Newsline – 1st July 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

  • Religion has many privileges in European dialogue, says NSS 
  • I know a boat you can get on…. 
  • NSS calls for end to state-funded religious schools in Scotland 
  • Minister reinforces role of faith groups in local communities 
  • Bishops happy to be included in Lords Reform plans 
  • No discrimination by not releasing worker for Friday prayers 
  • British Medical Association Conference ignores circumcision and opposes assisted dying 
  • Vicar foists religion on children in McDonald’s 

Religion has many privileges in European dialogue, says NSS

On Wednesday, President Jerzy Buzek of the European Parliament made his first official visit to the Parliament’s Secular Platform, invited by its chair, Sophie in ‘t Veld MEP (who is also NSS Honorary Associate and winner of Secularist of the Year 2011). Accompanying him was vice president Laszlo Tokes.

Article 17 of the Treaty of Lisbon requires dialogue between the EU and religious organisations. There is a similar requirement in respect of “non-confessional” organisations and this meeting was held under this provision.

Ms in’t Veld, Keith Porteous Wood and other speakers told President Buzek that despite at least half the population being non-religious, their voice comes a poor second to the religious in this dialogue. By the very nature of churches hierarchical structure, they were much better placed in this respect. NSS Honorary Associate Michael Cashman also challenged President Buzek strongly over this – as he did his fellow Pole Joanna Senyszyn, MEP, Vice Chair of the Secular Platform.

Keith observed that polls confirmed how unrepresentative that hierarchy was, particularly the Catholic one, relative to those in the pews especially on crucial social issues where the churches exercised most influence. The majority of those identifying as Christians were markedly more liberal over such matters than their hierarchy and their voices were totally absent from this dialogue.

President Buzek raised some eyebrows by rejecting the term “separation” of church and state, preferring instead “autonomy”: each responsible for their own affairs and not taking direction from the other. He did however accept that religions should “render unto Caesar …” and paid tribute to the enlightenment. The difference is more than semantic; he thought that the public role of religion should be much greater than the secularists did, and that the EU had an obligation to listen to the “well organised” religious voices. He did agree, though, that the EU should try to compensate for the resulting imbalance, but offered no ideas as to how it should do so.

Both President Buzek, a Polish Lutheran, and Vice-president Tokes, a bishop of the Reformed Church in Romania, who is responsible for the Article 17 dialogue, mentioned their own churches’ leading role in delivering their countries from totalitarian rule, and clearly felt that this exemplified or justified the need for their greater public role.

Mr/Bishop Tokes was criticised at the meeting for taking an overtly religious stance in discussions with religious bodies. Many of those at the Platform meeting were irritated by his inability to grasp the concept of acting in a secular manner in his official capacity, or even his determination not to do so.

Sophie in ‘t Veld reflected that, ironically, the person sitting on one side of her (the deputy) was the victim of totalitarianism – which he ascribed to atheism. Sitting on her other side was an MEP, Miguel Angel Martínez, was also a victim of totalitarianism, but it was religious – he had been to jail under Franco, because of his failure to support the Catholic Church.

Not that all participants at Platform meetings are non-believers; the meetings are open. But on this occasion a much larger number than usual opposed to secularism were present. Some came with the express intention of being disruptive: one young intern, an evangelist, rose ostensibly to ask a question only to embark on a sermon, before being silenced by the chair.

NSS stands up for Human Rights in Brussels

Because of our role in co-sponsoring Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, the NSS was invited to bring a secular perspective to a presentation by academics on Sharia in the UK hosted by the Centre of European Policy Studies in Brussels. Keith Porteous Wood was on hand in Brussels to oblige.

He made a spirited defence of the need to retain one law for all. He was adamant that democratically determined human rights compliant law should always prevail over any other “law”. He was disappointed at the seeming willingness of so many of the academics to abandon protection for every citizen of Europe’s proud jurisprudence on human rights, the envy of the world.

He was particularly scathing about the naïvety of considering that there is a Western or European version of sharia, somehow unconnected with the versions practised in Islamic countries. He also strongly disagreed with the suggestion from some academics that anyone who identified themselves as Muslim should be subject to Sharia jurisdiction, rather than our own law. Keith said that many Muslims were secular in their outlook, and indeed many had come to this country seeking to avoid justice of this sort. They should not be forced to be subject to it. 

I know a boat you can get on….
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

Speaking to the House of Commons public administration select committee, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, said there was “no doubt” numbers of religious believers in Britain were “extraordinarily” low. But rather than blame himself and other religious leaders for driving people away, he suggested that it was, in fact, because religious freedom was being undermined by equality legislation.

Lord Sacks joins the small but vociferous chorus of religious extremists who are trying to undermine equal rights legislation, particularly protection for gay people.

He said:

“I share a real concern that the attempt to impose the current prevailing template of equality and discrimination on religious organisations is an erosion of religious liberty. We are beginning to move back to where we came in the 17th century – a whole lot of people on the Mayflower leaving to find religious freedom elsewhere.”

I was given — in my role as NSS president — the opportunity in the Daily Telegraph to respond to Lord Sacks. I said his remarks were “fatuous” and that he should withdraw them. He obviously has no idea of how lucky he, a confidante of the previous Prime Minister, is to live in a tolerant and secularised nation like Britain. No-one is interfering with his right to worship or practice his religion and, in fact, his religion enjoys many privileges.

This chorus of bigotry hiding under a religious cloak must be challenged. If we do not contradict this idea that ‘religious freedom’ means the right to persecute and cause disadvantage to other people, then we will see the Government eventually beginning to dismantle our human rights legislation.

My message to Lord Sacks, Andrea Minichielo Williams, Lord Carey, the Christian Institute and all the other whingers is this: if you really think life in this country is intolerable and want to go somewhere else where your prejudices — sorry, religious freedom — can be expressed unfettered, let me quote the song from West Side Story: “I know a boat you can get on. Bye-bye.” 

NSS calls for end to state-funded religious schools in Scotland

The National Secular Society has called for an end to state funding for religion-based education in Scotland. 

In a submission to the Education and Culture Committee of the Scottish Parliament (responding to the committee’s request for suggestions for its work programme in the coming months) the NSS calls not only for an end to “faith schools” but the removal of religious representatives from local authority education committees. This would make schools more responsive to the views of atheist and other non-believing parents. The NSS also wants an end to officially-sanctioned discrimination against non-believing staff in “faith based” schools.

NSS National Council member for Scotland, Norman Bonney, stated that if the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government seriously wishes to tackle the problems of religious sectarianism in Scotland they have fundamentally to change the state education system with its inherent religious divisions which contribute to continuing religious divisions and tensions in some other areas of Scottish life, most notably, but not exclusively, among football fans.

Minister reinforces role of faith groups in local communities

At a recent meeting of the Cinnamon Network — which is working hard to organise religious organisations to take over a range of social services — the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, said:

“The problem is that, in our recent years, some people have started becoming suspicious about religion. In the eyes of some, the fact that you are a Christian means that you are ‘weird’. They ask you to be silent about faith – or not get involved in your community. And if that happens everyone — everyone — loses out from that. Because we know that you can make a difference. Raising money for social causes. Looking after your neighbourhood. And reaching people in their darkest hour – when they are suffering with debt, divorce, drugs or despair. We want to tap into that secular side of your work, into your huge potential to do good. We want to help you fulfil it to the best of your abilities. Not by duplicating. Not by muscling in. But complementing what we find on the ground. And giving you the freedom and encouragement you need.”

In his speech, Mr Pickles assured “faith leaders” that the Localism Bill would not only encourage the wholesale farming out of local services to community groups, but would make it easier for religious groups to buy buildings. He said:

“Instead of faith groups relying on the goodwill of local authorities to get involved, we are giving them rights to have a say. The Localism Bill includes two key measures that place power in the hands of local charities.

The first is the right to buy. People will be able to nominate local landmarks and properties that they care about as “assets of community value.” When these assets are sold or change hands, local groups will be given extra time to put together a credible bid to take them over. In other words, we’re making it easier for local faith groups to take over buildings:

Easier for, say, the old meeting hall to become the new premises of a social enterprise.

The second major new right for charity and community groups is the Right to Challenge.

Local groups who have a bright idea for how a service could be run better — whether it’s meals on wheels, or homelessness support — will be able to put their proposals in front of the council for proper consideration.

If the proposals are of a decent quality, this will trigger a procurement exercise in line with normal legal requirements.”

The one thing that Mr Pickles did not promise “faith groups”, though, was any more money. And that is something that should raise alarm bells with them.

Bishops happy to be included in Lords Reform plans

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, has commented on the proposed changes to the House of Lords put forward by the Government, reducing the number of bishops from 26 to 12, in an 80-per-cent elected House. Speaking in the Lords, Bishop Stevens said that the Lords Spiritual were “pleased, and indeed grateful” that the draft Bill maintained a part for the Established Church, and that “the Church of England stands ready to make those decisions in the event of this reform being enacted”. He said that the Establishment “secures a place for spirituality in the public square”.

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

“The presence of the bishops in the House of Lords represents a throwback to medieval times that has no place in a democracy. Every other Western nation has dispensed with direct religious involvement in its legislature and yet Britain ranks with Iran as one of the few places to retain it. The Government should have the courage of its convictions and abolish the Bench of Bishops as a priority.” 

No discrimination by not releasing worker for Friday prayers

The Employment Appeals Tribunal has ruled that a Muslim man who wanted to leave work on Friday to go to prayers at a mosque was not discriminated against when his employer refused.

Balancing the employer’s operational needs with the discriminatory effect on the employee, the tribunal was entitled to find that the requirement for security guards to remain on site was objectively justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Mr Cherfi is a Muslim. G4S was required to have a specified number of security guards on site for the full duration of operating hours, i.e. to remain on site throughout their shifts, including their lunch breaks, for which they were paid. Mr Cherfi raised a grievance about not being allowed to attend lunchtime prayers on Fridays. The company proposed amending his contract so that he worked from Monday to Thursday, with an option to work Saturday or Sunday, but this was rejected.

The EAT upheld the tribunal’s decision that G4S had not indirectly discriminated against Mr Cherfi by requiring him to remain at work on Friday at lunchtime. While the provision, criterion or practice (PCP) put him at a disadvantage as a practising Muslim, the PCP was justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, namely the operational needs of the company’s business. The tribunal had properly carried out the balancing act required. The potential negative cost to the business far outweighed any discriminatory effect since there would be not only financial penalties for the company if the contract was broken, but a danger of it losing the contract altogether.

British Medical Association Conference ignores circumcision and opposes assisted dying

Dr Antony Lempert, Chair of the Secular Medical Forum, proposed a motion to the British Medical Association (BMA) conference in Cardiff this week calling for doctors to stop performing “irreversible, clinically unnecessary surgery on the genitalia of non-consenting minors” – ritual circumcision on boys. However, the BMA chose not to allow debate on this subject.

At the same time, NORM-UK — the support group for men who feel harmed by such circumcision — held its first public UK demonstration, lobbying delegates in Cardiff.

An estimated 30,000 boys are circumcised in the UK every year, the majority of them as a result of their parents’ religious faith. You can listen to a discussion about ritual circumcision on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme (about 45 mins in). Warning: some listeners may find some of the content distressing.

Also at the conference, there was a motion about Physician Assisted Dying and the Falconer Commission, set up to examine the evidence on whether it should be legalised.

There have been accusations, particularly by some religious groups opposed to assisted dying, that membership of the commission is biased towards those in favour and is not therefore impartial or representative of public opinion. This is despite research showing the majority of the public are in favour – for example, the last Social Attitudes Survey revealed that 82% of the population support it.  In 2006 Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying Bill was blocked by the (unelected) bishops in the House of Lords – not exactly an impartial, representative body. The motion was carried for the BMA to oppose the legalisation.

Finally, a motion proposed by a doctor who is a member of the Christian Medical Fellowship to reduce the abortion time limit from 24 weeks to 20 was rejected two to one. Dr Tony Calland, the chairman of the BMA ethics committee, said there was no reliable medical and scientific evidence to justify a reduction .

Vicar foists religion on children in McDonald’s

The Rev Richard Barron wants to find ‘new ways for people to connect with the church’. So he is parking himself every Friday afternoon at McDonald’s burger restaurant in Greenhithe, Kent.

He said:

“As far as I know, I am the first vicar to hold sessions in McDonald’s. There are lots of schoolchildren about and they ask the big questions that maybe adults shy away from, such as does God exist?”

Boss of McDonald’s in Greenhithe, Maxine Hunt said she was supportive of the move adding:

“It is a nice little relationship and it works well on both sides.”

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

“Why on earth McDonald’s ever thought it would be appropriate to allow an evangelist to foist his religion onto its customers while they ate their burgers, I don’t know. But at least customers at McDonald’s have a choice. If they don’t like it, they can get their burgers religion-free elsewhere. Unlike children in our schools who are captive and have to participate in religion whether they want to or not.”

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