Newsline – 15th 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

  • Trevor Phillips makes another big mistake – and gay people may have to pay the price 
  • Christianity should dominate all lessons, even maths, says bishop 
  • Lords meeting raises awareness of sharia law abuses 
  • Faith school bus passes scrapped in Coventry 
  • BBC devotes yet more time to religion 
  • End sectarian character of monarchy in Scotland, says NSS 
  • Catholic Church in Germany agrees to open files for abuse investigation 

Trevor Phillips makes another big mistake and gay people may have to pay the price – Editorial by Terry Sanderson

The head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, has been giving out mixed messages about the present campaign by extremist Christians to undermine the equality legislation.

A couple of weeks ago he issued a report saying that on the one hand Christians were finding their rights restricted by “too narrow” an interpretation of the law. On the other hand there were Christian activists who were bringing these cases not to gain justice but to obtain political influence.

And on yet another hand, he didn’t want to see the rights of gay people trampled by the granting of special legal privileges and exemptions to religious people. So, out of that mish-mash of contradiction, we have to make some kind of sense.

It all came to a head when the EHRC announced this week that it will seek to intervene in several ridiculous cases taken to the European Court of Human Rights by the Christian Legal Centre. You will remember that this case claims that religious believers are suffering legal disadvantage in Britain.

The EHRC issued a statement that was another masterpiece of confusion. In it, it said:

Judges have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion or belief discrimination claims. If given leave to intervene, the EHRC will argue that the way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief.

It will say that the courts have set the bar too high for someone to prove that they have been discriminated against because of their religion or belief; and that it is possible to accommodate expression of religion alongside the rights of people who are not religious and the needs of businesses.

The Commission is concerned that rulings already made by UK and European courts have created a body of confusing and contradictory case law. For example, some Christians wanting to display religious symbols in the workplace have lost their legal claim so are not allowed to wear a cross, while others have been allowed to after reaching a compromise with their employer.

As a result, it is difficult for employers or service providers to know what they should be doing to protect people from religion or belief based discrimination. They may be being overly cautious in some cases and so are unnecessarily restricting people’s rights. It is also difficult for employees who have no choice but to abide by their employer’s decision.

The Commission thinks there is a need for clearer legal principles to help the courts consider what is and what is not justifiable in religion or belief cases, which will help to resolve differences without resorting to legal action. The Commission will propose the idea of ‘reasonable accommodations’ that will help employers and others manage how they allow people to manifest their religion or belief.

For example, if a Jew asks not to have to work on a Saturday for religious reasons, his employer could accommodate this with minimum disruption simply by changing the rota. This would potentially be reasonable and would provide a good outcome for both employee and employer.

Well, let’s look at the four cases that are being brought to the European Court of Human Rights:

The first is that of Nadia Eweida. If you believe what you read in the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph about this woman, you would assume she is a poor, downtrodden little Christian lady, bullied and traduced by her monolithic, anti-religious employer, British Airways. But that isn’t the case. If you take the trouble to read the employment tribunal judgment on this case, you can see that it is Ms Eweida who is, in fact, the bully. Read the untold parts of the story .

Trevor Phillips calls for “reasonable accommodation” for religious beliefs, similar to that granted to disabled people at work. Well, Ms Eweida was given everything she asked for by BA, and more. She can wear her cross over her uniform – BA changed its uniform policy to accommodate her. She was even offered compensation, but still she insists on taking the case further. Having acceded to every demand, what further accommodation could BA have made?

Similarly, with the case of nurse Shirley Chaplin who was suspended from her job for refusing to abide by uniform regulations and take off a necklace that happened to have a cross on it.

If you depend on newspaper reports for your information, it seems cut and dried – a clear case of discrimination. But if you take the trouble to dig a little deeper and read the whole story (including the details that the Mail and Telegraph conveniently left out) you will see that the health authority for which Mrs Chaplin worked had said that there was a risk that if nurses wore dangling jewellery, it could pose a threat to health and safety. It didn’t matter if it was a cross or a lucky pixie that was attached to the chain, the result would be the same if a patient grabbed it and refused to let go.

The health authority asked her, as a compromise, to wear the cross pinned to her uniform as a broach. But not our Shirley – oh no, she wanted a confrontation. And very soon she was being paraded in the press as the latest victim of religious persecution.

When her case came to an employment tribunal it was thrown out in its entirety. There had been no discrimination, direct or indirect. There had been no banning of crosses, only dangling jewellery. But you’d never know that from reading about it in the papers.

The health authority had tried to find a “reasonable accommodation” but Shirley was fighting for something bigger – a privilege for Christians to do as they please at work.

Also on the list for Europe is the case of Lillian Ladele, the registrar in Islington who refused to carry out civil partnership ceremonies because she said they were against her religion. Ms Ladele — a public servant — was refusing to provide the service she was employed to provide to the whole of the community.

It was argued that she should have been given an exemption and her colleagues assigned to do civil partnerships, thereby avoiding conflict.

If that had been done then the principle would be established that it is OK to deny services to gay people because you don’t like them. Ms Ladele said it was because of her religious conscience, but it seems like a very selective conscience when you consider that she raised no objection to re-marrying divorcees or those who had become pregnant while unmarried – indeed, she had been in that situation herself.

Gary McFarlane, the counsellor for Avon Relate who refused to offer his services to gay couples — clearly contradicting the organisation’s equal opportunities policy which he had signed up to abide by — is another case in point. How do you accommodate such obdurate bigotry without totally compromising the rights of other people?

None of these cases has any merit. They have been repeatedly thrown out of English courts or tribunals. And yet the Equality and Human Rights Commission intends to intervene to say that the courts have interpreted the law too narrowly! The very organisation that should be supporting the judicial decisions, that were made on rational grounds, in full possession of the facts, is trying to undermine them.

Naturally the gay community, seeing itself on the front line, was alarmed at the possible implications of all this for their hard won rights. Stonewall, the gay rights organisation, put out a statement requesting more reasoning as to why the EHRC intended to do this. The NSS also issued a statement and spoke on Radio 5 Live and LBC.

The EHRC then issued a further “clarifying statement” about what they were doing. Unfortunately, it just made things worse.

It was in a question and answer format:

Q. Why did the Commission make applications to intervene in these four cases?
These four cases were already before European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) before the Commission considered intervening and it is our expectation that all four are highly likely to be heard together because they involve the same legal question.

Commissioners on our Regulatory Committee took the view that, given our role as the National Human Rights Institution and equality regulator, it was not appropriate for these important cases to be heard without our input into the complex equality and human rights issues, including to ensure the principle of ‘reasonable accommodation’ is considered by the court.

We recognise that our stakeholders have important practical experience of how these issues affect the workplace and we intend to seek the views of our stakeholders before making submissions to the ECtHR . We will therefore be contacting our stakeholders as soon as we receive notification from the Court that our intervention is permitted for their views in the anticipated 3 week period during which we prepare our submissions. 

Q. Who is the Commission supporting?
The Court does not permit interventions to support one party or to comment on the facts. In our role as an intervener in existing legal proceedings, we do not support either party in a case but simply seek to aid the court with the benefit of the Commission’s policy input and interpretation of the law.

The purpose of our intervention is to explain that the law should consider how it may give better respect for religious rights within the workplace than has hitherto been the case, without diminishing the rights of others. We want to change the view that there needs to be an either/or situation. The spotlight and focus is placed too frequently on conflict in place of dialogue that could help identify other acceptable workable solutions.

The accommodation of rights is not a zero sum equation whereby one right cancels out or trumps another. We believe that if the law and practice were considered more widely, then in many situations there would be scope for diverse rights to be respected.

Our view is that careful, sensitive and balanced treatment and consideration is discouraged by the approach taken by the courts to date. In turn, this hinders the development and dissemination of better practice amongst those with duties. We believe that where possible ways should be found within the law of promoting the resolution of disputes at an early stage, without protracted, costly, complex legal proceedings that irretrievably damage relations between the parties.

Q. Does this intervention reflect a new approach to the Commission’s work to ensure equality and prevent discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation?
Certainly not. We do not and will not licence discrimination and we continue to believe in the importance of taking action to eliminate it. For example, we will continue to support the appeal to the Court of Appeal to defend the rights of the gay couple who were not allowed to share a double room at a hotel on behalf of civil partners Martyn Hall and Steve Preddy.

There is not — and cannot be — any change in the Commission’s role as the NHRI and equality regulator with responsibility for preventing discrimination against people on grounds of sexual orientation, a responsibility that we aspire to fulfil to the best of our ability.

We would like to reassure our stakeholders that under no circumstances would the Commission condone or permit the refusal of public services to lesbian or gay people.

This “clarification” does nothing to allay the fears of those who see their own rights about to be sacrificed on the altar of religious demands. And if the European Court upholds this appeal, it will have ramifications for the whole of Europe. Religion will have taken one more step to dominating and dictating our shared culture.

The EHRC and Trevor Phillips have made a serious mistake with this, and we call on them to withdraw this intervention application without delay.

Christianity should dominate all lessons, even maths, says bishop

Church schools should apply a “Christian perspective” to all aspects of the curriculum including mathematics, the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has said.

The Rt Rev Paul Butler said Christian values should affect all areas of teaching and not just religious education in Church of England schools:

“The way maths is taught is by and large assuming a capitalist economics which we may have questions of,” he told members of the General Synod meeting in York. “We need to explore different models from a Christian perspective of how we approach all the curriculum, not just RE.”

He added that he had been “deeply disturbed” recently by his own 17-year-old daughter’s drama classes:

“She is great at it, it has been fantastic to watch but the moral content has been deeply dubious and there are plenty of choices that could have been made which were different,” he said. “Whilst doing all the work on RE, we must, must, work on the whole curriculum.”

Bishop Butler’s call was backed by Kenneth Shorey, a General Synod member from Hook, Hampshire who previously worked as a mathematics teacher:

“I think if I was going back now I would be choosing a different set of examples, not simply teaching percentages of profit and loss or earning – and if it was saving it might be for some overseas project rather than a new dress or a new bike,” he said. “You can challenge the materialism and consumerism that underpins the values of society.”

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

“Ideology, in this case religious ideas, being drummed into children at every opportunity is what we criticise North Korea for. Taxpayers should not be paying for this brainwashing in what is often the only school in a neighbourhood.”  

Lords meeting raises awareness of sharia law abuses

Lord Carlile QC has expressed concern over the lack of awareness of lawyers and judges of the major human rights implications of sharia law. He was speaking at a presentation to peers on Wednesday about the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill being tabled by Baroness Cox and launched last month jointly with the NSS.

Lord Carlile said a major obstacle to progress was the growing enthusiasm for alternative dispute resolution, partly driven by the massive cuts in legal aid. He saw this leading to a loss of rights and that this was a major concern in the area of family law, particularly in cases of violence.

Lord Carlile emphasised that the rule of law is absolute and indivisible and that the introduction of sharia would result in structural inequality. He observed that while peers had highlighted sharia’s inequalities against women, no mention had been made of gay people. He was adamant that Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (fair trial) could not possibly be met by sharia courts.

He echoed peers’ concerns that rape within marriage is not regarded as illegal in sharia and in practice victims are denied the protection to which there are entitled under UK law because of “cultural sensitivity”, as the DPP often declines to prosecute. He added that Judicial Review could be applied for in such cases and is an effective public law remedy.

He too shared concerns about the potential encroachment of sharia “courts” into areas under this jurisdiction of the criminal and family law courts.

Speaking from the platform were Bishop Nazir Ali and Keith Porteous Wood (who, unusually, is in agreement with the bishop on this subject) and Finula Murphy of victim support agency Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO). Lady Cox spoke highly of the One Law For All campaign, which the NSS also supports. She indicated that a date for the Second Reading of the Bill has not yet been set.

Keith Porteous Wood noted that the Muslim representative in a recent discussion in Parliament about the use of the Arbitration Act to enforce sharia decisions had given the impression that he had no problem with stonings of women in Muslim countries. (He had also said that the superiority of sharia over man-made laws was so self evident it was not necessary to debate.)

Keith added that he had been heartened by how positively the Bill had been received both by the press and by peers. He was pleased that the supporters had been from moderates and a broad political base; although he warned of the danger of the moderate Bill being hijacked by religious extremists or fascist groups.

Keith also noted that in the last few weeks alone there had been calls for a parallel sharia legal system in Australia. He revealed he had spoken out against such ideas at a meeting of lawyers and academics sponsored by the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels – a gathering devoted to the “incorporation of Sharia law in the UK”. His dissenting voice had been very much in the minority, even after he reminded delegates that the jurisprudence Europe had built up on Human Rights in the last 50 years was the envy of the world, something the adoption of sharia would totally undermine.

He concluded by observing that the elected chamber had lacked the courage to tackle Sharia. He urged peers to support Baroness Cox’s Bill, in essence seeking to put a Human Rights wrapper around Sharia when being enforced by UK law.

It was also felt that tribunals strayed into areas that are the jurisdiction of criminal law, and by doing so protect offenders from prosecution and criminal records. 

Faith school bus passes scrapped in Coventry

Free school bus passes for children travelling more than three miles to faith schools or single sex schools in Coventry are to be scrapped. Coventry City Council’s Labour-run cabinet is expected to approve the changes next Tuesday following a public consultation.

The cut will save the council up to £240,000 a year. The average cost of a yearly school bus pass is £250.

Also facing the axe is free transport to Catholic schools where children have attended the relevant feeder primary school. The plan faced opposition from parents and the Catholic diocese, with some arguing it was discriminating on religious grounds. The changes will be introduced from September 2012 for all new applicants. But those pupils who have already qualified for bus passes will not be affected until they leave their secondary school, or their family moves home.

BBC devotes yet more time to religion

The BBC’s annual report, published this week, reveals that the amount of broadcast time devoted to religion has risen yet again.

On BBC1 there were 98 hours of religious broadcasting last year (as opposed to 97 the year before). On BBC2 the amount of religion rose from 37 hours to 50 hours. On BBC4 it fell slightly from 40 hours to 37 hours. On BBC Radio 1,181 hours were devoted to religion (compared with 1,173 the year before).

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

“It seems the churches’ constant moaning about being neglected by the BBC has paid off again. The thousands of hours of broadcasting time devoted to religion is quite disproportionate to the number of those who want it. No doubt the chorus of whinging will start up again soon to achieve another increase next year.” 

End sectarian character of monarchy in Scotland, says NSS

In a letter to Scottish MPs the National Secular Society has stated that the additionally protestant character of the monarchy in Scotland should be ended.

In addition to being Supreme Governor of the Church of England and swearing the coronation oath to maintain the protestant reformed religion in the UK, a new monarch also swears to maintain Protestantism and Presbyterianism in Scotland.

The letter, from Norman Bonney, the NSS’s council member for Scotland, was also sent to the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Secretary of State for Scotland, and the Prime Minister.

In the letter, Professor Bonney explained that one of the first acts of a new monarch, according to the 1707 Act of Union, is to swear to uphold Protestantism and Presbyterianism in Scotland. 

“Such a measure is unnecessary in contemporary Scotland and can only contribute to continuing sectarian divisions”, he said. “Elizabeth II swore this oath in 1952. It would be most inappropriate for her successor to do the same. An opportunity to correct this ancient legal provision is now available during the current consideration at Westminster of new powers for the Scottish Parliament. Parliamentarians should seize this opportunity to modernise this aspect of the constitution of Scotland.” 

Catholic Church in Germany agrees to open files for abuse investigation

News magazine Der Spiegel reported on Sunday that Germany’s Catholic Church is planning to launch a large-scale investigation into possible sexual abuse committed by clergy.

According to the magazine, the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony (KFN) will be granted access to the personnel records for the past 10 years for all 27 German dioceses. In addition, records will be made available for nine dioceses dating back to 1945.

Church employees will be investigated by a team of KFN experts, consisting of retired prosecutors and judges, who will look at the records. Additionally the alleged victims of sexual assault will be given a questionnaire to fill in details about the incident. Following these stages, a second round of in-depth interviews will be made with offenders.

The unanimous decision for the full inquiry was made at the German Bishops’ Conference on June 20, according to Der Spiegel .

The investigation will determine how such abuses came about, how the church has dealt with them in the past, and what conclusions can be drawn to prevent new cases.

In another study, a group headed by renowned Essen court psychiatrist Norbert Leygraf will examine 50 cases of clergy who are under suspicion of sexual misconduct. This group will focus on the psychological side of the cases.

Following a spate of allegations of sexual abuse that rocked the Catholic Church in 2009 and 2010, the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference was criticized for their slow response. In March, it agreed to a pitiful, indeed insulting €5,000 (£4,400) payout for victims of sexual abuse. 

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