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).

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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 onelawforall@gmail.com 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.

 

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