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).

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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.

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