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).

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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.


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