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).

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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.”


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