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).

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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.


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