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).

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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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