Archive for June, 2011

Newsline – 24th June

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

  • Education Bill – NSS meets minister
  • Vatican promises report following pressure from NSS Executive Director
  • NSS warns of free speech implications of Scottish football hate bill
  • Catholic adoption agency ordered to stop discriminating against gays is denied further appeal
  • Nottingham Secularists complain about “healing church” claims
  • Despite protests, Hampshire cuts “faith school” transport subsidies
  • Trevor Phillip’s Thoughtless Intervention

Education Bill – NSS meets minister

As the (English) Education Bill progresses through the House of Lords, NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood and campaigns manager Stephen Evans this week held talks with schools Minister Nick Gibb MP and his ministerial team. The intensive round table meeting focussed on legislation or proposed legislation which discriminates against teachers who are regarded in religious schools as being of the “wrong faith” or not having a religion.

Keith Porteous Wood commented:

“It was a constructive, productive and cordial meeting. We used as the basis of our discussion legal opinion backing up the key amendments we have had tabled by honorary associates. The Minister and his team listened carefully to the points we made, and we gave them a great deal to think about. Mr Gibb is already aware that we’ve formally complained about a number of issues in this area to the European Commission as being in breach of an EU directive; and Brussels is clearly taking them seriously.”

The dialogue with the ministerial team will continue as the Bill makes its way through Parliament.

Keith said:

“We would like to put on record our thanks to honorary associate peers for their tireless enthusiasm and magnificent help in putting down amendments to the Bill – on teacher employment, collective worship, school transport and cohesion.” 

Vatican promises report following pressure from NSS Executive Director

The Vatican has at last given an indication that it will submit a report to the United Nations this autumn on its treatment of children.

The “Holy See’s” envoy in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said on Monday “From what I’m able to say it’s that (in) September or October it will be presented.”

The Holy See has been challenged on two occasions at the United Nations Human Rights Council by NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood about its failure to produce the report. Now his goading appears to have paid off – even though the report is 14 years overdue and has been promised before and not materialised.

The report was originally due to be submitted to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1997, but failed to appear year after year without explanation. Under pressure from Keith — acting as a spokesperson for the International Humanist and Ethical Union — Tomasi said last year that the report’s release was imminent. But he arrogantly told reporters in Geneva on Monday that “imminent, in the tradition of the Church, it’s a very long time.”

Human rights groups have urged the Vatican to explain in the report its role in the cover-up of child abuse committed by Catholic clergy.

Keith commented:

“The first time I made this challenge to the Holy See in Geneva, they issued a rebuttal trying to shift the blame on to others. It was an almost unbelievably callous response which caused an international controversy. On the second occasion Signor Tomasi wisely kept silent, but it is clear that our insistence that they produce this report is making them explain themselves, something the Vatican is not used to doing. Of course, we have yet to see the report, but if it doesn’t arrive by October, we will once more want to know why.”

Mr Porteous Wood said he hoped the Vatican would be honest about its failings in the protection of children from abuse by its priests. “However, having seen other documents on this matter from the Vatican, I suspect that they’ll manage not to even mention their own role in a massive international cover up.” 

NSS warns of free speech implications of Scottish football hate bill

Alarmed at the Scottish parliament’s determination to rush through an ill-considered bill to challenge sectarianism in football, the NSS made a submission to the Parliament’s Justice Committee pointing out potential threats to freedom of expression.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill 2011 risked proscribing “robust debate” the NSS said.

In its submission the NSS wrote:

“It is essential that the prosecution threshold always includes intention, not just likelihood. We do not think that material on its own should be deemed threatening; in order to secure a conviction, persons should need to have been threatened. Similar concerns were recognised by late freedom of expression amendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act in England. Alex Salmond voted for these in England; but so far there is no equivalent in the Scottish Bill.”

Following a torrent of objections to the Bill from religious and secular groups, the Scottish government has now said further consideration will be given to it and that it will probably not be decided upon until the end of the year. A few hours before this announcement, the Government was saying that it would be enacted “within weeks”.

In a letter to the Scotsman, Norman Bonney, the NSS spokesman in Scotland, appealed to the Justice Committee to ensure that adequate time was given “to consider in depth the complexities of challenging sectarianism in contemporary Scotland.”

NSS member Alistair McBay, also writing in the Scotsman, said religious groups will inevitably use the Bill as it stands to suppress wider, legitimate opposition to their agenda.

“Indeed, it has already begun,” he wrote. “Representatives of the Catholic Church in Scotland, an institution that famously branded singing and doing the Hokey Cokey a “faith hate crime”, has recently suggested that sectarianism is in part fuelled by newspapers which publish articles and letters from those who object to Catholic faith schools. It is already seeking to use the sectarianism debate to suppress legitimate alternative views of how children in Scotland should be educated.”

In an editorial, the Scotsman said:

“Such a rush to law was guaranteed to result in a morass of unintended consequence. Christine Grahame, the SNP convener of the parliament’s Justice Committee, showed courage in challenging the executive — particularly in the current adulatory atmosphere — and in expressing her misgivings over the inadequate time allowed.”

Catholic adoption agency ordered to stop discriminating against gays is denied further appeal

The First Tier Tribunal (Charity) has rejected the Catholic Care (Diocese of Leeds) adoption agency’s latest appeal, stating that there were no “errors of law” in its judgment that the adoption agency could not discriminate against same-sex couples wishing to use its services.

Principle judge Alison McKenna confirmed in a recently-released decision paper that the First Tier Tribunal (Charity) would not grant permission for Catholic Care to appeal to the next stage in the legal hierarchy, the Upper Tribunal (Tax and Chancery Chamber).

Catholic Care argued during the March hearing that, if it were not permitted to discriminate against same-sex couples, it would lose its funding from the Catholic Church, which would force it to close down its adoption service. The charity, which is based in Leeds, has facilitated about five adoptions a year in recent years.

The tribunal’s decision says the charity argued in its application for an appeal that “no reasonable tribunal could have failed to mention the charity’s evidence to the effect that a saving to the public purse would be achieved by the availability of the charity’s voluntary funding [from the church]”.

It says Catholic Care also argued that “in so far as a same-sex couple would suffer a demeaning effect by not being able to use the charity’s adoption services, the discrimination would emanate from the church and not from the charity. The Equality Act 2010 gives no right to complain about discrimination emanating from the church.”

In the document, Alison McKenna, principal judge of the charity tribunal, wrote: “I have concluded that the grounds of appeal before me do not identify ‘errors of law’ in the decision.

“In the circumstances, I conclude that there is no power for the tribunal to review its decision in this case and I have also, for the same reasons, concluded that permission to appeal should be refused.”

However Catholic Care does still have the right to ask the Upper Tribunal (Tax and Chancery Chamber) directly for permission to appeal.

Catholic Care has been fighting in numerous hearings since 2008 to overturn the Charity Commission’s ruling that it cannot change its charitable objects in order to prevent same-sex couples from using its adoption services. 

Nottingham Secularists complain about “healing church” claims

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld a complaint from Nottingham Secular Society president Dennis Penaluna. The complaint concerned a leaflet produced by St Mark’s, Woodthorpe – a Church of England church. It claimed that their god could cure anything: MS, Depression, Cancer, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Phobias, Arthritis … or any other sickness – although no mention was made of HIV.

The ASA has agreed with the Nottingham Secular Society that St Mark’s was making unsubstantiated claims, and has instructed the church to remove references in its leaflet, to “… healing sickness and the list of medical conditions.”

Dennis Penaluna told Newsline that he was delighted, but not surprised, with the ASA decision.

“Basic common sense and rational thought have won through.” He went on to warn though that “Happy Clappy Healer Sects” like these were springing up all over the country and must be stopped. “Their ridiculous and very dangerous claims can and must be challenged.” 

Despite protests, Hampshire cuts “faith school” transport subsidies

Despite heavy pressure from religious groups, Hampshire County Council this week made a final decision to scrap transport subsidies to religious schools. The Council hopes to save up to £800,000 per year.

The County Council’s Executive Lead Member for Children’s Services, Councillor Roy Perry, approved the removal of most discretionary allowances, including funding transport to faith schools. He said:

“I do respect the work faith schools are doing and the right of parents to choose faith schools. If parents want to send their children further away to a faith school that is their choice. I welcome that, but it has to be at their expense.” 

Trevor Phillips’ thoughtless intervention

Editorial by Terry Sanderson

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, headed by Trevor Phillips, has issued a report on religious discrimination (Religious Discrimination in Britain) which struggles hard to find evidence for any large-scale discrimination on religious grounds.

Even though it manages to extend to 105 pages it fails to convince us that religious discrimination is a big problem in this country.

The report was commissioned from Paul Weller, Professor of the Inter-Religious Relations Society, Society Religion and Belief Research Group at the University of Derby (sic) whose methods the NSS has criticised before.

Professor Weller is very much of the opinion that more research is required in this area and more reports need to be written. He needs to prove that religious discrimination is a major problem. Does that mean he’ll have to keep pushing the sort of biased questionnaire we criticised previously ?

Launching the report, Trevor Phillips gave an interview to the Sunday Telegraph in which he contradicted himself several times, gave mixed messages which left everyone thoroughly confused and, in some cases, deeply insulted (suggesting, for instance, that all afro-Caribbean Christians are homophobes).

He says:

“The thing I’ve become anxious about in recent times is this – there is certainly a feeling amongst some people of belief that they are under siege, that they are often disadvantaged, that they are looked at and considered in some way different and their faith makes them less worthy of regard,” he said.

“There is a view that says religion is a private matter and it’s entirely a choice. I think that’s entirely not right. Faith identity is part of what makes life richer and more meaningful for the individual. It is a fundamental part of what makes some societies better than others in my view.

“I understand why a lot of people in faith groups feel a bit under siege. They’re in a world where there are a lot of very clever people who have a lot of access to the airwaves and write endlessly in the newspapers knocking religion and mocking God. The people who want to drive religion underground are much more active, much more vocal. There is no doubt there’s quite a lot of intolerance towards people of faith and towards belief. There’s a great deal of polemic which is anti-religious, which is quite fashionable. People can sometimes think we’re part of that fashionable mocking and knocking brigade. We’re not that.”

So, are we to take from this that Trevor Phillips thinks religion is beyond criticism? That it is wrong to disagree and argue with what are, sometimes, ridiculous religious claims? Is it wrong to criticise believers who behave intolerantly towards others just because they say they are doing it from religious motivation?

Mr Phillips hasn’t thought this through. His opinions are confused because later he goes on to criticise those evangelical Christians who are presently bringing one court case after another claiming discrimination where there is none. He says, quite rightly, that they are not doing this to defend against discrimination but to gain political influence.

The NSS has been telling him this for the past decade.

Mr Phillips also says:

“Our business is defending the believer. The law we’re here to implement recognises that a religious or belief identity is, for the majority of people in Britain, an essential element of being a fulfilled human being and plays an important part in our society. Religion or belief is as much part of our identity as other characteristics such as race, gender, or being a parent. People should not be penalised or treated in a discriminatory way because of it.”

Where does Mr Phillips get the idea that “religious or belief identity is, for the majority of people in Britain, an essential element of being a human being”? A survey for the Home Office showed that Britons regard religion as only the ninth most important aspect of their life (out of ten). Everyday lived experience should tell him that what he is saying is a load of tosh. And the idea that those who don’t have a religious faith are somehow “not fully human” is a gross insult.

We agree that his job is to defend the believer. The individual believer. We don’t want to see individuals being treated unfairly because they belong to a particular religion (or because they don’t have a religion).

But it is not his job to defend their beliefs or protect them from being questioned, criticised and even mocked.

Where has Mr Phillips been during the endless arguments about religious threats to freedom of expression over the past decade? He seems to have missed them and is taking us right back to the beginning with his ill-considered pronouncements.

If someone is sacked simply because they belong to a particular religion, then the NSS will defend their rights. If they are sacked because they claim their religious beliefs will not permit them to carry out their duties in their entirety, to the detriment of others, then we will oppose them.

If this is the best Trevor Phillips and Professor Weller can come up with, then perhaps it is time they both considered their positions.


Newsline – 17th June 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

  • More “faith school” bus cuts 
  •  Baptists wangle their way into schools with “inflatable church” 
  •  Eight free schools to open in September – three of them religious 
  •  NSS suggests changes to Scottish parliament’s “Time for Reflection” 
  •  Irish Government sets up inquiry into Magdalene Laundries after criticism from UN committee on torture 
  •  First women in court over French veil ban 
  •  Hungarian constitution re-written as dictated by the pope 
  •  Majority of American Christians feel they don’t have to take notice of their church’s teachings to remain a member 
  •  Bible belt shrinks a few notches

More “faith school” bus cuts

Councils around the country continue to target discretionary transport to so-called “faith schools” in their push to cut spending.

Latest are Essex County Council, Cumbria County Council, Suffolk County Council and Wigan Metro Council, which will totally scrap all but mandatory transport subsidies to those who want to send their children to a religious school from 2012.

Dave Hill, Essex County Council’s executive director for schools, children and families, said in a letter to parents that it was not required by law to provide free buses to faith schools.

“There are currently tremendous pressures on Essex County Council’s budget,” he said. “We have completed a significant review of our home to school transport policy to ensure the current policy is equitable, supports the most vulnerable and provides the best value for money. The statutory entitlement to free transport will remain unchanged.”

Last week, Durham County Council approved a raft of changes to school transport, which will mean discretionary spending on free transport to religious schools is stopped completely. Members of the Council’s cabinet also agreed to explore the possibility of setting up self-financing concessionary transport schemes. This would be aimed at ensuring that home-to-school transport remains for those attending faith schools and for rural schools and communities, the Council said. It will now be seeking to work with schools, diocesan authorities, parents and other groups to do this.

Meanwhile, the Catholic bishop of Portsmouth has written to the Isle of Wight Council leader expressing “dismay” at proposals to end free travel for religious schools. The Right Reverend Crispian Hollis said removing transport subsidies could “severely impact the future and the flourishing of Christ the King School”. Councillor David Pugh, leader of the council, said all pupils should be treated equally, regardless of religion. A consultation on plans to end the blanket subsidy runs until 4 July.

Bishop Hollis said taking away the travel subsidy would:

“make life very difficult and may result in families deciding that they cannot afford to send their children to the faith school of their choice”. He added: “I urge you and the council to think again before implementing a proposal which could jeopardise the flourishing and development of Christ the King School.”

The discriminatory aspect that the NSS has highlighted for years is now echoed by Councillor Pugh: “It is not equitable or affordable in the current climate to offer a unique entitlement of free transport to parents and children of a certain religion, which is not made available to others. I’m confident that the vast majority of parents support our approach on this. A lot of councils have already made the change and in a way we’re catching up.”


Baptists wangle their way into schools with “inflatable church”

An inflatable church — in effect, a church-shaped bouncy castle — owned by a Baptist congregation is touring North Yorkshire “to enable school pupils to experience prayer”.

The 20ft (6m) high church is being taken on tour by the New Life Baptist Church in Northallerton. Prayer workshops will be run for pupils at six primary schools and one secondary school.

It is the first time the church has used the inflatable on tour, and the response so far is said to be “excellent”. Assistant pastor, Barry Thompson, said:

“It is a new experience, a different way of people interacting with the Christian faith.”

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

“Is there no end to these evangelising groups worming their way into schools, attempting to brainwash children? Do head teachers never say no? And are parents ever consulted about whether they are happy for their children to be manipulated in this way?”


Eight free schools to open in September – three of them religious

At least eight new free schools will open their doors this September – and three of them will be religious.

The Department for Education (DfE) named the eight schools which had signed funding agreements – promises of government funding in return for meeting certain conditions. Of these, three are in London, three in other urban areas and two in East Anglia.

The three religious schools are: St Luke’s C of E Primary School, Camden; Eden Primary School, a new Jewish school for Haringey; and the Sikh-ethos Nishkam Free School in Birmingham.

The others with agreements in place are: Bradford Science Academy; Stour Valley Community School in Suffolk; the Free School Norwich; and Batley Grammar School, a private school converting to the new status.

The DfE has received 323 applications to open new schools. In all, 26 schools have been approved to enter the “pre-opening stage”.

Others of these could yet open, however, with officials claiming that at least a dozen will open their doors this September.


NSS suggests changes to Scottish parliament’s “Time for Reflection”

Instead of prayers — as in the Westminster parliament — the Scottish Parliament has a weekly “Time for Reflection”. But the involvement by visiting ministers, priests and speakers fails to reflect the religious diversity of Scotland and ignores the fact that about one third of the Scottish population cannot be said to be religious in any way.

Now Norman Bonney, a Scottish member of the National Secular Society’s council of management, has written to the presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, challenging this system. In the letter to Patricia Marwick MSP he says:

The NSS believes that the existing arrangements give undue preference to religion in the conduct of this aspect of the Parliament’s activities. Research by the National Centre for Social Research gives evidence for 2009 from the British Social Attitudes Survey about the religious beliefs and practices of the British population.

Only 50% of the population describe themselves as Christian, down from the 2001 census figure and the equivalent sample survey figure of 66% of 25 years ago. Over 2 in every 5 people (43%) say they feel that they do not belong to any religion. 37% are atheists or agnostics. Almost two in three (62%) never attend church services. Three in ten people (31%) in Britain are described by the report as not religious: ‘they do not identify with a religion, don’t believe in God and don’t attend religious services’ (National Centre for Social Research, press release, December 2009). Parliament’s existing arrangements for ‘Time for Reflection’ appear to be derived from evidence in the 2001 census findings for Scotland. According to the Office of the Chief Statistician of the Scottish Executive in 2005, 27.55% of the Scottish population then declared that they had no religion.

The NSS suggests that in order to fairly reflect patterns of religion and non-religion in Scotland the practice of ‘Time for Reflection’ should either allow one third of the time for quiet contemplation among MSPs without the assistance of representatives of any religion or the complete abandonment of the practice.

On 15 June, Time for Reflection was conducted by Cecil O. Samuelson, President of the Brigham Young University, which is sponsored by the Mormon Church.

Norman Bonney commented: “While most members of the Scottish Parliament may know that the Mormon Church has a history of polygamy they may not know that the church is still dominated by an exclusively male hierarchy and that Brigham Young University is sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“Providing a platform for religions with male only priests would seem to be in conflict with the principle of equal opportunities between males and females which had been such an important founding and influential principle of the Scottish Parliament.”


Irish Government sets up inquiry into Magdalene Laundries after criticism from UN committee on torture

The Irish Government has agreed to set up a committee of inquiry to establish the full facts about the extent of abuse and cruelty at the Magdalene Laundries. The religious institutions that ran the laundries are to be asked to release all records on residents past and present.

It comes after demands by the UN Committee Against Torture for an inquiry and a long-running justice campaign by female survivors. The move falls short of a full state inquiry but has been classified as a “first step” by the Government.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Equality Minister Kathleen Lynch have agreed to meet the religious congregations involved and the groups representing the women mistreated in the laundries run by nuns. Mr Shatter wants the committee to lay the groundwork for “a restorative and reconciliation process”.

The move follows a recommendation last year by the Irish Human Rights Commission and more recently the United Nations Committee Against Torture (Uncat).

In a wide-ranging assessment (Word document), Uncat made several recommendations on issues as diverse as alleged state co-operation with extraordinary rendition, abortion, treatment of refugees and corporal punishment in the home. In one of the most damning criticisms, the Committee said the state had failed to protect young girls and women confined without their consent. It said the authorities failed to regulate or inspect the institutions where it was alleged women suffered physical and emotional abuse and other mistreatment.

The watchdog called for a state investigation into allegations of “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of women. It also recommended that those who meted out the abuse should be prosecuted and the victims compensated.

Between 1922 and 1996, it is estimated that 30,000 women passed through the laundries. However, the religious orders involved — the Sisters of Mercy, Good Shepherd Sisters, Sisters of Charity and Sisters of Our Lady of Charity — have, until now, consistently refused to open their archives. Under pressure, they issued a statement last Friday saying that they will co-operate with an investigation.

Originally set up to help prostitutes and women who had babies outside of marriage, the laundries became a dumping ground for unwed mothers and girls whose behaviour was considered promiscuous.

Once referred there, the women were virtually prisoners, had their babies taken away, were abused and forced to work without pay. Many became institutionalised and could never leave. Some remain with the religious orders to this day. Their plight was unforgettably dramatised in the film The Magdalene Sisters (Director Peter Mullan, 2002).

Meanwhile, a Dublin priest has written to the Irish Times to accuse his Church of “recklessly endangering children” through its system of cover up of child abuse. In an extraordinary outburst of frustrated anger, Father Patrick McCafferty wrote:

Those who should be leading the campaign for justice on behalf of those who were brutalised and abused in the Magdalene Laundries are the very religious congregations who staffed these places, where such horror was inflicted.

As it is, Sr Marianne O’Connor of Cori recently criticised the National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) for being allegedly “disingenuous and inaccurate” in reporting that attempts were being made to deliberately obstruct an audit into child safeguarding and protection in Irish dioceses and religious orders.

It is quite clear, from the NBSCCC’s annual report, that it has been repeatedly frustrated by some people, in some dioceses and religious orders, in its attempts to establish, honesty, transparency and accountability in significant sectors of the Irish Catholic Church. This reality — exemplified by the reported fact that only one in four allegations of clerical sexual abuse had been reported to the NBSCCC — is a perpetuation of the scandal that has all but destroyed faith in and goodwill towards the Church for a great number of people.

The real masters and mistresses of being “disingenuous and inaccurate” when it comes to clerical abuse are the so-called diocesan and religious church leaders who covered up crime and enabled abusers. These are the very ones who have slithered their way through every legal loophole they could find, so as to evade being answerable and responsible. Ian Elliott, overseer of the NBSCCC should not spare the blushes of those individuals who have obstructed his work.

The Holy Father has asked for openness and honesty, so as to establish truth. Truth is still a long way off in far too many cases. Bishops and heads of religious orders who are non-responsive are guilty of inflicting further grave harm on the mission and witness of Christ’s church. They should be removed from ministry by the Pope and, where necessary, prosecuted for reckless endangerment of the young.


First women in court over French veil ban

A French court on Thursday heard the country’s first case against women refusing to obey a new law banning the wearing of Islamic face veils in public. The two women, who wear the niqab, a veil that covers the hair and face with just a slit for the eyes, were ordered to appear before the court in the town of Meaux, about 40 kilometres east of Paris, for going to the local town hall on May 5 with their faces veiled.

Only one of the women — called Hind — appeared at the court, and she was barred from entering after refusing to remove her veil for the duration of the hearing. She offered to undergo an identity check, but this was refused.

Under a new law prohibiting people from concealing their face in public — widely referred to as the ‘burqa ban’ because it is aimed at wearers of the Islamic burqa, or full-body covering, and niqab — the women risk a fine of 150 euros and/or being asked to take lessons in citizenship. A person who forces a woman to wear a veil risks a year in prison and 30,000 euros in fines.

The two women were booked by police after showing up at Meaux town hall with a birthday cake for Mayor Jean-Francois Cope, who is also leader of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative ruling Union for a Popular Majority (UMP). The cake was made of almonds, a word which sounds like the French word for fines (amendes), and was meant as a dig at the government over the timid application by the authorities of the two-month-old law.

While several women have been booked by police, only one has been fined so far, according to Rachid Nekkaz, founder of Don’t Touch My Constitution, a group lobbying against the ban.

Hind said she hoped to be fined, so that she could challenge the law, which she sees as an attack on her freedom of religion, in the European Court of Human Rights.


Hungarian constitution re-written as dictated by the pope

The revised Hungarian constitution, which will take effect on 1 January, completely outlaws abortion, gay marriage and protection of homosexuals from discrimination, and allows lifelong imprisonment without possibility of parole. Amnesty International has condemned the document as abusing human rights on several fronts.

“Human dignity is inviolable,” the constitution states. “Everyone has the right to life and human dignity; the life of a foetus will be protected from conception. Eugenic practices aimed at selection of persons, making the human body and its parts a source of profit and the reproductive cloning of human beings are prohibited,” the document adds.

The new constitution also states that:

“Hungary protects the institution of marriage between man and woman, a matrimonial relationship voluntarily established, as well as the family as the basis for the survival of the nation. Hungary supports child-bearing.”

Amnesty International said in a press release that it was: “deeply concerned that the new Constitution of the Republic of Hungary, adopted by the Hungarian National Assembly on 18 April 2011, violates international and European human rights standards.

“The introduction of the protection of life from conception (Article II), the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman (Article L), the provision allowing for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (Article IV) and the exclusion of sexual orientation from the protected grounds of discrimination (Article XV.2) are particularly problematic.”

Despite having written Catholic dogma into law, the constitution goes on to state:

[…] everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to choose and to change religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest or choose not to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. In Hungary the churches and the State operate separately. Churches are independent in Hungary. The State will cooperate with churches in the pursuit of community objectives. Detailed regulations pertaining to churches will be set forth in a super majority law.

The Vatican claims that out of a population of 10 million, 59% are Catholics.


Majority of American Christians feel they don’t have to take notice of their church’s teachings to remain a member

A large-scale survey in the USA by the Public Religion Research Institute has shown that significant majorities of Americans say it is possible to disagree with their religion’s teachings on abortion and homosexuality and still remain in good standing with their faith. This held true for major religious groups, including Catholics and white evangelical Protestants.

The survey found that around 60 per cent of Americans object to the idea of religious leaders publicly pressuring politicians on the issue of abortion, as has happened to several high-profile Catholic Democrats in recent years.

Overall, 72 percent of Americans say it’s permissible to disagree with church teaching on abortion, and 63 percent say the same for homosexuality.

Catholics closely mirror the general population’s position on abortion and church teaching, but are more progressive than the general population on the issue of homosexuality and church teaching.

Two-thirds of evangelicals (67 percent) said they could differ with church teaching on abortion, and slightly less than a majority (47 percent) said the same about homosexuality.

The report focused on the views of so-called millennials (people ages 18–29) and found that they are more supportive than their parents of gay marriage. Their views on abortion closely mirror their parents, however, with six in 10 saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Also, 68% of millennials think that at least some health care professionals in their community should provide legal abortions.

Abortion services by local health care professionals are also supported by majorities of white mainline Protestants (72 percent), the religiously unaffiliated (71 percent), white Catholics (58 percent), and black Protestants (56 percent). At the other end of the spectrum were Latino Catholics and white evangelicals, (38 percent) and (37 percent) respectively of whom supported such availability.

Researchers found a link between biblical interpretation and opposition to abortion: almost six in 10 Americans who say the Bible is the literal word of God believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. More than 80 percent of people who don’t see the Bible as the word of God but rather a book written by men, think abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances.

State schools teaching comprehensive sex education was supported by 85 percent of Protestants, 78 per cent of Catholics, 74 black Protestants and 62 per cent of evangelicals.


Bible belt shrinks a few notches

The Southern Baptist Convention reported declines last year in several categories traditionally used as markers of denominational vitality, according to annual statistics released June 9 by LifeWay Christian Resources.

The 2010 Annual Church Profile showed dips in baptisms, total church membership, worship attendance and participation in Sunday school and other Christian education programs. Declines were also reported in giving categories, but some declines were explained away by claims that not all Baptist state conventions asked churches for information in ways that make year-on-year comparisons valid.

Southern Baptists reported 5 percent fewer baptisms in 2010 than in 2009 – 332,321 compared to 349,737. Total membership was counted at 16,136,044, a drop of 0.15 percent and the fourth consecutive year of membership losses.

One minor statistic going against the flow was the number of churches, which rose 1.59 percent to 45,727.

There was a blip in baptisms in 2009. They increased then after four consecutive years of decline. Baptisms peaked at 445,725 in 1972. While there are far more Southern Baptist churches now, observers say baptisms have essentially been plateaued since 1950. In 2010 there was one baptism for every 48 members of a Southern Baptist church. Sixty years ago the ratio was 1:19.

Convinced in the 1970s that creeping liberalism would lead to decline similar to that suffered in mainline denominations, the current SBC leadership launched a “conservative resurgence” to focus on conservative theology and evangelism. Affirming the movement for theological reform, two years ago, leaders launched a “Great Commission Resurgence” aimed at renewing evangelistic zeal.


Newsline – 10th June 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 backs Bill that would curb sharia courts in Britain 
  •  Sharia debate in Parliament 
  •  Catholic Church to challenge religious school transport cuts 
  •  Agnostic teacher sacked from Catholic school in Glasgow 
  •  Bridport mayor drops prayers at council meetings 
  •  Campaigning Christians “have come to believe their own propaganda” 
  •  Christians have nothing to fear from secularism 
  •  Chaplain tried to get special treatment for fiddling Lordship

NSS backs Bill that would curb sharia courts in Britain

A parliamentary Bill has been tabled in the House of Lords that would stop sharia courts in this country claiming that they have legal jurisdiction over criminal or family law. At meetings launching the Bill to the press and for peers, the Baroness tabling it was joined on platform by Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society who also spoke. This demonstrated the broad base of support for the Bill, which included religious and women’s groups. The One Law for All group was represented and copies of their publication One Law for All was distributed to participants. Both meetings were lively and constructive.

The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, was introduced into the House of Lords by Baroness Caroline Cox (independent). Its intention is to tackle the discrimination suffered by Muslim women within the Sharia court system. The Bill, which applies to all arbitration tribunals, will firmly outlaw the practice of giving women’s testimony half the weight of men’s. The Bill addresses human rights issues and does not mention Islam.

The Bill’s proposals include:

  • A new criminal offence of ‘falsely claiming legal jurisdiction’ for any person who adjudicates upon matters which ought to be decided by criminal or family courts. The maximum penalty would be five years in prison.
  • Explicitly stating in legislation that sex discrimination law applies directly to arbitration tribunal proceedings. Discriminatory rulings may be struck down under the Bill.
  • Requiring public bodies to inform women that they have fewer legal rights if their marriage is unrecognised by English law.
  • Explicitly stating on the face of legislation that arbitration tribunals may not deal with matters of family law (such as legally recognised divorce or custody of children) or criminal law (such as domestic violence).
  • Making it easier for a civil court to set aside a consent order if a mediation settlement agreement or other agreement was reached under duress.
  • Explicitly stating on the face of legislation that a victim of domestic abuse is a witness to an offence and therefore should be expressly protected from witness intimidation.

Lady Cox said:

“Equality under the law is a core value of British justice. My Bill seeks to preserve that standard. I have no desire to interfere in the internal theological affairs of religious groups, and my Bill does not do that. My Bill seeks to stop parallel legal, or ‘quasi-legal’, systems taking root in our nation. Cases of criminal law and family law are matters reserved for our English courts alone.  Through these proposals, I want to make it perfectly clear in the law that discrimination against women shall not be allowed within arbitration. I am deeply concerned about the treatment of Muslim women by Sharia Courts. We must do all that we can to make sure they are free from any coercion, intimidation or unfairness.  There is considerable evidence that many women are suffering in many ways (such as domestic violence or unequal access to divorce) due to discriminatory practices in our country today and we cannot continue to condone this situation. Many women say, ‘we came to this country to escape these practices only to find the situation is worse here.”

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

“Laws should not impinge on religious freedom, nor should courts judge on theological matters. But by the same token democratically determined and human rights compliant law must always take precedence over the law of any religion. Yet religious law can already be enforced under English law through the Arbitration Act and that is what this Bill is seeking to address.  Religious arbitration has already been outlawed in two Canadian provinces and under this new Bill the Arbitration Act would not be able to determine family or criminal matters nor agreements that are discriminatory against women. A nation could be defined by those subject to one law. This Bill aims once more to give every citizen equal protection by the same just law – one law for all.”

Anne Marie Waters of the One Law for All campaign commented:

“We welcome any Bill that can halt the advancement of sharia courts and religious tribunals in Britain and promote equal rights. It is particularly important that women are informed of their rights under British law, and that domestic violence or other family or criminal law matters are not dealt with by sharia-based bodies – these put women at a grave disadvantage and treat children as the property of their fathers.”

Sharia debate in Parliament

Newsline readers are invited to a debate in Parliament jointly organised by the One Law for All Campaign and the NSS. The practice of sharia law will be debated and in particular whether it should be permitted under the powers of the Arbitration Act. Sharia tribunals and councils are in free operation across the United Kingdom – some operate under the power of the Arbitration Act 1996. The debate will be chaired by Jim Fitzpatrick MP.
When: Tuesday 28 June 2011, evening
Where: Houses of Parliament, Westminster
If you would like to attend please email for details.
One Law for All’s recently published report Sharia Law in Britain: A Threat to One Law for All and Equal Rights is available for download via the NSS website.

Catholic Church to challenge religious school transport cuts

The Catholic Education Service of England and Wales is taking legal advice over the scrapping by local authorities of free or subsidised transport for faith school pupils. It said it would instruct lawyers to investigate whether the moves were permitted under human-rights and anti-discrimination legislation. At least 16 councils are considering ending, or have cut, the discretionary service. Latest, this week, is Hampshire County Council, which ended its subsidies for pupils wishing to travel to religious schools outside their catchment area.

Agnostic teacher sacked from Catholic school in Glasgow

A Scottish teacher is suing Glasgow City Council after she was forced out of her job at a Roman Catholic school because she defines herself as an agnostic.

Anne McShane, a supply teacher employed by Glasgow City Council, was not able to continue working at St Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Glasgow’s Jordanhill as a priest refused to give her a reference.

After starting her post in January 2010 Ms McShane claims she was told by bosses she was unable to continue working there. She has now lodged a claim of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief to the employment tribunals.

Glasgow City Council contests the claim and denies any discrimination. After a pre-hearing review employment, judge Shona MacLean refused the council’s request the claim should be struck out and ruled the tribunal should hear Ms McShane’s case.

The hearing was told there is a requirement that a teacher appointed to any post in a council-owned Roman Catholic school must be approved by the Roman Catholic Church.

Ms McShane, who was christened and educated in the Roman Catholic faith, was offered the post in 2009 and began working in January 2010 while the application was processed.

After her parish priest allegedly refused to give her a reference, Ms McShane turned to a lawyer. But, the school learned at the end of January Ms McShane’s application to the church was to be declined. The hearing was told Ms McShane was informed the council “could not continue to allow her to teach in the post”.

Ms McShane said she received a letter from the church stating “if you are Catholic, I require a reference from the parish priest who sees you at Mass”.

After asking for a review of the church’s decision, Ms McShane was allegedly told: “In looking at your application, I see no priest’s reference, I therefore find no evidence of your practise”.

A further hearing will take place at a later date.

Bridport mayor drops prayers at council meetings

The new mayor of Bridport in Dorset has decided that prayers before council meetings will be replaced by a moment’s silence and time for reflection.

Councillor David Rickard — who defines himself as agnostic — has now found himself at the sharp end of a backlash from the local religious establishment who resent being ousted from the council chamber.

The Reverend Canon Andrew Evans, rector of the Bridport Team ministry, is quoted in the Western Gazette as saying:

“I respect his personal views but I was, of course, saddened to hear this because I believe the office of mayor to be above personal and political conviction and affiliation. It was also sad for there to be no one representing the Christian community at the mayor-making ceremony this year.”

Councillor David Tett said:

“I don’t agree with it and I am very disappointed. It’s a retrograde step. I’m a traditionalist and always look forward to a prayer at the start of the meeting. I can’t ever recall a mayor not having prayers before.”

Councillor Geoff Ackerman, who was mayor last year, said: “I’m in the same boat as Mr Evans and very disappointed. It’s a tradition I feel should be carried on. I like traditions, but it is up to the mayor. Maybe it should have been put to council to vote on.”

But the mayor does have his supporters, too. Newly-elected councillor Gillian Massey believes the change allows inclusion for everyone. She said:

“The replacement is a moment of silence and I think that caters for all personal beliefs and non-beliefs. I can understand the concerns though – change is always difficult.”

Mr Rickard said he was surprised by the reaction. “After all, it’s not a religious service, it is a council meeting,” he said.

“Saying prayers are not relevant to me and not something I want to do. One or two are saying that it’s a traditional link, but it is irrelevant to local government. The 1972 Local Government Act doesn’t mention God, religion, monarchs or anything. It’s not about getting rid of the concept of being thoughtful before a meeting. It is replacing formal prayers for a time of quiet, thoughtful reflection.”

The mayor has also dispensed with the services of a chaplain for his term of office.

Campaigning Christians “have come to believe their own propaganda”

A group of evangelical Christians who have repeatedly lost legal cases that aimed at forcing religious privilege into law, have now taken their empty grievances to the European Court in Strasbourg.

European judges have ordered government ministers to make a formal statement on whether it believes Christians’ rights have been infringed by previous decisions in the British courts. The court asked the British government, “In each case, did the restriction on visibly wearing a cross or crucifix at work amount to an interference with the applicant’s right to manifest her religion or belief, as protected by Article 9 [the right to freedom of religion] of the Convention?”

Among the activists leading this new attempt to gain religious privilege uniquely for Christians is Nadia Eweida, the British Airways worker who mounted a legal action after being barred from wearing a cross over her uniform. Four separate courts found that she had suffered no discrimination and eventually the court system ran out of patience with her relentless pursuit of BA and she was denied an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Eweida has repeatedly pushed the idea that she is the victim of an anti-Christian conspiracy. BA gave her everything she wanted, changed their uniform rules to suit her, offered her compensation and numerous apologies, but none of this has satisfied her.

Others who are taking part in the Strasbourg appeal are include Lillian Ladele, a former registrar who objected to conducting gay civil partnership ceremonies because of her faith. It led to disciplinary action by Islington council in north London, where she had worked for 17 years. Again, Ms Ladele’s claims of discrimination were repeatedly rejected by tribunals and courts.

Gary McFarlane, a Christian relationship counsellor, has also applied to Strasbourg after he was sacked by a Relate, the counselling service, for refusing to give sex therapy to homosexual couples. When his case was heard in court, the judge ruled that appeals to treat Christians more favourably in law was “irrational” but also “divisive, capricious and arbitrary”.

The final applicant is Shirley Chaplin, a former nurse from Exeter, who was briefly suspended from her job in a hospital for wearing a cross. Once again, when examined objectively by a tribunal, it was found that Ms Chaplin’s case had no substance .

Their cases have been selected by the European Court as of being of such legal significance that they be examined further. Once ministers have responded the court will decide whether to have full hearings on them.

The Daily Telegraph, which, together with the Daily Mail, has been in the forefront of the distortions and exaggerations that have created the impression of “Christian persecution” in Britain, said the cases could “lead to a final legal answer on how religious beliefs must be balanced against equality laws designed to prohibit discrimination against minority religions and other groups such as homosexuals.”

Andrea Minichiello Williams, the founder and director of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting two of the applicants, and who is at the forefront of the paranoid campaign that claims Christians are suffering disadvantage, said:

“There seems to be a disproportionate animosity towards the Christian faith and the workings of the courts in the UK has led to deep injustice. If we are successful in Strasbourg I hope the Equalities Act and other diversity legislation will be overturned or overhauled so that Christians are free to work and act in accordance with their conscience. David Cameron now needs to put his money where his mouth is.”

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

“These grievances are based on ridiculous misrepresentation of the facts. The people behind them seem to be wearing blinkers so tight that they are incapable of seeing beyond them. Lawyers are supposed to be able to look at the facts dispassionately and present a case based on what actually happened rather than what they have convinced themselves happened. The Christian Legal Centre has come to believe its own propaganda, which is why this appeal will fail just like everything else they have done has failed.  Ms Minichiello Williams must realise that the equality legislation originated in Europe and to overturn it — as she wants — would require a major confrontation with the European Union.”

Christians have nothing to fear from secularism
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

Occasionally, the aims of the NSS coincide with those of some Christian campaigners. We sometimes join forces with Catholics for Choice or Ekklesia. We’re even supporting a Christian Institute campaign to resist the march of sharia law in the UK.

Now we’re supporting an effort to amend Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 in an effort to protect freedom of speech.

As it stands, the Act outlaws “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” and behaviour that is “likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”.

Edward Leigh, the Christian MP, who has tabled the amendment in parliament, said that it is the subjectivity of the term “insulting” that is the problem. “I believe that removing the word ‘insulting’ would be enough to stop Section 5 being misused and generating a chilling effect on free speech,” he told the House of Commons.

“Section 5 is a classic example of a law that was brought in for one thing, fair enough, to deal long ago with a particular state of affairs, but in practice is being used for something quite different. It was brought in to tackle hooliganism, but is increasingly used by police to silence peaceful protesters and street preachers.”

The law has been used as a justification to arrest street evangelists who shout out biblical condemnations of homosexuals, but it has also been used against other campaigners – an animal rights activist was arrested after someone took exception to her using a toy seal with red paint on it to protest about seal culling.

Liberal Democrat president, Tim Farron, and the Labour party’s Tom Watson, a former Government Minister, together with six other MPs from across the parties have signed up to the amendment. NSS honorary associate Dr Evan Harris has also spoken out in its support.

When the NSS was approached by its proponents to support this amendment, we had no hesitation. Although the Christians who are at the forefront of the initiative want to prevent the arrest of street preachers for offending homosexuals, we want to ensure that it also works the other way round, and that religious people can no longer use their “insulted sensibilities” as a means of silencing their critics.

As secularists, it is our duty to ensure that the law is fair to everybody. As defenders of free speech we have to argue for the right of religious people to insult and criticise us as much as we argue for the right to freely criticise them, without fear of a visit from the police. Free speech is not free if it is available only to some and not others.

In the interests of open debate, we have to support changes that will stop the law intervening over hurt feelings and offence-taking. Indeed, if you’ve ever tried to engage with proselytising Muslims about their religion, the first thing that will be heard when anything vaguely critical of Islam is mentioned, is “I find that really offensive.”

At best that is usually the end of the conversation and at worst it will herald a knock on the door from PC Plod.

Unfortunately, changing Section 5 of the Public Order Act won’t be of help to you if your employer disciplines or sacks you for vigorously pooh-poohing your Islamist or Christian colleagues’ attempts at evangelising you at work. Answering back against their proselytising could find you accused of harassing them on grounds of their religion.

One interesting sideline that this attempt to extend freedom of speech has revealed is how the NSS is regarded in some evangelical Christian circles.

After I had been interviewed about the campaign on Premier Christian Radio, my support was noted by the influential Christian website Lifesite News, with these comments:

“The MPs’ attempt to ameliorate the situation in Britain has received the surprise backing of one of the country’s most virulent anti-Christian campaigners. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society (NSS), has said that there should be no objection to a change to make it more difficult for people to involve the law when they feel offended.  Sanderson, who is one of the leading voices in Britain to abolish all public acknowledgement of Christianity, told media, “I think that most people who value free speech, and that’s most democrats, would say that it’s common sense to say that you cannot take offence and then call in the law to say my feelings must be protected.”

I do not think that I have ever argued to “abolish all public acknowledgement of Christianity” and nor do I regard myself as “a virulent anti-Christian campaigner”.

As secularists, the NSS argues for a public space that is open to everyone, without prejudice. But if it is to be a genuinely free and open, it cannot be dominated by one opinion, religious or otherwise.

In a democracy, individual Christians have as much right as anyone else to participate in public life (as, indeed, Edward Leigh and many other Christians do, in Parliament) and to advocate for their cause.

But Christianity as an ideology cannot be integrated into a secular state. Nor can any other religious belief. That does not mean to say that we are arguing to end people’s right to have a faith or to practise it within the law.

In Britain at the moment, Christianity, as practised by the Church of England, is the official state-recognised religion. But that must change. Britain is no longer a mono-faith nation. Increasingly it is a country of no religion at all, and paradoxically has perhaps more other religions in Britain than any other country.

That doesn’t mean that Christianity must be banished from all public discourse and it does not mean that Christians must be disadvantaged or suffer discrimination as individuals. But it does mean that clerics, imams, archbishops, rabbis and all the rest will not have an automatic right to direct law-making. They will not have privileged access to the public purse, nor any special concessions in equality law beyond those required by EU directives.

When you have enjoyed these perks for centuries, the prospect of having them taken away will, of course, feel like discrimination. But it is not discrimination. It is a fair and equal sharing of resources in society and a respect for the needs of smaller and less influential groups.

Whether it is the removal of transport subsidies to religious schools (which cost all taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds every year but are only available to the privileged few who happen to claim a particular religious affiliation) or the ending of the participation of Anglican bishops in the law-making process, it needs to be done if we are to be just to all.

This is not anti-Christian, it is pro-everybody else. If only religious people would listen, they would realise that secularism is not their enemy but might one day, as religious diversity increases, be their best friend.

Chaplain tried to get special treatment for fiddling Lordship

The Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, The Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, intervened in the trial of an expenses-fiddling peer in the hope of getting him spared a jail sentence.

Ms Hudson-Wilkin wrote to the judge presiding over the trial of Lord Taylor, who was convicted of fraudulently claiming expenses of £11,000, appealing for him to be spared prison, saying she would help oversee a community service order.

Fortunately, the judge did not listen to this special pleading and as a consequence, Lord Taylor was jailed for a year.

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said:

“It is extraordinary that this cleric imagines she can use her position to wangle special treatment from the law. It is just as well that her appeal fell on deaf ears – there must never be different rules of justice for anyone, whatever their religion, race or status “

Lord Taylor now faces financial ruin with a confiscation hearing in December to seek the repayment of thousands of pounds of fraudulently claimed expenses not covered by the prosecution. He is likely to remain a member of the House of Lords. Peers can be expelled only by an Act of Parliament.


Newsline – 3rd June 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

  • Faith-based welfare could bring discrimination against marginalised groups, say Unitarians
  • Catholic adoption charity still trying to win the right to discriminate against gays using public money
  • NSS blamed for cuts in religious school transport subsidies
  • Sex Education handed over to religious bigots and fundamentalists
  • £100 fine for waging homophobic hate campaign
  • Malta votes to legislate on divorce
  • BBC give far more to Christianity than it deserves – but it’s never enough!
  • Leicester Council re-embraces religion
  • Australian churches narrowly loses right to discriminate in employment

Faith-based welfare could bring discrimination against marginalised groups, say Unitarians

In a submission to the Parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee, which started holding oral hearings for its inquiry into the big society agenda this week, the Unitarian Church has warned that “faith based welfare” could lead to discrimination against marginalised groups.

The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches warns: “Whilst the churches and other faith groups have always been active in the Big Society, we have concerns that some religious groups that seek to take over public services, particularly at local level, could pursue policies and practices that result in increased discrimination against marginalised groups, particularly in service provision and the employment of staff.”

Derek McAuley, chief officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, told Third Sector magazine that he was concerned that gay and lesbian public sector staff who were moved to local faith charities under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations might face discrimination by other staff at those charities.

His submission to the PASC says: “Non-religious people and those not seen to confirm to the dominant ethos of a religious body, such as being in an unmarried relationship or divorced and being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered, could find themselves subject to discrimination.

“Contracts should therefore only be awarded to faith-based organisations that have a public commitment to, and can demonstrate compliance with, the promotion of equality in line with the commitment of recent governments.”

The submission says Unitarians have “an historic and ongoing commitment to the provision of services on a non-sectarian basis”.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “I am glad that others are beginning to recognise the dangers of simply handing over welfare services to religious groups that have proven records of bigotry and discrimination. The Government, and its predecessor, have been in denial over this. But now they really must put in place some tough regulations on how public money will be spent and to stop discrimination not only in service provision but in employment, too.”


Catholic adoption charity still trying to win the right to discriminate against gays using public money

The Leeds-based charity Catholic Care is to appeal to the Upper [Charity] Tribunal in the hope of quashing the ruling forbidding it to exclude gay people when considering potential adoptive parents.

After a two-day hearing in March this year, the Tribunal insisted the Commission’s stance be upheld. But the Tribunal has now confirmed that Catholic Care is to lodge another appeal – its fourth – against the decision.

Catholic Care, which places about five children a year with adoptive parents have said that if they are not permitted to exclude gay couples, their supporters would cease to donate money, leading to the closure of the service. It has also said it believes the Equality Act 2010 allows discrimination on the grounds of sexuality if this is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

Back in March, the Tribunal said its decision was based on the fact that Catholic Care had not fully considered all the potential alternatives to closing.


NSS blamed for cuts in religious school transport subsidies

The head of a Catholic school in Surrey has blamed “massive pressure” from the National Secular Society for the decision by the County Council to scrap subsidies for transport to religious schools.

Robert Guinea, the headteacher of St Peter’s Catholic School in Guildford said he was very disappointed by the Council’s decision. “Faith schools don’t have the cultural support that we used to have, and groups like the National Secular Society really seized on that,” he said. “It was a real wake up call.”

From September 2012, new students at any of the county’s denominational schools will have to pay full bus fares or find alternative travel arrangements. The decision comes after several months of consultation, during which proposals to impose a ‘blanket cut’ on all faith school transport was considered, leading to strong opposition from families using the schools. A petition bearing the names of 3,645 parents was presented to the Council earlier this month in the hope it would reconsider its plans to cut all bus provision.

The Council’s decision was taken, said Cllr Peter Martin, cabinet member for children and learning, to correct an ‘anomaly’ in transport funding. He told the meeting of the cabinet on Tuesday (May 24) that county-funded transport to faith schools was itself unfair when the scheme was not offered across the board.

The cuts, which will affect around 2,200 pupils out of a total 142,000 in the county, are expected to save Surrey taxpayers £1.9 million every year.

The head of St Bede’s School in Redhill, Christopher Curtis, also slammed the decision. He said: “This is dressed up as fairness but actually it is deeply unfair and discriminatory. The Council seems to have ignored the millions of pounds that the churches and their members pay into the public purse in order to provide the schools in the first place.”

The Council currently funds transport to denominational schools for 2,200 children who live up to six miles away from a primary or 10 miles away from a secondary. It costs almost £400,000 a year to provide transport for 479 St Bede’s pupils. The Council also spends almost £20,000 providing transport for 23 pupils who attend St Joseph’s Primary School in Redhill.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “If simply pointing out a case of gross religious discrimination amounts to ‘massive pressure’ then it didn’t take much effort. These people are bemoaning the loss of an unjustified privilege they have enjoyed for decades funded by the public purse to the tune of tens of millions of pounds.

“School transport for children of less well off families, including to far off religious schools, will still be provided from public funds, by law. Given this, it is curious that Kent County Council announced it “was now looking to change the details and keep the free travel for low-income families and pupils who get free school meals”. We are not sure whether they have only now woken up to their statutory obligations or they are trying to create the impression they have made a concession, when they had no alternative.”


Sex Education handed over to religious bigots and fundamentalists

The Sex and Relationships Education Council, which represents six organisations that promote conservative attitudes to social policy was launched at a meeting in Parliament last week. It will forge links between its members and the Government, according to Dan Bouher, the parliamentary officer for CARE – a Christian lobbying group deeply embedded in parliament.

The new umbrella body would work with the Government in its review of Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE). The Council hoped to enhance the part played by parents in sex-and-relationships education, he said.

David Burrowes, MP for Enfield Southgate, who hosted the launch, said that the “new body embraces significant expertise from which the Government can benefit in the context of the current review and beyond.

The Council’s founding members are Evaluate (which advocates abstinence-based sex education), Lovewise (“which seeks to help schools and youth groups by providing presentations on the subjects of marriage, sex and relationships from a Christian perspective”.) Challenge Teams (another abstinence-only sex “education” group), LIFE (anti-abortion group), Silver Ring Thing (the discredited abstinence-only group), Family Education Trust (fundamentalist Christian group) and Right to Life (anti-abortion group).

The Education Secretary Michael Gove sent a message of apology to the meeting saying that he was in full sympathy with their aims and would be consulting them on policy.


£100 fine for waging homophobic hate campaign
By Adrian Tippetts

Many gay and lesbian people in East London are furious that a man found guilty of distributing and placing homophobic hate stickers around the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has been fined just £100. The story has been reported in both the local press and gay press.

Mohammed Hasnath, of Leamouth, Tower Hamlets, admitted putting up the stickers, declaring a ‘Gay Free Zone’ and quoting a verse from the Qur’an, on the 25 bus, a bus stop in Whitechapel, Bow Church DLR station, and outside the Royal London Hospital, as well as handing them out to “random Muslim men”, between the 11 and 14 February this year.

The stickers have been seen in many streets in Whitechapel, Canary Wharf and Hackney. Similar religiously inspired homophobic hate stickers have been reported in Derby and Leicester.

There is a strong feeling that homophobia is being covered up, or ignored, in order not to ‘endanger community relations’. This paltry fine sends a message that bullies and thugs can get away with it, and that homophobia is a second-class crime. There is also a feeling that Muslim extremists get off lightly.

A comment on PinkNews says it all: “He was charged under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 —which is often used to prosecute someone who repeatedly swears in the street — that is the level of offence that was used in the case. Shocking watering down of the impact of this on the communities by the justice system – let down by police and CPS…”

If the stickers had declared a black or Jewish free zone, would the Crown Prosecution Service have brought such pathetic charges? I don’t think so.

The homophobic stickers have filled many gay people with fear in an area where they have been subject to vicious assaults and intimidation by Muslim gangs for years. The most vicious attack — ignored by national media — occurred in late August of 2008, when a 21 year-old art student, Oliver Hemsley, was butchered just after leaving the George & Dragon pub, Shoreditch.

He was set on by a gang of 8 Bengali youths, his wine bottle snatched from him, smashed and the broken glass driven into his torso; they kicked him to a pulp, and finally stabbed him in the neck, a knife partly cutting his spinal cord to leave him quadriplegic. A 15 year old, Nasrul Islam, was the only gang member to be brought to justice. Incredibly, the police released him on bail – only for him to mug a 12 year-old girl just days later. On his sentencing in March 2009, as an act of revenge, 30 youths attacked the George & Dragon and its customers with baseball bats. For months, LGBT people walking along Hackney Road were subject to abuse and assaults, pelted with stones and eggs.

It is said homophobic hate crime is ‘falling’ in Tower Hamlets. However, there are many gay people who have been forced out of the borough, unable to cope with the harassment.

Whitechapel has been a hotbed of Islamist extremism (the Quilliam Foundation can give you much background). The main mosque there, the East London Mosque, has many links with the extremist Islamic Federation of Europe, which seeks to turn Europe into a Sharia state. It was founded after Jamaat-e-Islam’s members fled Bangladesh in 1971. Wanted for murder in their own country, they were received with open arms here.

The infiltration of the East London Mosque, according to the Quilliam Foundation, runs deep. Of 22 IFE trustees, only 5 have not also been trustees of the mosque. The East London has hosted numerous hate preachers who have promoted the most vicious homophobia imaginable over the years.

While it is doubtful that many of the thugs are regular mosque attendees, the preachers have created an atmosphere in which hate is socially acceptable; in which maiming and violence is the most dutiful, honourable, devout thing to do. Extremists are a tiny minority of the Muslim community. And go to Brick Lane on a Sunday and see people of all religions and sexual persuasions, enjoying the carnival atmosphere, not to mention wonderful food dishes from all over the world.

We must stop assuming that the East London Mosque (ELM) / Islamic Federation of Europe represent the Muslim community. There are 80,000 Muslims in Tower Hamlets. About 4,000 of them, or 5%, attend the ELM. Last June, a host of Tower Hamlets organisations condemned the IFE as fascists. The Bangladeshi Welfare Association, Brick Lane Mosque, Bangladesh Youth Association and a host of other local groups signed a joint release condemning the IFE. See the Spittoon blogsite .

Also, homophobia is not the only manifestation of extremism. A female Muslim councillor faced death threats for not wearing a headdress and a religion teacher’s face was slashed for teaching Muslim girls about other faiths. Advertising billboards are vandalised. There is a boycott against a female pharmacist who will not wear a veil. Visit Vallance Road and see the chilling Islam4UK stickers for yourself, declaring the need for a Sharia state – no one has the courage to get rid of them.

We really need the media to hold the CPS and the police as well as local and national politicians accountable.


Malta votes to legislate on divorce
By Godfrey Vella, chair of the Malta Humanist Association

Malta is the sole nation in Europe and one of only two worldwide where divorce is still not legal. However, all this is set to change as in a referendum held on the 28th of May, a majority of the Maltese electorate voted for Parliament to enact divorce legislation. Some stumbling blocks remain. Since by Maltese law, the referendum could only be a consultative one, the legislation still has to be debated and passed into law by the Members of Malta’s Parliament.

A number of conservative MPs have already stated their intention to vote against the introduction of the legislation. Leading among these is the Maltese Prime Minister who had persuaded his ruling Christian Democrat party to take a stand against divorce legislation and has personally campaigned for a No vote.

Another vociferous protagonist in the anti-divorce campaign was the Maltese Roman Catholic Church. Malta is considered the most Catholic country in Europe and in a visit in 2010, Pope Benedict had urged the Maltese to defend the indissolubility of marriage. The Church pulled no punches. Through its bishops and clergy it threatened the faithful with irreparable consequences and mortal sin if they were to vote for divorce legislation or even abstain in the referendum. It also funded an expensive campaign with billboards, TV adverts and anti-divorce literature sent to all households in the country. Notwithstanding this, two thirds of the Maltese electorate chose to disregard the Church’s admonishments.

The referendum result is also seen as a strong desire by the Maltese to see a greater separation between Church and State. Malta is still a confessional state with the Roman Catholic religion being defined by the Constitution as the official state religion and with another Constitutional article that makes Catholic education compulsory in State schools. Other laws give the Church Marriage Tribunals precedence over civil courts and blasphemy and making fun of the Church are still punishable by imprisonment. However, humanist, secular and atheistic movements are beginning to make their presence felt in the island. The Maltese now eagerly wait for the parliamentary debate on the bill in the full expectation that their MPs will do their duty and follow the wishes clearly expressed by the electorate.

Meanwhile, a legislative initiative to allow divorce in the Philippines has been introduced as a means of discouraging Catholic opposition to a strong family-planning policy, one key lawmaker charges.

Senator Vicente Sotto III said that the divorce bill is designed to put Church leaders on the defensive, making it more difficult to rally Catholic opposition to the birth-control measure.


BBC give far more to Christianity than it deserves – but it’s never enough!
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

The BBC is taking some effort to create a “Diversity Strategy” that will ensure everyone, regardless of race, disability, sex, orientation or religion, feel they are fairly included in our national broadcaster’s output.

Some of the research was revealed last week, and if you read the reports about it in the Telegraph and the Mail, you would think that the BBC had a fixed policy of sidelining and humiliating Christians (and only Christians).

The newspaper reports gave the impression that there was widespread alarm at the way that Christianity is portrayed on the BBC. But if you look at the report itself (pdf) you will see that all the representatives of minority groups that were consulted equally felt hard done by.

Muslims felt that there was too much emphasis on terrorism in the news, atheists thought that the religious programming was way out of proportion, the old thought they were widely excluded by the BBC.

But the religious propagandists had picked out a few comments by Christian activists and the impression was thereby created that the BBC is “anti-Christian”.

But how much more do Christians want from the BBC? It seems nothing but complete and blinkered approval is acceptable to them. No matter how badly or madly they behave, they must not be presented as mad or bad and their many nefarious activities must go unreported.

The BBC broadcasts two Christian religious services every day of the week. It broadcasts thousands of hours of, mainly Christian, programming under the religion and belief umbrella. We now hear that Songs of Praise has had its budget doubled for its fiftieth anniversary celebrations next year. The BBC’s Religion and Ethics Department gobbles up £10m each year.

Over the years, the NSS had monitored the special privileges that Christianity gets from the BBC (remember the extravagant amount of time and resources devoted to the pope’s visit last year?) and we can state quite categorically that far from being anti-Christian, the BBC devotes far more money to the promotion and propagation of Christianity than can possibly be justified.


Leicester Council re-embraces religion

Leicester City Council has re-instated the saying of prayers at council meetings on the order of the new Lord Mayor, Robert Wann.

Prayers were dropped from council meetings by the previous mayor, Colin Hall, who also declined to attend the civic service held for him last year. Councillor Hall also appointed prominent Leicester secularist Allan Hayes as a “humanist chaplain”. Alan is an NSS member and a previous Secularist of the Year nominee.

Councillor Wann brought religion back into the council with a bang this week when his civic service at Leicester Cathedral saw him reading passages from the Bible while a previous Lord Mayor Manjula Sood read a prayer that was “relevant to all religions.”

In his sermon, Bishop of Leicester the Rt Rev Tim Stevens described Leicester as a city where “temples, mosques and gurdwaras punctuate the skyline, reminding us of the sacred links and shared aspirations of tens of thousands of its citizens”. He concluded by asking for God’s blessing for Councillor Wann’s work. Speaking after the event, Coun Wann said: “I thought it was an excellent service and the readings were very poignant. I’d been looking forward to it for a long time.”

During his year in office, Coun Wann will be assisted by his chaplain, Canon Barry Naylor, who led yesterday’s service with the Dean of Leicester Cathedral, Vivienne Faull.

He said: “It was a service for all faiths and people are here from all faiths – that’s what Leicester is all about.” He added that he was planning to start a new tradition of the High Sheriff also having an annual service at Leicester Cathedral, and hoped to have one in September this year.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “The service was suitable for everyone, the Lord Mayor claims – everyone except those who don’t happen to have a belief, or others such as Orthodox Jews, who are discouraged from entering churches? Why on earth — in Leicester of all places — was it held in a Church of England cathedral if it was supposed to be for everybody? A suitable secular space should have been used so that everyone really could have been included. Leicester Council’s brief moment of secular sanity has been rapidly replaced by an insensitive and discriminatory emphasis on religion, perhaps even evangelical Christian triumphalism.”

The National Secular Society is hoping to challenge the saying of prayers as part of council meetings, and is awaiting a High Court date for the hearing.


Australian churches narrowly loses right to discriminate in employment

The government of the Australian state of Victoria’s attempt to reinstate the right of religious organisations to restrict employment only to those who shared their beliefs was defeated by one vote last week.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill 2011 would have repealed the ‘inherent requirements test’ requiring religious organisations to justify employment discrimination. It would also have limited the powers of the Equal Opportunity Commission to investigate discrimination claims.

The bill was defeated when Women’s Affairs Minister Mary Wooldridge was locked out of the parliamentary chamber after failing to make the vote in time. Following parliamentary convention, Liberal Speaker Ken Smith cast his vote instead, siding with the opposition Labour Party. The bill was defeated 44 to 43.

Wooldridge issued a statement saying she was embarrassed by missing the vote but she strongly supported the bill. Manager of Opposition Business, Jacinta Allen, said “We were absolutely jubilant that the bill was defeated.”

Allen said if the government wanted to reintroduce the bill it would have to prorogue parliament [end the current parliament session], significantly rewrite the bill, or wait until after the next election, set for November 2014. Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews said: “I don’t think there is a legal facility, a legal ability if you like, for the Government to reintroduce this bill any time during the next four years.

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