate in the House of Commons.

The Coalition’s new English baccalaureate was introduced in an attempt to stop pupils opting for “soft” subjects instead of traditional academic subjects. In order to gain a baccalaureate, students have to score A* to C grades in the five core subjects of English, mathematics, science, languages and humanities.

From the moment the Baccalaureate was announced, the religious establishment started pushing for the inclusion of RE as one of the core subjects. Wildly exaggerated claims about the importance of RE have been repeatedly made by those with a vested interest in keeping it at the centre of the curriculum. Self-serving leaders of Sikh, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Muslim and Hindu organisations have also joined the campaign.

Each of them realises the importance for the continuation of their religions of gaining access to children at the earliest opportunity and continuing the indoctrination throughout school life.

Teachers attack “abusive” religious schools

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has called on the Government to change the law to stop religious schools discriminating against applicants because of their sexuality and recruiting staff on the basis of religion.

At the NUT’s conference in Harrogate last month, Amanda Brown, head of the union’s legal department, said that the union wanted a reversal of the Schools Standards Framework Act, which allows faith schools to recruit staff based on their religion, a call the NSS has been making for years, and has made on several occasions to the NUT leadership. Free schools, many of which are founded on religious principles, will make the problem worse.

Primary legislation would be required to prevent governing bodies of “faith schools” recruiting staff on a religious basis.

Dave Brinson, of the NUT’s executive, said: “Discrimination, intolerance and bigotry have not gone away, they are still there and still need to be challenged.” He insisted that the motion was not anti-faith schools, but added: “There are both faith-based and secular schools who don’t challenge homophobia and prejudice. It’s this we’re challenging through this motion.”

The resolution said that while faith schools often had an ethos based on their religious beliefs, they must not operate outside employment law. “Some religious schools believe they are above the law and can do anything that they believe is in line with their religious beliefs,” the motion claimed.

“The Catholic Church has openly criticised the imposition of the [General Teaching Council] code of conduct, which requires teachers to ‘proactively challenge discrimination’ and ‘promote equality and value diversity in all their professional relationships and interactions’,” it added.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said after the debate: “While faith schools will clearly want to set an environment that reflects their religious ethos, we need to ensure that the religious and cultural differences of all pupils and staff are recognised and that the values of community cohesion are practised by all schools. Discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, marital status or religion should have no place in any of our schools.”

Is Michael Gove about to cut all school transport subsidies?

As regular readers of Newsline know, local authorities up and down the country are cutting back the amount of money they spend on subsidising transport to religious schools. The subsidies are currently discretionary (except, for pupils from low income families) and can amount to millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

Parents who have enjoyed this privilege are naturally upset and complaints from churches that run these schools are loud and bitter .

But now the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, could be about to put the tin hat on all school bus subsidies.

The Daily Mail reports that he has written to all local authorities confirming that he is considering allowing them to opt out of providing free buses to all schools. In the letter he says: “We want all families to be able to choose the right school for their child. We are therefore also reviewing home to school transport so that we can better meet the needs of pupils, ensuring transport is properly targeted to those that need it most.”

As we have seen from previous cuts to services, “properly targeted” in Government-speak is code for “hardly anybody will be able to access it.”

NSS supports new campaign against creationism in schools

The NSS has given its support to a new campaign aimed at challenging the increasing influence of creationist ideas in schools.

The campaign — which goes under the name Creationism In Schools Isn’t Science (CrISIS) — was started by Laura Horner, a parent of pupils of St Peter’s state secondary school in Exeter after a creationist was introduced to the children as a scientist and allowed to “teach” for an hour and a half.

When challenged by Mrs Horner, the school insisted that it had done nothing wrong within the current guidelines, despite presenting creationism on equal terms with modern science.

The Department of Education guidance on the teaching of creationism is clearly not working and the CrISIS campaign is calling for a tightening up of the national guidelines by the Department for Education.

NSS Senior Campaigns Officer Tessa Kendall said: “State-funded schools must not sell children short by allowing beliefs to be promoted as ‘facts’ of equal value with scientific evidence. It should be made clear that science is not an ‘alternative’ and that there are not other ‘truths’ of equal value. Believers who dismiss evolution as ‘just a theory’ don’t know the difference between a theory and a hypothesis.”

CrISIS has written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove signed by both eminent scientists and theologians – and the NSS. They have also launched an online petition to Mr Gove

Why is the Catholic Church not brought to heel, ask Irish abuse victims – and Amnesty names Vatican as a human rights abuser

Support groups for victims of clerical abuse in Ireland are furious at revelations that church authorities withheld a staggering 219 abuse complaints from its own independent watchdog.

The One in Four victims’ support group is calling on the Government to start a national probe of all 26 Catholic Church dioceses as well as religious and missionary orders.

The group’s anger was prompted by revelations that The National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) — the Church’s own investigative body — was instructed by the bishops in 2009 to conduct a comprehensive national audit of clerical child abuse, but was told of only 53 new allegations. In fact, the actual number of complaints about sexual, physical or emotional abuse totalled 272.

The One in Four group said that the NBSCCC team was “clearly being impeded by forces within the church in their monitoring”, and accused the church of consistently failing to reveal the full story of child sexual abuse until it was forced to do so.

Chief executive of One in Four, Maeve Lewis, called on the Fine Gael-Labour Government to extend the work of the Murphy Commission of Investigation to the entire church in Ireland.

In a further development, it was also revealed that the bishops and religious leaders later placed legal obstacles to impede the Board from conducting its audit, which was widely expected to reveal the actual horrendous scale of clerical paedophilia in Ireland.

Dioceses and congregations claimed that data protection concerns prevented their participating in the audit, a position they have now modified. They have now agreed to cooperate with the Board under strict confidentiality until its findings are eventually published.

Board chairmen John Morgan and chief executive Ian Elliott told a news conference yesterday that they would not be resigning “in the interest of children”. Walking away does not solve the problem, they said.

But they admitted that their remit of compiling a national audit of all 26 dioceses had been delayed because of “legal difficulties” posed by bishops and religious orders, and that it was difficult to break down “a culture of clericalism”.

Last night an angry victim of abuse in the archdiocese of Dublin, Andrew Madden, called for Children’s Minister Frances FitzGerald to introduce legislation to put the Children First Guidelines on a statutory basis as a matter of absolute urgency.

Frances Fitzgerald replied that she was disappointed to learn of the shortcomings and severe difficulties in co-operation which the board experienced.

“Anything less than full co-operation with a Board, whose purpose is to investigate the church’s compliance with child protection procedures, cannot be tolerated,” she said. “It is imperative that all elements of the church co-operate with internal and external bodies investigating allegations of child abuse. As Minister, I am determined to take every measure possible to secure the safety and well being of children.”

Abuse victim Marie Collins said “the breathtaking hypocrisy of the hierarchy promoting their national board’s review of child protection in their recent pastoral Towards Healing while at the time of writing they were using legalities to obstruct that review, is shocking.”

She said “telling the world that they are committed to implementing fully all child-protection policies, while at the same time insuring that non-compliance by any bishop cannot be made public without the permission of that bishop, is a farce.” Ms Collins said mandatory reporting “must become law and anyone including priest or bishop ignoring it has to be prosecuted fully”.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has, for the first time, named the Vatican in its annual report of the state of human rights around the world, published today.

It found that the Irish Government “failed to implement a number of commitments it made in 2009 following the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

“This included a failure to introduce draft legislation to give child protection guidelines a statutory basis.”

It said that “in February [2010], the all-party Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children proposed a new constitutional provision on children’s rights. However, the Government did not schedule the required referendum in 2010 as promised.”

It continued that “there were serious concerns about the lack of adequate investigation and transparent reporting by the Health Service Executive on deaths of children in State child protection services. In March (2010), the Government established an Independent Child Death Review Group to review the executive’s investigations into the deaths of children in care.”

Where the Vatican was concerned, the Amnesty report says that “in May (2010), the Holy See submitted its initial reports on the optional protocols to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which, at the end of the year, had yet to be considered by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.”

However, it continued, “by the year’s end, the Holy See had again failed to submit its second periodic report on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, due in 1997, and the initial report on the UN Convention against Torture, due in 2003.” It found there was “increasing evidence of widespread child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy over the past decades, and the enduring failure of the Catholic Church to address these crimes properly, continued to emerge in various countries”.

Such failures “included not removing alleged perpetrators from their posts pending proper investigations, not co-operating with judicial authorities to bring them to justice and not ensuring proper reparation to victims”.

The National Secular Society’s Executive Director, Keith Porteous Wood, has made two forthright challenges to the Vatican’s neglect of its responsibilities under the Charter for Children’s Rights at the UN Human Rights Commission.

Council of Europe gets religion big-time

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has called for “a new culture of living together” based on the assertion of everyone’s equal dignity and adherence to the Council of Europe’s basic principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This sounds laudable, until you realise it was the product of debate among leading religious figures from across Europe.

Approving a recommendation based on a report by Anne Brasseur (Luxembourg, ALDE) on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue, the parliamentarians called on Europe’s governments to set up a new “platform for dialogue” where high-level representatives of Europe’s main religious institutions — in particular Christian, Jewish and Muslim ones — could meet, together with humanist and non-religious organisations, to discuss how best to promote “the values that make up the common core of any democratic society”. The EU, the UN Alliance of Civilizations and other relevant partners could also be invited to take part.

During the debate the Assembly was addressed in turn by Patriarch Daniel of Romania, the President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Chairperson of the Presidency of Religious Affairs of Turkey Professor Mehmet Görmez, the Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, and the Plenipotentiary Representative of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany to the Federal Republic of Germany and the EU Prelate Bernhard Felmberg.

In its text, the Assembly stressed the importance of education, and said that teaching on religions should be “an opportunity for encounter and for receptiveness”. Holders of religious responsibilities should also be better trained in knowledge and understanding of other religions and convictions.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “You’ll have to pardon my cynicism about this – for all the high-falutin’ talk, it’s just another initiative by ‘faith leaders’ to consolidate their influence in education. The idea that such people are going to have any kind of meaningful dialogue with each other, let alone with people who don’t believe, is a hopeless and wasteful exercise. The only way to stop this endless conflict over religion is to introduce secularism. Get religion out of politics. Inviting it further in is just asking for trouble. The Council of Europe — like all other institutions of its kind — seems unable to step back from the fawning deference it has for religion and see that it needs to separate itself from the demands of ambitious religious institutions and become neutral and independent, and therefore fair to all.”

Newsline – 29th 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

  • Christian Tory “think-tank” proposes a “multi-faith House of Lords”
  • Cameron tells us that religion is going to play a big part in all our lives – like it or not
  • Catholic adoption service refused permission to discriminate against gays
  • The Catholic Church is right to be afraid of secularism – it will stop the Vatican’s power-seeking in its tracks
  • Isle of Wight to end transport subsidies to religious schools
  • Church attendances plunge

Christian Tory “think-tank” proposes a “multi-faith House of Lords”

An influential Tory think-tank, The Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF), was reported this week to be recommending that a reformed House of Lords should become “multi-faith”.

The CCF — which has previously been regarded extreme and fundamentalist — is now a major advisor to the Tory Party. It suggests that “faith leaders” from all religions and different denominations of Christianity be brought in to the Lords.

The CCF report says: “Christians need to enter the debate and make it clear that we value the presence of the Lords Spiritual, but this doesn’t have to mean unquestioning support for the status quo. There is a strong argument that our legislature would also benefit from the wisdom of leaders of Baptist, Catholic, Methodist and black-led congregations. A broad bench of Lords Spiritual drawn from a range of churches in Britain could provide a powerful vision of unity.”

The Prime Minister is said to favour the idea because he does not want the House of Lords to become a secular institution.

The issue is on the table because of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s proposals to reform the Upper Chamber. Mr Clegg’s bill is being negotiated with senior Conservative ministers and the Labour frontbench. It had been due to be unveiled last month, but has now been postponed for a few months.

The prospect of imams sitting alongside bishops is bound to provoke mixed reactions among Tories – and will expose the glaring flaws in this plan.

The Royal Commission which looked into reforming the House of Lords ten years ago proposed that the number of Anglican bishops be reduced from 26 to 16. In response, Iain McLean, Professor of Politics, Oxford University said:

“If the Church of England is assigned 16 representatives (whether by ex officio bishops or otherwise), then a total of 77 senators will be needed to represent all faith communities. Many of them will have to be female, whatever the wishes of the faith community in question, to satisfy the gender requirement.”

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, said:

“As I told the Commission then, Mr Clegg in recent months, and at every appropriate opportunity in the intervening years, a multi-faith House of Lords is the worst possible solution. The Upper House is already packed with religious people and the prospect of bringing in hundreds more is a recipe for conflict and endless religious wrangling. I thought the idea was to reduce the numbers, not increase them.”

Mr Wood said that it would not be possible to have representatives from every religion, sect and denomination in the Lords without making the numbers of so-called “Lords Spiritual” unwieldy.

“Who is to decide which religions have a legitimate entitlement in the House of Lords? Why would a Moonie or a Scientology leader be less worthy of a seat than a Muslim or Jewish one? And if the Sunnis have a representative, the Shias would want one and if the Orthodox Jews have a representative, then so should the liberal Jews.”

Religious interests are already well represented in the House of Lords, partly because of the high average age of peers. As well as Protestants, there are Catholic, Muslim and Jewish peers, including the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Warsi, who is Muslim. There are also ex-bishops who are peers.

One senior Tory was quoted in the press this week as saying:

“It is inconceivable that we continue with a faith element to the Lords without Catholic bishops being represented. It is also high time black Pentecostal leaders were better represented. As such we are going to have to consider whether other faiths are represented as well.”

One possible obstacle to this plan is the fact that Canon law 285.3 forbids Catholic clerics from assuming “public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power”.

Cameron tells us that religion is going to play a big part in all our lives – like it or not

The Government has reinforced its links with religious groups by organising a jamboree for Christian leaders at 10 Downing Street, which took place yesterday.

David Cameron hosted the reception that included religious leaders and prominent Christians in an effort to reassure them that his Government will do all it can to include them in the running of the country.

Mr Cameron said in his “Easter message” over the weekend that Christian values made an “enormous contribution” to Britain. “Easter is a time when Christians are reminded of God’s mercy and celebrate the life of Christ. Jesus taught us to love God and love our neighbour,” he said.

Baroness Warsi, the Conservative party co-chairwoman and a Muslim, claimed the previous Labour government treated religion as “a rather quaint relic of our pre-industrial history”.

Keith Porteous Wood said:

“This is another clear indication that this Government intends to attempt to de-secularise Britain and force religion on to an unwilling population. Every survey shows that while Britons are not generally hostile to religion, they do not want it interfering in their lives. Despite what the Prime Minister says, the people of this country do not look to religious leaders for moral guidance, and the country is none the worse for it – despite the claims of priests with vested interests. It is up to all of us to resist this march of mainly reactionary religion into our lives.”

Catholic adoption service refused permission to discriminate against gays

Catholic Care, a Leeds-based charity that facilitates about five adoptions a year, has appealed to the charity tribunal for permission to exclude same-sex couples, arguing that it would otherwise have to close its adoption service because its supporters would stop donating money.

It argued that restricting its service to heterosexual couples did not contravene section 193 of the Equality Act 2010. The section allows discrimination on the grounds of sexuality if this is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. However, Alison McKenna, principal judge of the charity tribunal, sitting with two lay members, ruled that the discrimination would cause same-sex couples to suffer a “significant detriment”.

The tribunal found that there must be “particularly weighty” reasons to justify discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and said the charity had not demonstrated that its donors would stop supporting it if it allowed same-sex couples to use its adoption service.

The tribunal also said Catholic Care had not yet explored all the alternatives to closure, and that expert evidence contradicted the charity’s argument that if it were to close, fewer children would be adopted.

This is another wearisome chapter in seemingly endless litigation that has cost the charity tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds, that has not been spent on finding suitable adoptive parents. The Charity Commission ruled in November 2008 that the charity could not change its objects to exclude gay couples, a decision upheld by the charity tribunal in June 2009. The High Court judge Mr Justice Briggs ruled in March 2010 that the commission must reconsider its verdict, but in August the commission reaffirmed its original decision. The charity’s latest appeal was against the commission’s August ruling.

Benjamin James, a solicitor at the law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, acting on behalf of Catholic Care, told Third Sector it would be possible for the charity to appeal to the Upper Tribunal, but it had not yet decided whether it would do so.

He said the Upper Tribunal could ask the Charity Commission to reconsider its decision and give it a direction that would make clear the grounds on which it could do so. The charity has 28 days in which to notify the tribunal if it wishes to appeal against the decision.

The Catholic Church is right to be afraid of secularism – it will stop the Vatican’s power-seeking in its tracks
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

Secularism has been the subject of a ferocious attack from Catholic interests over Easter – and despite their own attack-dog tactics, they have the cheek to label secularism “aggressive.”

First off the mark was Lord Patten of Barnes – who describes himself as a ‘cradle Catholic’ and who was drafted in by the Government last year to rescue the pope’s visit to the UK. Patten gave a lecture in a Catholic Church in which he said:

“Some of the arguments put forward by secularists against the Pope’s visit were lacking in intellectualism and were extraordinarily mean-spirited. I’m surprised the atheists didn’t have better arguments [against the Pope’s visit].”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, who led the protest against the state-funding of the Pope’s visit responded:

“There is nothing mean-spirited about asking a man who has repeatedly covered up the child abuse committed by his employees to explain himself. There is nothing intellectually lacking for a secularist to ask a religious leader not to expect the state to pay for his proselytising – especially when that state is deep in debt and when services for the poor and vulnerable are being cut. In the circumstances, the amount of money spent by the Government and local authorities on that visit was obscene. And despite the flim-flam from the Church about it being a big success, it was, in fact, a disaster. The country was almost wholly indifferent to the pope’s presence here, despite the overkill on TV arranged by Mark Thompson, the Roman Catholic director general of the BBC.”

Lord Patten said that those who reject religious belief were hypocritical to portray religious people as being narrow-minded given the level of aggression they themselves have displayed to Christians:

“It is curious that atheists have proved to be so intolerant of those who have a faith,” he said. “Their books would be a lot shorter if they couldn’t refer to the Spanish Inquisition, but it is them who tend to have a level of Castillian intolerance about them.”

Terry Sanderson said:

“Lord Patten doesn’t seem to know the difference between atheism and secularism – but, hey, we’re the ones lacking intellectual rigour. Lord Patten seems to think that the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Spanish Inquisition can be forgotten because it doesn’t fit the church’s present-day propaganda about itself. The Vatican is a dab hand at re-writing history. But that is not the only argument we have with them – far from it. Our campaign asked questions about: the ban on condoms in the fight against AIDS; poverty and sustainable world population; the undermining of women’s rights; the oppression of homosexuals; the Church’s interference in democracy (by threatening Catholics in public service with excommunication if they do not back the Vatican’s hard line policies, even those not in the interests of the relevant public); and the manipulative way in which money is extracted from poverty-stricken nations through so-called concordats. Indeed, we could fill a book with questions that the Vatican would prefer were never asked.”

(In fact you can read this very book: (Double Cross: Code of the Catholic Church by David Ranan) by ordering it from the NSS website.)

Lord Patten also said in his speech that people looked down on him intellectually for having religious belief:

“It makes people think I’m peculiar and lack intellectual fibres because I don’t have any doubts about my faith, but I’d be terrified to have doubts,” he said.

Terrified to have doubts? Isn’t that nearer the territory of the fanatic than someone claiming the intellectual high ground? Or does it simply indicate that he daren’t question his faith in case he finds it wholly lacking? And besides, Mr Patten’s own life — married to a divorcee and therefore banned from taking communion — is hardly played by the rules of the Church he so vigorously (one might say aggressively) defends.

Lord Patten is about to become chairman of the BBC Trust, an organisation that is supposed to represent the licence-payer when they wish to question or challenge the Corporation. One wonders whether he will be able to be completely impartial when the subject of religion is raised.

What, for instance, would have been the outcome if he had been in charge during the Jerry Springer – the Opera controversy? And how will he react when the next push comes from the churches for ever-more airtime?

Next up is the highly aggressive leader of Scotland’s Catholics, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who went for secularism’s jugular in an Easter sermon in Edinburgh.

The Scottish Herald called it “one of the most vehement attacks” on the secularisation of society and those who, apparently, want to “take God from the public sphere.”

Again, the term “aggressive secularists” was wheeled out (an obvious attempt to hammer it into public consciousness following the pope’s use of the term as soon as he stepped off the plane in Scotland last September).

The Cardinal then launched into the formulaic attack on the equality legislation which prevents discrimination against homosexuals – something he argues he has a right to engage in.

He said:

“Recently, various Christians in our society were marginalised and prevented from acting in accordance with their beliefs because they were not willing to publicly endorse a particular lifestyle. You have only to ask a couple with regard to their bed and breakfast business; certain relationship counsellors; and people who had valiantly fostered children for many years of their particular experiences – and I am sure they are not exaggerating them.”

Well, if Cardinal O’Brien took five minutes to follow these cases up he would discover that yes, indeed, the complainants are exaggerating them and in some instances outright lying about them. But this was not about the truth, this was about reinforcing the idea that Christians are being “persecuted” or “marginalised” or “sidelined”. God’s voice is being silenced, apparently.

But if the church is so powerless, how come it just needed to snap its fingers (behind closed doors) to make the Government withdraw its proposal to amend the Act of Settlement to stop the discrimination against Catholics taking the throne?

Cardinal Winning said that “at this present time Christians must be united in their common awareness of the enemies of the Christian faith in our country”. But it was another Christian church — the Church of England — that reportedly scuppered the bid to give Catholics equality in Britain, not the aggressive secularists. (But a prominent blogger has speculated that the Church was taking the rap for the royal family – pointing out that neither Prince Charles nor his sons were involved in any of the papal visit. Obviously the Queen, as head of state, had no alternative. And the Church of England Newspaper is reporting that it was, in fact, the Prime Minister of Canada who put the tin hat on the idea, saying Canada didn’t want to have a debate about the monarchy.)

The Cardinal’s message was not received with overwhelming enthusiasm by the political establishment in Scotland. Labour leader Iain Gray described Cardinal O’Brien’s words as a “powerful Easter reminder of the role that faith has played in Scotland’s past and present” but called for an equal platform for all faiths and none.

An aide to First Minister Alex Salmond said:

“The Catholic Church and all of Scotland’s faith groups play a vital role in Scotland’s national life, and the Cardinal advocates Christian beliefs on that basis, as he is entitled.”

An aide to Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott said:

“All faiths and those who don’t follow a faith should be respected equally. Discrimination of any kind should not be tolerated in a modern Scotland.”

So the ranting and raving Cardinal has not made the impression he had hoped.

Then, south of the border, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, leader of Catholics in England and Wales, suggested in his homily that those who don’t believe what he believes are more likely to kill their loved ones (presumably he is referring to assisted suicide). He said:

“Without that faith, life would be shaped only by the meaning I can give it. Without such faith we can become afraid of living. Indeed, in pain and loneliness, or in even the prospect of pain and loneliness, life, for some, loses its purpose and killing oneself or a loved one becomes a beguiling temptation.”

Once again we see the Catholic Church insulting those who refuse to be part of it, and arrogantly asserting its moral superiority when many would argue that it is one of the most immoral organisations in the world.

Taken together, we have an all-out assault on secularism by the Catholic Church. It is understandable. The Vatican is a totalitarian organisation and tolerates nothing that stands in the way of its power-seeking. Secularism certainly does that.

Isle of Wight to end transport subsidies to religious schools

The latest local authority to propose cuts to subsidised travel to religious schools is the Isle of White. In doing so, the cash-strapped council hopes to save £931,000.

A report, presented to members last week, stated:

“With the cost of transport increasing, the council is unable to sustain the current level of transport offered to pupils. Pupils who attend a faith school on religious grounds currently qualify for free transport if it is their nearest faith school, rather than their nearest school generally, and this discretionary support is not available to pupils attending non-faith schools. The withdrawal of free transport would mean all pupils are treated equally, regardless of religion or belief, and release significant savings.”

“Christian parents” who will be hit by the end of this discrimination are, of course, up in arms, outraged that they will have to pay the same as everyone else if they want their children to go to a particular school that is outside their catchment area.  One parent said it was “a smash and grab raid on low-income parents” who want their children to go to a religious school.” He made no mention of the legal requirement that remains for local authorities to provide free school transport for pupils from low income families. Nor did he concede that other parents who cannot get their children into these privileged schools have to pay the full amount to transport their kids and pay council tax on top.

Following a public consultation on the issue, to be launched next month, a decision will be made by the council cabinet in June. If you live in the area, you may wish to make your views known.

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

“It is a shame that it has taken a recession for the Isle of Wight Council to recognise the unfairness of this system. But at least it has had to face up to the reality now.”

Church attendances plunge

Christian statistician Dr Peter Brierley has produced new figures showing that attendance at Catholic mass is likely to fall by 24% in the next ten years, taking it down from the present 1.1 million to less than 830,000 (and a drop of 50% over 30 years).

Outside of London and the south-East the proportion of people attending church on an average Sunday in Britain will drop to below 5 per cent of the population. In 1998, the rate was 6% or more.

The drop is sharpest in Wales where, in just 20 years, numbers going to church have slumped from 300,000 to 176,000. Dr Brierley’s data is compiled from church censuses from across denominations going back to 1979. Similarly, the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Robert Patterson, said the 40% fall in Manx Anglicans since 1991 was faster than anywhere else in the Church of England. He warned paid clergy numbers may be reduced to cut costs.

Also notable is a reported drastic decline in the number of young people in British pews. In 1990, 57 per cent were under 45. In 2010, that had shrunk to 37 per cent and it is predicted to fall another 10 percentage points over the next decade. There are significant numbers of churches where no one between the ages of 15 and 19 is attending.

Dr Brierley’s research shows that the number of active Muslims is predicted to rise sharply over the next 10 years. Currently there are 2.2m Muslims in the UK, with half of them active members (defined loosely as attending a mosque at least once a year) and this is likely to grow by 30 per cent to 2.8m by 2020.

By contrast, in 2010, 37.8m people, 62 per cent of the UK’s 61m population, still regarded themselves as part of the Christian community even though the majority only ventured inside a church at weddings, funerals or at Christmas. By 2020, that 62 per cent is expected to have dropped to 50 per cent.

Meanwhile, the Catholic archdiocese of Lancaster is undecided whether to go ahead with the large-scale closure of churches which was proposed by the previous bishop, Patrick O’Donoghue. A 2008 document predicted that attendances, which stood at more than 17,000 in 1974, would fall to just 4,500 by 2020. Father Robert Billing, secretary to the present bishop, Michael Campbell, says:

“attendances were quite poor and there has not been any significant improvement except in areas where they have been boosted by Polish or Indian Catholics.”

PLEASE NOTE: Newsline is taking a break – the next edition will be on Friday 13 May 2011

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