Newsline – 25th March 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).

Join Britain’s only organisation working exclusively towards a secular society


You can also subscribe to the audio version for FREE using iTunes: Newsline - The Weekly Newsletter from the NSS

In this week’s Newsline

  • Secularist of the Year won by Dutch MEP
  • Secularism in Europe takes a blow as Vatican flexes its political muscle
  • Funding for police religious groups ends
  • More evidence that religion on the way out
  • Judge says it’s OK for churches to abuse gays in advertising
  • Academics given money to research ways of using the ‘Big Society’ to advance Catholic teaching
  • Have you remembered to renew your membership?


Secularist of the Year won by Dutch MEP

The 2011 Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year was won by Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch MEP who chairs the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics.

Sophie received her prize to great acclaim from a capacity crowd in central London last Saturday. Her acceptance speech brought further cheers of approval as she made clear that her secularism is firm and of prime importance to her.

Also honoured on the day were two outstanding volunteers, Claudine Baxter who has loyally helped in the office with membership administration for the past five years. Come rain or shine, Claudine has made it into the office and has freed up many hours of time for our campaigners to get on with the work of creating a secular society.

Also Dominic Wirdnam from Bristol who helped so much in the hospital chaplains campaign and who is now a leading light in the new Bristol Secular Society.

Winner of the special achievement award this year was Marco Tranchino of the Central London Humanist Group who was so tenacious in negotiating a high profile route for the Protest the Pope March last September. Marco chipped away at the obduracy of the authorities — particularly at Scotland Yard — until he got the route he wanted, and the rest is history.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “The whole afternoon was a wonderfully friendly time, when so many secularists got together to honour those who are working so hard on their behalf. Sophie was an excellent choice because her voice chimes so well with our own message of the importance of separation of religion from politics.”

Terry also thanked Neil Edwards (The Trickman) for his contribution to the entertainment as he went from table to table baffling and bamboozling some of the finest scientific minds in the country.


Secularism in Europe takes a blow as Vatican flexes its political muscle
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

The ruling from the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights that the display of crucifixes in state school classrooms does not violate a student’s freedom of conscience is a severe blow to the concept of secularism in Europe. It also leaves an uncomfortable suspicion over the motives and independence of the European Court.

This is not just sour grapes from those on the losing end. We must ask why the original decision — which was reached unanimously — has now been completely reversed by the upper chamber of the same court. How could the first court have got it so wrong?

Friday’s reversal has implications in all 47 member states of the Council of Europe, opening the way for Europeans who want religious symbols in classrooms to petition their governments to allow them. It is not immediately clear how the ruling would affect France, a traditionally Catholic country with a strictly secular state that does not allow crucifixes or other religious symbols in public schools, including the Muslim headscarf.

The court’s Grand Chamber said Italy has done nothing wrong and it found no evidence that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls “might have an influence on pupils.” This is the polar opposite of what the previous court said. But that does not mean that religion now has carte blanche to impose itself in schools. In its judgment the Court specifically distinguished between the (in their words) “passive presence” of symbols such as crucifixes and activities such as school prayer which the Court said represents a much more significant violation of Convention:

“a crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol and this point is of importance in the Court’s view, particularly having regard to the principle of neutrality … It cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities”

The Italian Government had argued that the crucifix is not a religious symbol at all, but a symbol of tradition and culture. The court did not accept this “reasoning”.

Massimo Albertin, Mrs Lautsi’s husband, said that the family was disappointed and “disillusioned” by the ruling, saying it showed that the court didn’t respect the secular principles on which Italian society is built. “Freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination, freedom of choice are fundamental principles and in this case they weren’t respected,” Albertin said. A self-described atheist, Mr Albertin said he didn’t think the family had any further recourse, saying the ruling showed “the Vatican is too strong for individuals.”

So what happened in the months between the unanimous finding last year and the utter turnaround this year by another chamber of the same court?

The final reasoning in the Grand Chamber judgment is indeed strange, not to say strained. Some commentators have asked whether the long delay between the two judgments was caused by the judges struggling to come up with some reasoning that would not sound too bizarre as to why they had completely changed their minds.

And we will never know what kind of pressure went on behind the scenes, except that we do know the Vatican went into overdrive to ensure that the original decision was overturned, calling in its reactionary friends to support it.

Nor should we forget also that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has problems of its own with growing opposition to its judgments throughout Europe. There is much pressure in this country, for instance, for the Government to entirely withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and establish its own Bill of Rights. When the ECHR ruled, for example, that prisoners should have the right to vote, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, said it made him feel physically sick.

The Grand Chamber must also have been aware that Italy had signalled that it had no intention of obeying the ban on crucifixes, anyway. Italy would have paid the fine and then totally ignored the ruling, as it has done in other cases. That would have further undermined the court’s authority, effectively rendering its judgments meaningless.

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) – (a branch of US televangelist Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice), was elated. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) also hailed the ruling. (Both groups had filed briefs urging the court to uphold the crucifixes.)

The ECLJ’s Director, Grégor Puppinck, said:

“This strong political movement counteracts the attempts of radical secularists to use human rights against Christianity.  These radical secularists, by rejecting Christianity, utilize the culture of human rights to de-Christianize Europe in the name of respect and tolerance of non-Christians. Behind a discourse of tolerance, religious pluralism serves as a pretext to marginalize Christianity and could eventually impose on the European civilization exclusive secularism. The objective of this radical secularism is to introduce secularization of society in order to promote a certain cultural model in which the absence of value (neutrality) and relativism (pluralism) are values in themselves supporting a political project that is supposed to be both “post-religious” and “post-identity”; in one word “postmodern.” This political project has a claim to a monopoly as a philosophical system.”

But this is not an opinion shared by all evangelical Protestants. Many of them recognise that the crucifix (as opposed to the cross) is a specifically Catholic symbol and this verdict upholds the special place that Catholicism has in Italian affairs.

The Italian Federation of Evangelical Churches called the ruling “a decision that does not fully realize a secular state” and “baggage from a society dominated by Catholic culture”.

They added: “Crucifixes will continue to be present in schoolrooms and courtrooms, but for the minorities who won religious and civil rights 150 years ago, such as the evangelical churches, these crosses do not convey a common sense of belonging.”

Of course they don’t, which is why the Vatican is cock-a-hoop over the decision.

Some non-Catholics — Christians of other denominations, atheists and those of other religions — have already recognised that this decision makes them into second-class citizens. And it is at this point, when it is too late, that they suddenly recognise the value of secularism.

The judgment is an undoubted blow to secularism and a reminder of Vatican power. It will do little or nothing, however, to help the Vatican realise its stated goal: the re-evangelisation of Europe for the Catholic Church. Mass attendance remains in freefall, even in Italy.


Funding for police religious groups ends

The Home Office has announced that, as from 1 April, it will no longer fund minority police groups such as those established by Muslims, Christians and gays.

The National Association of Muslim Police received £90,000 between 2008 and 2010 and the Christian Police Association £15,000 in the past five years.

The Gay Police Association was handed £102,000 in 2009 and £51,000 last year. Also the National Disabled Police Association got £46,000 in 2010. And in 2006 the National Black Police Association received £180,000.

Zaheer Ahmed, president of the National Association of Muslim Police, said cutting funds would deprive the police of “important religious and cultural voices” and could see policing thrown back to the 1970s.

A Home Office spokesman said:

“The Government is committed to equality and supports the development of a diverse police service, but we must tackle the deficit and the Home Secretary has been clear that forces must bear their share of the cuts.”

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

“The police must be ready to serve the whole community without fear or favour. So, if there is one institution that must avoid sectarian bias and religious empire building, it is the police. The rise of these minority groups within the force has been a dangerous development, and we are very pleased that the funding has come to an end, albeit on grounds of cost rather than desirability.”

Mr Sanderson pointed to the cases of Muslim police officers refusing to guard the Israeli embassy and a demand from Christian police officers that beat bobbies should hand out Christian tracts when patrolling High Streets on Saturday evening.

“None of these demands is acceptable from a police force that must show itself to be even-handed in all religious and racial situations,” Mr Sanderson said.


More evidence that religion on the way out

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion in all of them is likely to dwindle to next to nothing. Studying the statistics and applying a mathematical model indicates that the numbers of people defining themselves as non-religious has been climbing for over a hundred years.

The report, revealed at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, suggested that religion will all but die out altogether in the following countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

One of the researchers, Daniel Abrams of Northwestern University said:

“In a large number of modern secular democracies, there has been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion. In the Netherlands the number was 40 percent, and the highest number was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60 percent.”

In all the countries studied, the data showed the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.

The study also found that “Americans without affiliation comprise the only religious group growing in all 50 states.”

“In 2008 those claiming no religion rose to 15 percent nationwide, with a maximum in Vermont at 34 percent,” the study says.

Meanwhile, a poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association in connection with its census campaign asked 1,900 adults if they belonged to a religion.

While 61% of respondents said they did belong to a religion, 65% of those surveyed answered “no” to the further question: “Are you religious?”

Among respondents who identified themselves as Christian, fewer than half said they believed Jesus Christ was a real person who died, came back to life and was the Son of God. Another 27% said they did not believe that at all, while 25% were unsure.

In Scotland, 42% of respondents said they did not belong to a religion, yet in a further question “Are you religious?” 56% answered “no”.

And a BBC poll carried out among 24,000 school children showed that when asked “What is your religion?” just under 34% of children surveyed said they did not have one. A third of children said they didn’t believe in God.

In a separate question — do you believe in a god or more gods? — just under 40% said they did but nearly 32% said they did not.


Judge says it’s OK for churches to abuse gays in advertising

A judge has overturned an Advertising Standards Authority ban on a church advert which railed against gay sex. The ad, by the Sandown Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast, was published in 2008 in the Belfast News Letter ahead of Belfast Pride and was called ‘The word of God against sodomy’.

It contained verses from the Bible describing gay sex as an “abomination”, referred to “sodomy” and called gay people perverts. After seven people complained, the ASA ruled that the ad was in breach of its code of practice. The church then won the right to a judicial review.

This week, a judge ruled that the ASA’s decision violated the church’s rights to freedom of expression.

According to the BBC, Mr Justice Treacy said:

“The applicant’s religious views and the biblical scripture which underpins those views no doubt cause offence, even serious offence, to those of a certain sexual orientation. Likewise, the practice of homosexuality may have a similar effect on those of a particular religious faith. But Article 10 (of the European Convention on Human Rights) protects expressive rights which offend, shock or disturb. Moreover, Article 10 protects not only the content and substance of information but also the means of dissemination since any restriction on the means necessarily interferes with the right to receive and impart information.”

He added that it did not condone violence and was not likely to provoke it.

Rev David McIlveen, of the Sandown Free Presbyterian Church, said he was delighted at the “landmark” verdict. Speaking outside the court with the Rev Ian Paisley, he said: “We want to make it clear we had nothing against the seven people who objected to the advertisement. This is a landmark now for future decisions. People can quote the Bible and that’s a freedom that we have sought.”

Recently the ASA banned an advertisement by the Antonio Federici ice cream company because it portrayed religious figures such as nuns and priests in a mildly suggestive manner. In that instance, ten Christians complained and that was enough to get the ads banned.


Academics given money to research ways of using the ‘Big Society’ to advance Catholic teaching

A Catholic grant making body is handing out tens of thousands of pounds for research into how the Catholic Church can exploit the ‘Big Society’ idea in order to further the influence of Catholic doctrine in society.

The Charles Plater Trust, whose chairman is the Archbishop of Westminster, has awarded its biggest grants to initiatives looking at how the Big Society can be understood “within Catholic Social Teaching.” The Plater Trust, which was founded after the £5.6 million sale of Plater College, Headington, Oxfordshire, awards grants every year to church-affiliated groups and this year had over £150,000 at its disposal.

Professor John Loughlin, of St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, was awarded more than £65,000 for an academic project looking at how the Big Society’s understanding of decentralisation relates to Catholic Social Teaching, while another grant of £52,000 was awarded to a joint initiative between the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, affiliated to the University of Cambridge, and Citizens UK to research into and offer help to asylum seekers and those navigating the immigration system within the context of the Big Society.

The final grant of more than £30,000 went to a Caritas Social Action Network project looking at “developing the Church’s response to criminal justice issues.


Have you remembered to renew your membership?

Membership subscriptions are due in January (for all those who joined before the previous September), so we hope that if you haven’t already done so, you’ll renew and stay with us.

We are in for a very interesting and potentially very productive year and it is vitally important that you keep up your support for the cause of secularism. You can renew online or by post to NSS Membership, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Many members are now setting up standing orders so that they can forget about renewals – it will be done automatically. More information .



Newsline – 18th March 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).

Join Britain’s only organisation working exclusively towards a secular society


You can also subscribe to the audio version for FREE using iTunes: Newsline - The Weekly Newsletter from the NSS

In this week’s Newsline

  • NSS Director slams Vatican failures over child abuse at UN Human Rights Council
  • Crucifix case overturned by Human Rights Court
  • Pope’s visit debt: now overdue
  • Lib Dems and “unjustified” discrimination
  • Christian insistence on church service wrecks Welsh Assembly opening plans
  • Catholic adoption service still trying to gain exemption from discrimination law
  • Muslim Council of Britain out of favour again – but taxpayers’ money keeps flowing to promote religion


NSS Director slams Vatican failures over child abuse at UN Human Rights Council

The NSS’s Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood make a forthright attack on the Catholic Church’s deplorable record on child abuse at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday 15 March.

Keith was acting in the capacity of international representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which does a great deal of excellent work at the UN on a wide variety of areas, for example on children’s and women’s rights and freedom of expression.

Keith pointed out to the plenary session of the Council that Geoffrey Robertson QC’s book The Case of the Pope alleged that the Church had broken six Articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, thus confirming the accusations that Keith had previously made at the UN – in September 2009 and March 2010.

Keith called attention to the fact that when he made similar accusations at the Council on 22 September 2009, the Papal Nuncio did not deny them, but had claimed that a report, then twelve years overdue, was being “finalised as we speak”. It still remains to be filed. Among other “justifications”, the nuncio informed the Council that as many as 5% of Catholic clergy could be involved. (If true, that would equate to approximately 20,000 clergy involved in child abuse). He added that offenders can be dismissed under Canon Law.

Keith reported some key points from Robertson’s book, including his withering analysis of why the abuse continued unabated. Keith repeated Robertson’s conviction that “the scourge of child abuse within the Church itself had for many years gone unpunished as a result of the procedural deficiencies of Canon Law, the selfish desire to protect the Church from scandal by harbouring and trafficking paedophile priests, and the negligent supervision of bishops by the Holy See through its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith office, headed for the previous two decades by Cardinal Ratzinger.”

Keith said he half expected to be called to order during his speech, or at least have the representative of the Holy See or some compliant Catholic country make an objection. He thought the most likely triggers were him naming Cardinal Ratzinger and repeating Robertson’s conclusion: “The Holy See’s grave and extensive breaches of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its contempt for its reporting obligations over the past thirteen years, should … justify its expulsion.”

Fortunately, he was not interrupted and the chair later said in response to a member state’s objection to another NGOs intervention that, in effect, sometimes it was only the NGOs who were prepared to confront member states with uncomfortable material.

For good measure, Keith drew attention to two “smoking gun” letters which have recently come to light, written by the senior members of the Church’s hierarchy. One was from Rome to the Bishop of Tucson and the other was from the Papal Nuncio to the bishops of Ireland. One, for example, contains the damning phrase “under no condition whatever ought the [personnel] files be surrendered to any lawyer or judge whatsoever”. Their crucial significance is that they point the finger directly at the Vatican as the source of instructions to cover up abuse by priests. This is in stark contrast to the Vatican’s standard rebuttal in which they seek to blame local bishops.

The UN itself did not escape unscathed from Keith’s intervention. He drew the Council’s attention to another target of Robertson’s criticism: “It is a serious reflection on the competence and resolve of the ‘eighteen experts of high moral standing’ who have been elected to the Committee on the Rights of the Child that they have done and said nothing about the Vatican’s thirteen-year failure to deliver a report, during the period when widespread child abuse by its priests has been extensively publicized.”

Keith concluded by calling once more upon the Human Rights Council and the Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold the Holy See to account for:

  • its breach of its obligations under the CRC;
  • its disregard for its duty of care to the abused children;
  • its systematic cover-up of thousands of cases of abuse; and
  • its failure to adequately control those put in positions of trust with children.

The written report can be found on the NSS website.


Crucifix case overturned by Human Rights Court

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has overturned a previous judgment that Italy had violated the rights of non-believing parents by displaying crucifixes in school classrooms.

Present as the ruling was the Finnish-born Italian citizen who first brought up the case against crosses in her two sons’ classrooms 10 years ago, Sonia Lautsi. In November 2009, the ECHR said the display of crosses in Italian schools violated children’s and parents’ freedom of belief, prompting Rome to request that the matter be referred to the court’s appeal body, the Grand Chamber.

The Grand Chamber authorized written observations from 10 non-governmental bodies, including Human Rights Watch, Interrights, the Italian Christian Workers Association and the Central Committee of German Catholics.

In addition, 33 members of the European Parliament, which has no link to the ECHR, were for the first time ever given permission to intervene.

The Grand Chamber only rarely agrees to hear appeals and only on matters deemed of particular significance throughout the Council of Europe’s 47 member states.

In the 2009 decision, the Strasbourg court unanimously upheld an application from Lautsi, stressing that parents must be allowed to educate their children as they see fit.

It said children were entitled to freedom of religion and said that although “encouraging” for some pupils, the crucifix could be “emotionally disturbing for pupils of other religions or those who profess no religion”.

It said the state has an obligation “to refrain from imposing beliefs, even indirectly, in places where persons are dependent on it or in places where they are particularly vulnerable”.

But arguing against the court’s comments, the Italian government’s representative Nicola Lettieri said crucifixes in Italian classrooms are “a passive symbol that bear no relationship to the actual teaching, which is secular”.

He said there was “no indoctrination” involved and said the cross did not deprive parents of the right to raise their children as they saw fit.

The jurist representing the 10 Council of Europe members supporting Italy, Joseph Weiler, said that “Italy without the crucifix would no longer be Italy”.

“The crucifix is both a national and a religious symbol,” he said, suggesting that religious references and symbols are pervasive in Europe and do not necessarily connote faith.

Crucifixes are a fixture in Italian public buildings although the postwar Constitution ordered a separation of Church and State, and Catholicism ceased to be Italy’s state religion in 1984.

Two Fascist-era decrees from 1924 and 1928, which were never repealed, are usually used to justify their status, although a 2007 education ministry directive also recommended they be displayed in schools.

Lautsi started her legal battle in 2001 when her sons were aged 11 and 13, and it reached Italy’s Constitutional Court in 2004.

However, the Constitutional Court declined to rule on the matter, pointing out the crucifix provisions stemmed from secondary decrees predating the constitution, rather than parliament-made law currently on the Italian statute books.

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

“This is a severe blow to the concept of state neutrality in relation to religion, and to secularism. It flies in the face of Europe’s increasing plurality and diversity and risks damaging the court’s previous reputation of treating all citizen’s equally.

“No state in Europe is any longer monocultural. Globalisation has ensured that many religions now flourish throughout Europe and huge proportions of the population have no religion at all. We all have to somehow coexist peacefully. But conflict over religion is rising throughout the EU and it will not be helped by allowing states to give this kind of privilege to one particular denomination of one particular religion. In the light of this, the Grand Chamber judgment must be seen deeply unhelpful and regressive.

“Thanks to this judgment the Catholic Church retains a privileged position in the state, despite Italy’s secular constitution. This cannot be fair or just in a country of many religions and none.

“Although we would have preferred if the Grand Chamber had upheld the original judgment, the Court of Human Rights has repeatedly noted in its judgments that the Convention on Human Rights is a living instrument that evolves as time goes on and that secularism and an attitude of neutrality towards religion on the part of the state are in keeping with the values of the Convention. Accordingly, in the longer term, we are confident that our view that the use of the state education system to promote a particular religion amounts to a violation of parental rights and to a breach of the values of tolerance and neutrality, will prevail. We also note that the Court specifically distinguished between the passive presence of symbols such as crucifxes and activities such as school prayer which represent a much more significant violation of Convention rights.”


Pope’s visit debt: now overdue

According to a Government response to a parliamentary question from NSS honorary associate Baroness Turner of Camden, the Catholic Church has not yet paid the £6.3 million it owes the British taxpayer for debts incurred during the visit of the pope last September.

The Church had promised to pay the money back by 1 March, but responding to Baroness Turner, the Foreign and Commonwealth Minister Lord Howell of Guildford, said his office sent the invoice to the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales on 25 February 2011. “We expect to receive the funds in due course,” he said. The NSS is monitoring the situation and will ask for a subsequent question to be tabled if the money is not paid in good time.

Meanwhile, a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan police by NSS council member Dennis Penaluna has revealed that the London force spent an estimated £1.7 million on the “policing operation” during the pope’s visit. (Although the police admit that this amount may increase).

The Met was also asked how much it spent on surveillance helicopters and replied “approximately £4,840”, a figure which was greeted with some scepticism by Mr Penaluna. The full costs will be revealed in the annual report of the Metropolitan Police Authority.


Lib Dems and “unjustified” discrimination

At its spring conference in Sheffield, the Liberal Democrat Party passed a policy statement on Community Futures which promised that if religious organisations were handed public services to run, they would not be permitted to discriminate in employment or service provision.

This is something that the NSS has been demanding for the past decade.

The clause reads: “Ensuring that public services are delivered without unjustified discrimination against service-users or employees, by amending equalities legislation to narrow the exemption granted to organisations with a religious ethos , and in the interim requiring public sector commissioners to include non-discrimination clauses in their contracts with providers.”

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

“No doubt there will be much arguing about what constitutes ‘unjustified’ discrimination, with some religious groups – such as Catholic Care (see report below) – insisting that even though they use public money they should be able to enforce Catholic doctrine in service provision. As far as such organisations are concerned, any discrimination they consider suits their ‘religious conscience’ is justifiable.”

Christian insistence on church service wrecks Welsh Assembly opening plans

Plans for a multi-cultural celebration to mark the Queen’s opening of the new Welsh Assembly term in June have fallen into disarray because of a religious row.

A proposal was in place for the celebration to take place on 6 June, a day before the official opening of the fourth Assembly. But Assembly Members (AMs) have fallen out over how prominent a role Christianity should play. In past years, the celebration has taken the form of a “multi cultural service” in a church, but this year it is proposed to make it a “ceremony” at Cardiff Bay’s Wales Millennium Centre.

The plans included an afternoon of “performances representing the diversity of the modern Wales”, followed by an hour-long event including “contributions from faith and cultural groups”.

But the plans have now been withdrawn after the four Assembly Commissioners who make decisions on the running of the Senedd couldn’t agree on its form. One of the Commissioners is NSS honorary associate Lorraine Barrett – who was in favour of the new format. But she was opposed by Chris Franks of Plaid Cymru who said the event should “more reflect the fact of the historical position of Christianity in Wales”, while William Graham (Conservative) said that he would only accept a “service” and not a “celebration”.

“The last three occasions we had a multi-faith service,” he said. “I see no good reason to depart from that. What we are being offered is a celebration, not a service.”

Ms Barrett said:

“I felt it was very narrow to want to hold a celebration in a place of worship, because it would have excluded a lot of people from being able to join in in a more informal way. I felt that the opportunity for churches to celebrate the Assembly through their prayers on that weekend was to be welcomed. I hope that this event can be rescued. I’m not sure how, but I hope very much we can find a way through this because it has to be an inclusive event for everyone.”

Plans will now be reconsidered.


Catholic adoption service still trying to gain exemption from discrimination law

The Charity Commission has defended its decision not to allow the charity Catholic Care to prevent gay people from using its adoption service, at a charity tribunal hearing.

During the hearing, which finished last Friday, the Commission argued it would be a “serious and demeaning act of discrimination” for the charity to restrict its adoption services to heterosexual, married couples.

The charity appealed to the tribunal to quash the Commission’s ruling, made in August last year, that it could not change its objects to prevent same-sex couples from using its adoption service. Catholic Care argued that failing to change its objects would force it to close its adoption service because it would lose its funding from the Catholic Church.

The Commission’s barrister, Emma Dixon, said at the hearing: “The exclusion of same-sex couples is a particularly serious and indeed a demeaning act of discrimination. Weighty reasons would be needed to justify discrimination on the grounds of sexuality.”

Dixon said religious belief was not a justification for restricting its services to heterosexual couples.

“The Charity Commission was right to conclude that there were no substantially weighty reasons to justify the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples,” she said.

Christopher McCall QC, the barrister acting on behalf of the charity, argued that section 193 of the Equalities Act 2010 allowed organisations to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality if this was “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

He said the charity accepted that discrimination was “detrimental in itself”, but that its only alternative was to close its adoption service, which would be a bigger loss to the community.

“This service can only be provided on the grounds that it is not open to all,” he said. “It is beside the point to argue that it would be better for all to be able to access the service, because that couldn’t happen. We are not proposing any more discrimination than is necessary. What is section 193 for if not this?”

In response to McCall, Dixon said: “There is no evidence as to whether donors would give if the service was open. They haven’t tried. Section 193 would apply if there was a rational link between the restriction and the charity’s aim, and that is what is missing here. The fact that the charity might close is not a justification for discriminating.”

Alison McKenna, principal judge of the charity tribunal, said it would make its decision in about a month.


Muslim Council of Britain out of favour again – but taxpayers’ money keeps flowing to promote religion

Andrew Griffiths, Conservative MP for Burton and Uttoxeter asked in parliament last week what individual payments the Department for Communities and Local Government had made to (a) the Muslim Council of Britain and (b) its associated bodies in each of the last three years; and for what purpose in each case.

Andrew Stunell, Minister at the DCLG said it had provided £2,500 to the Muslim Council of Britain for a guest table at the council leadership dinner held on 22 February 2010. DCLG has not provided any further funding to the Muslim Council of Britain for the organisation to undertake work or projects.

Mr Stunnell said: “For an interim period, funding for the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) was routed through the council as one of MINAB’s founding members as MINAB had not then acquired independent charitable status, and as a result did not have its own bank account. Funding for MINAB was made directly to them as soon as they became an independent organisation. The funding was to support them to improve standards in mosques (£116,000 in 2008–09 and £58,000 in 2009–10).

  • “Muslim Council of Britain has a large and wide ranging national membership of organisations that are affiliated to it. Of these, DCLG has funded the following organisations through the Community Leadership Fund:
  • “Muslim Youth Helpline: £30,650 (2008–09), £61,888 (2009–10), £64,767 (2010–11) to build their capacity to extend the reach of their support services to vulnerable young people,
  • “Karimia Institute: £67,180 (2008–09), £50,000 (2009–10), £50,000 (2010–11) for youth leadership training.
  • “Islamic Society of Britain: £20,000 (2008–09) for developing the Islamic Awareness Week website to promote positive understanding of Islam to other communities.
  • “Young Muslims UK: £20,000 (2008–09), £5,000 (2009–10) to promote talent among young Muslims
  • “Muslim Aid: £5,000 (2009–10) for part-sponsorship of Muslim Aid’s 25th Anniversary.”


Newsline – 11 March 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).

Join Britain’s only organisation working exclusively towards a secular society


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In this week’s Newsline

  • NSS call on Government to stand firm on RE omission from EBac
  • Scotland: Anti-sectarian measures “a mere band-aid”, says NSS
  • Lautsi judgment imminent
  • Big majority of Britons think religion should stay out of politics
  • End prayers in parliament, says LibDem MP
  • Is there really one law for all? We’re about to find out.
  • Secularist of the Year– last call for tickets
  • After environmentalism, animal rights is defined as a belief system equivalent to religion
  • Church tax brings in billions for the church
  • Anti-extremist think tank may close after funding stopped
  • Coming out as atheist: Ian McEwan and Francesca Stavrakopoulou
  • Support grows for a secular Lebanon
  • Have you renewed your membership?
  • Consultation on restructuring the NSS

NSS call on Government to stand firm on RE omission from EBac

The National Secular Society has called on the Government to stand firm in the face of a vocal campaign from vested interests insisting that Religious Education should be included in the English Baccalaureate (EBac).

The Government is introducing the new EBac qualification to recognise the success of students who attain good GCSE grades across a core of academic subjects. The chosen subjects are in line with what the Russell Group of universities say they expect students to have if they are to go on to leading universities. RE is not included.

In a written submission to the Education Committee, the NSS has supported the decision not to include RE, maintaining that the current arrangements for the provision of RE precludes it from being considered as a serious academic subject.

At present, the RE syllabus is determined locally by Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs) which are dominated by religious interests. In addition, some faith schools are permitted to teach confessional RE in accordance with the tenets of the faith of the school.

Groups pushing for RE to be forced onto the English Baccalaureate have said its omission could create a future of ‘British Barbarians’.

Stephen Evans, Senior Campaigns Officer at the National Secular Society said: “Many advocates of RE are claiming that its inclusion in the EBac is essential for good community cohesion. As RE is already a compulsory subject, and will remain compulsory, we hope the Government will not find favour with this false argument.

“Any syllabus for a subject that covers religion and belief should be taken out of the hands of vested interests. Religious groups and representatives should have no privileged input and the RE syllabus should be nationally determined by independent educationalists without a confessional religious agenda.

“Too often, RE is regarded as a way of promoting the belief systems of the individual members of the SACREs. The correct objective of RE should instead be to provide pupils with a balanced and objective academic knowledge of religious beliefs and non-religious worldviews.

“The current poor provision of RE is short-changing pupils. Without radical reform, any decision to include RE as part of the EBac would only serve to increase this disservice to young people, who deserve better from our education system.”

Scotland: Anti-sectarian measures “a mere band-aid”, says NSS

Anti-sectarian measures announced at the summit meeting of Glasgow Rangers and Celtic football clubs and the Scottish Government on Tuesday are temporary band-aids that do not deal with the fundamental causes of sectarian animosities, according to the National Secular Society.

The NSS said that the religious divisions in Scotland are magnified by segregating pupils by religious worship and education. If state education places such significance on religious differences can it be any wonder that such differences find expression in other walks of life?

In a letter to the Scottish political parties, the NSS proposes that they include in their manifestos for the Scottish Parliament elections on 5 May moves to do away with religious segregation in Scottish state schools and to review the rules for religious education and worship.

The NSS calls for a religiously integrated primary and secondary state school system that mixes children with parents from all religious faiths and none rather than perpetuating the current system of state funded religiously segregated schools.

Given that one in three of the population is now estimated not to be religious in any way, continuing religious observance and indoctrination in schools cause distress to an increasing number of non-religious parents. Their only option is withdrawing their children from classes, religious services and activities to which they object and this, in turn, leads to children feeling excluded.

Edinburgh-based NSS Council member Norman Bonney commented: “Scotland’s renowned secular university system, where there is no enforced religious segregation or indoctrination, is a valuable example of how learning and social mixing can flourish in a multi-cultural environment where a wide spectrum of faith and non-belief is tolerated and respected. It should be a model for the other parts of the education system.”

Meanwhile, the absurdities of Scotland’s system of separate faith schools has again been demonstrated as Edinburgh councillors and education officials struggle to find a solution to overcrowding in one primary school and the underuse of another on a shared campus in the city.

Initial plans for a switch of the buildings between the state-funded Roman Catholic school and state-funded ‘non-denominational’ (Protestant) primary school were eventually withdrawn by the local authority because of community tension and opposition from parents of the latter school.

The local education authority is now proposing that a wing of the underused school should be shared between the schools with separate entrances to it but the Roman Catholic school is still insisting that religious images should be displayed in the new classroom spaces that will be available to it.

The two schools have attempted to promote more joint activities to improve relations between the two groups of schoolchildren and parents but NSS council member Norman Bonney comments how much easier, more efficient and more desirable the situation would be if the Scottish Parliament amended the laws so that there would be just one state school sharing all the facilities – happily mixing children of all faiths and none and leaving religious worship and indoctrination to home and church if that is what parents wish.

Lautsi judgment imminent

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will rule on 18 March on the so-called Lautsi case. In this case, a parent (Mrs Soile Lautsi) successfully claimed that Italy’s administrative law requiring display of the crucifix in every State school classroom violated the right of parents to “to ensure [their children’s education is] in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions” (Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the Convention, which the Court read in conjunction with Article 9). More details .

The Court ruled in Mrs Lautsi’s favour, but Italy has appealed the case to the Grand Chamber, which is the ultimate court of appeal. If the judgment is upheld, it could have significant consequences for secularism in Europe. It could even impact on the NSS’s court challenge to council prayers.

Big majority of Britons think religion should stay out of politics

As the census form plopped onto the doormats of most households this week, a major new piece of research has shown that only 54% of people in this country define themselves as Christian. More importantly, over two-thirds of respondents said they did not approve of religion and politics being mixed, or religion dictating policy-making.

The survey (pdf) has been published by the Searchlight Educational Trust and was carried out by Populus. There were 5,054 respondents (much larger than the usual opinion poll, which usually questions around 1,000 people).

The poll also shows that as well as the 54% of people defining themselves as Christian, 35% say they had no religion and 7% were from other religions.

The survey runs to some 395 pages and the following detail was extracted from a summary compiled by the British Religion in Numbers website.

23% said that religion was important to them, with 55% disagreeing and 22% neutral.

Just 7% said religion was the most important element in their personal identity. This compared with 35% for nationality, 24% for country of birth, 16% for the city, town or village in which they lived, 7% for ethnicity, 6% for their immediate neighbourhood, and 5% for the country of residence, where different from that of birth. Religion was the second most important influence on identity for 8% and the third most important for 10%.

55% never attended a place of worship in their local community. 8% claimed to go at least once a week, 5% at least once a fortnight, 6% at least once a month, and 26% less than once a month. The official figures for church attendance, however, which are based on counting the number of people actually in the pews, indicates that respondents to opinion polls overstate their religious observance quite substantially. (A rough calculation by our Executive Director suggests the numbers claiming to be in Church on an average Sunday equates to around 14% – which is double the actual number as counted by the churches themselves.)

Only 23% thought that, by and large, religion is a force for good in the UK. 42% disagreed and 35% expressed no opinion.

A large majority of people in Britain are secularists, with 68% agreed that religion should not influence laws and policies in Britain, with 16% disagreeing and 16% neutral.

On a scale of 1 (= do not trust at all) to 5 (= trust fully), the mean respect score for local religious leaders was 2.95. This was lower than for the respondent’s general practitioner (3.98), the local headteacher (3.44), women’s institute (3.43), the local scout/girl guide leader (3.41) and the local branch of service organizations (3.31).

62% considered religious abuse to be as serious as racial abuse, but 38% viewed the latter as more serious.

60% believed that people should be able to say what they wanted about religion, however critical or offensive it might be. 40% thought there should be restrictions on what individuals could say about religion, and that they should be prosecuted if necessary. Significantly more, 58%, were in favour of limitations on freedom of speech when it came to race.

44% regarded Muslims as completely different to themselves in terms of habits, customs and values. Just 5% said the same about Christians, 19% about Jews, 28% about Hindus, and 29% about Sikhs.

42% said that they interacted with Sikhs less than monthly or never, 39% with Jews, 36% with Hindus, 28% with Muslims, and 5% with Christians. There were a lot of don’t knows for this question.

59% did not know any Sikhs well as friends and family members, work colleagues, children’s friends or neighbours. 55% said the same about Jews, 53% about Hindus, 41% about Muslims, and 8% about Christians.

32% argued that Muslims created a lot of problems in the UK. Far fewer said this about other faith groups: 7% about Hindus, 6% about Sikhs, 5% about Christians, and 3% about Jews.

49% contended that Muslims created a lot of problems in the world. Again, this was much less often said about other faith communities: 15% about Jews, 12% about Christians, 10% about Hindus, and 9% about Sikhs (tables 102–107).

25% viewed Islam as a dangerous religion which incites violence. 21% considered that violence or terrorism on the part of some Muslims is unsurprising given the actions of the West in the Muslim world and the hostility towards Muslims in Britain.

49% thought that such violence or terrorism was unsurprising on account of the activities and statements of a few Muslim extremists. 6% dismissed accusations of violence or terrorism by Muslims as something got up by the media (table 126).

On hearing reports of violent clashes between English nationalist extremists and Muslim extremists, 26% would sympathize with the former who were standing up for their country and 6% for the Muslims who were standing up for their faith. 68% would view both groups as bad as each other.

43% indicated that they would support a campaign to stop the building of a new mosque in their locality, against 19% who would oppose such a campaign, with 38% neutral.

In the event of such a campaign turning violent or threatening to do so, by the action of either of the disputing parties, 81% would condemn such violence but 19% would continue to support one side or the other.

Interviewees were asked to react to the possibility of a new political party which would defend the English, create an English Parliament, control immigration, challenge Islamic extremism, restrict the construction of mosques, and make it compulsory for all public buildings to fly the St George’s flag or Union Jack. 21% said that they would definitely support such a party and a further 27% that they would consider backing it.

End prayers in parliament, says LibDem MP

A Lib Dem MP has joined the chorus calling for an end to prayers before each sitting of the House of Commons. Jo Swinson, who represents East Dunbartonshire, said it was “time to reconsider” the daily Church of England ritual that dates back to the 16th century. Many MPs attended it simply to secure a good seat in the Commons.

All MPs must turn and face the wall during prayers, a tradition that developed in the days when most members wore a sword and could not kneel.

Last week, during a session of the House of Commons, Ms Swinson asked: “Is it time to reconsider the House practice whereby the only way to reserve a seat in the chamber makes it mandatory to attend Church of England prayers?”

Sir George Young, the Conservative Leader of the House, responded that such reforms were a matter for the Speaker. But Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, told the Sunday Express: “I don’t think it is appropriate for prayers to form part of the proceedings, although we would have no objection to prayers outside the chamber.”

Ms Swinson’s call follows a similar one from Jo Johnson, MP for Orpington in Kent. The calls sparked an angry reaction from the Church of England, with a spokesman saying that prayers set the “important decisions” made by MPs “within a wider moral, Christian context”.

Sittings in both the Commons and the Lords begin with prayers and non-members are barred from the public galleries until they are finished.

Is there really one law for all? We’re about to find out.
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

Muslim extremist and provocateur Emdadur Choudhury was fined £50 this week for burning poppies during the Armistice Day commemoration ceremony. He was found guilty under Section 5 of the Public Order Act of burning the poppies in a way that was likely to cause “harassment, harm or distress” to those who witnessed it. As you would expect from a religious zealot of Mr Choudhury’s intensity, he was unrepentant, said that he did not recognise the court, answered only to Allah etc., etc.

Video footage of the demonstration in West London, shown in court, saw a group of about 20 Muslim demonstrators chanting: “Burn, burn, British soldiers, British soldiers, burn in hell.” and “British soldiers – murderers, British soldiers – rapists, British soldiers – terrorists.”

The £50 fine — which was the minimum tariff the magistrate could give — was roundly condemned by the tabloid press and by those present at the commemoration who had felt offended and insulted by the disrespectful gesture.

District Judge Howard Riddle explained “Shocking and offending people is sometimes a necessary part of effective protest. Here, an obvious consequence of this process was to show disrespect for dead soldiers. The two-minute chanting, when others were observing a silence, followed by a burning of the symbol of remembrance, was a calculated and deliberate insult to the dead and those who mourn or remember them. If the memory of dead soldiers is publicly insulted at a time and place where there is likely to be gathered people who have expressly attended to honour those soldiers, then the threat to public order is obvious.”

But the Judge said he had to take into account Mr Choudhury’s right to free speech as guaranteed under the Human Rights Act.

So, was it right that Choudhury was let off with such a derisory punishment? Did it just add insult to injury? Or were Choudhury and his fanatical chums entitled to their freedom of speech, meaning that no charge should have been brought in the first place? Should the injured sensibilities of the grieving relatives of dead soldiers be of no concern to the law?

In Britain we have laws protecting people from offence, particularly religious offence. And so, when an American preacher who had threatened to burn a copy of the Koran was planning a visit to the UK last year, the Home Secretary stepped in to ban him. Pastor Terry Jones hadn’t actually carried out his threat, but it was sufficient to trigger over-reaction from the Home Office.

But now a man in Cumbria called Andrew Ryan has actually done the deed. Mr Ryan burned a copy of the Koran in a Carlisle street in January and has now been charged with religiously aggravated harassment and theft of a Koran. The offence carries a possible 7 year jail sentence.

Mr Ryan is due in court on 24th March and it will be very interesting to see whether the judge in his case also thinks that “shocking and offending people is sometimes a necessary part of effective protest.”

Naturally, some people think the Koran is “sacred” while others think it is just a sheaf of papers bound together like any other book. Will Mr Ryan get a £50 fine for burning paper or will he get seven years for offending the sensitivities of Muslims?

Let’s see if the law thinks there is “offence” and “religious offence” and then, perhaps, “offending Islam” – all of which might bring very different punishments. One law for all? We’ll see.

See also: Inheriting the wind of free speech and religion

Secularist of the Year– last call for tickets

A great afternoon of fun and good food is in prospect next Saturday as the next presentation of the Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year takes place.

The winner is now chosen and will be revealed to a roll of drums by A.C. Grayling after we have enjoyed a welcome cocktail, a three course lunch with tea or coffee and some eye-popping magic from the Trickman .

This will be your last opportunity to get your tickets to see the winner receive their £5,000 prize and the Golden Ammonite trophy and to enjoy the convivial atmosphere created by friendly secularists from around the country. We need to let the venue know the total numbers later this week so that they can make the catering arrangements. Bookings are already close to the venue’s capacity.

The occasion will also be an opportunity to honour those volunteers who have worked hard for the NSS over the past year and we will give a special achievement award to an individual who really deserves it.

Saturday 19th March is the date, Soho, London is the destination. We’ll be gathering in one of the capital’s more glamorous destinations – all red plush and crystal chandeliers. Festivities will be over in time for those outside London to make their contented way home.

So, if you want to be there, don’t delay – book online or by post from NSS SoY, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Tickets are £45 each (£15 for students with identification). Please include the names of all your party, together with any requests for special dietary needs.

After environmentalism, animal rights is defined as a belief system equivalent to religion

Animal rights advocate 42 year old Joe Hashman was told by a judge this week that his belief in the rights of animals to live free from cruelty were equivalent to a religion when it came to the application of discrimination law.

He now has the right to sue a garden centre for discrimination over allegations that he was sacked when its pro-hunting bosses discovered he was a leading animal welfare activist.

Orchard Park Garden Centre, in Gillingham, Dorset, fought to prevent Hashman from bringing the case, claiming he was insincere and that his views did not qualify as philosophical beliefs under employment tribunal rules. However, Judge Lawrence Guyer said: “The claimant has a belief in the sanctity of life. This belief extends to his fervent anti foxhunting belief (and also anti hare coursing belief) and such beliefs constitute a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.”

Mr Hashman claims he was unaware when he took the job that the centre was owned by farmers Sheila and Ron Clarke, who are keen supporters of the South and West Wiltshire Hunt – or that they knew he had been a hunt saboteur since the age of 14. He alleges that when they found out, they dismissed him purely because of his beliefs, rather than the quality of his work running a vegetable patch to encourage customers to grow their own produce.

At a hearing in January at Southampton Employment Tribunal Centre, Mr Hashman argued that his views on foxhunting should be treated as a philosophical belief under employment tribunal legislation. “I know in my heart and soul that living life as a vegan is the philosophical foundation of my anti-hunting stance,” said Mr Hashman, who is a life member of the Hunt Saboteurs Association.

“Against hunting I have protested, demonstrated, sabotaged, monitored, infiltrated, filmed undercover and worked politically since 1982. I am devoted to the causes arising from my philosophical belief and I will not stop fighting for animal rights.”

The tribunal has heard Mr Hashman was dismissed shortly after the Clarke’s farm manager Andrew Prater — a terrier man for the local hunt who had repeated run-ins with Mr Hashman — recognised him while he was working at the garden centre. The garden centre denies his claims, insisting that his beliefs played no part in his dismissal. They claim that his vegetable patch was not making them enough money.

Their lawyers argued that Mr Hashman was not genuinely committed to animal rights because he continued to work for the garden centre after he learned that the owners were pro-hunting.

Mr Guyer added:

“I have no hesitation in finding that Mr Hashman thinks very deeply about the issues arising from his beliefs and that he attempts to live his life in accord with those beliefs. I find that his beliefs are truly part of his philosophical beliefs both within the ordinary meaning of such words and within the meaning of the 2003 legislation.”

Mr Hashman said he was “thrilled” that his case will be heard. “It’s absolutely brilliant,” he said. “It’s quite amazing to know that the judge has listened to my evidence and understood what I’m trying to say because it’s a very hard thing to articulate.”

The ruling comes after Tim Nicholson, a former executive with a London property firm, successfully sued for unfair dismissal in 2009 by claiming that he was sacked because of his strong views on climate change.

See also: Background to Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) |Regulations 2003
No end to Christian special pleading

Church tax brings in billions for the church

The figures for German church tax for 2010 were released last week. Some €4.794 billion was collected, a drop of 2.2 per cent in comparison with 2009 but still the third-highest income since the tax was introduced under the Weimar regime after the First World War. Germany’s 25.5 million Catholics must pay between 8 and 9 per cent of their income tax to the Church. Many are resigning from the church in order to avoid this.

Last week, the Catholic Church in Germany announced that it was offering €5,000 (£4,300) to victims of abuse by its priests.

Anti-extremist think tank may close after funding stopped

The Quilliam Foundation, an influential think-tank working to tackle Islamic extremism, has lost £1 million worth of government funding and faces closure within weeks.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who based his thinking on multiculturalism on findings by Quilliam, is said to be concerned about the news after his advisers warned that the loss of Quilliam would do “very great damage” to efforts to de-radicalise Muslims in the UK and overseas.

Coming out as atheist: Ian McEwan and Francesca Stavrakopoulou

Described as the greatest living novelist, Ian McEwan was interviewed in the Daily Telegraph. Part of the interview says:

McEwan of course, like The Hitch and Dawkins, is an avowed atheist and when we talk about the Christian belief in an afterlife he says: “Do you think they really believe it? I’ve been to funerals where I was pretty sure the majority were atheists and they listened to the vicar say that the deceased had gone to a better place and everyone’s toes curled.

“We can’t prove it’s not so, but the chances that it is are rather meagre. If they did believe you all meet up again in this big theme park in the sky why were they crying? How can you say you believe in the afterlife and weep at the finality of death?”

Meanwhile, in the Daily Mail, we are introduced to Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou, and Oxford theologian, who will present a new programme on BBC2 called The Bible’s Buried Secrets. Ms Stavrakopoulou says: “I’m an atheist with a huge respect for religion. I see what I do as a branch of history like any other.”

Support grows for a secular Lebanon

Thousands of people demonstrated in Lebanon last week demanding a secular state be established in place of the present sectarian regime. Protestors included religious figures.

Waving Lebanese flags, the demonstrators hoped to capitalise on public support for an end to corruption, selecting the Electricité du Liban building — a symbol of government mismanagement — as their end-point. Some of the banners at the rally read: “Confessionalism is the opium of the masses” and: “Revolt to topple the agents of confessionalism.”

Lebanon is governed by a complicated and delicate power-sharing agreement, based on political confessionalism that aims to maintain a balance between the country’s 18 religious sects. The system mandates that the president be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi-ite Muslim. Other government jobs are allotted according to religion.

The agreement has been blamed by many as being the cause of serious problems and issues this volatile Mediterranean country has witnessed over the years, including civil war, corruption and cronyism.

Bishop Gregoire Haddad — at 87 a veteran of secular campaigning — toured the protest by car, saying, “We’ve been demanding the toppling of the sectarian regime for 40 years. But the movement shouldn’t be violent, so that we don’t witness what has happened in the Arab world … I believe it’s [too] early to call on the top three leaders to resign.”

At the other end of the age range, 18-year old student Saja Mortada, dressed in a jacket and head scarf, said “I am tired of the stealing and corruption. I want a democratic, civil, secular state where state and religion are divided.”

See also: Democracy is as dangerous in the Middle East as it is in the West

Have you renewed your membership?

The NSS’s quarterly Bulletin was sent out last week. If you are member and didn’t receive it, please let us know. If you’ve changed your address or other contact details, please tell us so that we can keep our records up to date.

Membership subscriptions for the NSS are now due, and we hope that you’ll by now have renewed for another year. If you haven’t, please do so now. We’ve got an important year coming up and we need you to stay with us. If you aren’t a member yet, please consider joining today.

You can do it quickly online or you can set up a standing order that will save you the trouble of renewing.

Consultation on restructuring the NSS

NSS members are being invited to take part in a consultation on proposed changes to the Aims and Objectives of the Society .

Please note that this consultation is for paid-up members only.

Newsline – 4 March 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

  • Teacher Discrimination: NSS reports Government to European Commission
  • Are British Evangelicals retrenching over claims of victimisation?
  • New study of chaplains shows little benefit to clinical outcomes
  • Church-state confrontation over gay marriage could be solved with disestablishment
  • Chris Patten and the BBC
  • Pope visit to Scotland – add another £880,000 to the bill
  • Humanists join church campaign to get RE in baccalaureate – report
  • Secular anger as Pope is invited to address European Parliament
  • Lawyers attempt to prosecute pope in International Criminal Court
  • German Catholic Church offers abuse victims “insulting” 5,000 euros each
  • No religious opt-out from providing morning-after pill for Irish pharmacists
  • Secularist of the Year approaches – have you got your ticket?

Teacher Discrimination: NSS reports Government to European Commission

The National Secular Society has formally complained to the European Commission accusing the British Government of eroding legislative protection from religious discrimination for teachers.

The NSS argues that UK legislative protection for non-religious teachers falls short of the standards required by the European Employment Directive. If the Commission finds that the Government has breached the Directive, and fails to put the deficiencies right, it could result in it being taken to the European Court of Justice.

The NSS has complained about the loss of the long-standing protection for community school teachers who do not partake in worship or teach religious education. There are 13,000 community schools and the loss occurs when they transfer to academy status, as will become “the norm”, according to Education Secretary Michael Gove.

The NSS also complains that under the current Education Bill, the government reserves the right not to extend similar protection to non-religious teachers in 2,500 faith schools currently controlled by local education authorities when they transfer to academies.

The Society’s charges of incompatibility are backed up by advice from the Head of Public Law of Beachcroft LLP, prominent city solicitors specialising in education law.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “As the number of people who participate in Christian worship continues to decline, it is vitally important to maintain protections for the non-religious and those of other faiths. The protections at risk could affect 100,000 teachers in positions that are totally funded by the taxpayer. The Government must live up to its moral and EU obligations and retain these protections, not just for existing staff, but those who come after them. The Society will be using every endeavour to persuade the Government to make these changes in the forthcoming Education Bill.”

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission have also accepted a complaint from the Society and we expect them to make representations to the parliamentary committee considering the Bill.

The Society has also written to the leading teaching unions to inform them of its concerns.

The Society was compelled to complain to Brussels after the Department for Education rejected a request to take remedial action in the Education Bill, currently before Parliament.

The Society has complained to the Commission in a similar way before over employment discrimination by organised religions. It resulted in the previous government being required to take action. The European Commission invited the NSS to make this complaint after receiving copies of the NSS’s legal advice and correspondence with the Department.

Are British Evangelicals retrenching over claims of victimisation?
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

It seems there is at last a realisation among at least some of Britain’s evangelical groups that the repeated failure of court cases claiming that Christians are being persecuted and discriminated against in Britain is proving counterproductive.

The Evangelical Alliance (EA) has made some astonishing comments about the High Court judgment involving Pentecostal Christian foster parents Owen and Eunice Johns who felt unable to take anything other than a literalist biblical line on homosexuality to those entrusted to their care. The EA’s statement opens with the sentence “It is not true that Christians are being prevented from fostering and adopting children in spite of increasing evidence that they are being marginalised in public life.”

The EA goes on to say that it doubted “the wisdom in bringing such cases to the High Court in the first place. While there is no doubt that equality laws appear increasingly controversial in the way they seem to disproportionately impact against Christians, there is a clear need for a more cautious and strategic approach when deciding to take matters to court.”

The EA’s Head of Public Affairs, Don Horrocks — in a clear pop at the extremist Christian Legal Centre, which originates many of these cases — said: “It is counterproductive to provoke the courts into unnecessary and unhelpful rulings – especially when a case is weak and evidence is lacking. There may also be risks that Christians will be viewed as deliberately engineering conflicts with the courts or pleading privileged treatment.”

The Christian Institute, itself no stranger to bringing these kind of cases to court, similarly raised doubts about the reaction from some Christians and Christian apologists in the newspapers to this latest judgment. He felt they had misrepresented it. He said “Much media reporting on this issue, and even some comments by Christians, have, in our view, been wide of the mark. The impression has been given that the High Court has ruled that Christians who believe that homosexuality is morally wrong cannot foster children. This is not true. No such ruling has been made.”

This rebuke from fellow evangelicals to the Christian Legal Centre and its scary leader, Andrea Minichiello Williams, may represent a rethinking of evangelical tactics.

But their media supporters have yet to get the message that these relentless but empty claims of discrimination and persecution are actually strengthening the equality laws rather than weakening them.

The new approach seems to be to attack the equality laws directly and try to get them repealed. As Andrew Carey of the evangelical Church of England Newspaper put it: “A review of human rights legislation must be the next step to halt the divisive and marginalising effects of these competitions between minority rights. Christians must increasingly make the case for such a review.”

But this is another hopeless cause. Given that the laws are based on European Directives, there is little that our domestic parliament can do to change them short of opting out of the EU completely.

Ms Minichiello Williams of the Christian Legal Centre, who helped Mr & Mrs Johns bring the case, of course thought that this judgment represented the end of the world for Christians. She said it would “restrict the number of people seeking to foster”.

But she was immediately contradicted by Katie Harris, Derby City Council specialist services director for children and young people, who said: “The ruling will make the situation clearer, which is what we were seeking. But we don’t imagine it will reduce the number of people wanting to foster and don’t have any one else on our books in a similar position. This case is quite exceptional because we have foster carers from a range of Christian denominations, other faiths, and people with no faith, who have been able to work with us to meet the diversity and equality standards required. We were right to take the position we did as proven by the ruling – we couldn’t ignore the Johns’ position on homosexuality.”

The former bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali — as blinkered as Andrea Williams, if not more so — commented that the judges were wrong to claim that this is a secular country. Mr Nazir-Ali seems not to know the difference between a ‘secular country’ and a ‘secular state’. The latter is a formal structure that enshrines secularism constitutionally. So, England, by virtue of its established church, is not a secular state. But it is most certainly a secular country in that religion plays little part in the lives of most of its citizens.

The former bishop continued: “However, what really worries me about this spate of judgments is that they leave no room for the conscience of believers of whatever kind. This will exclude Christians, Muslims and Orthodox Jews from whole swathes of public life, including adoption and fostering.”

A writer on the Conservative Home blog stated this misconception even more baldly: “The law in Britain now, straightforwardly and unambiguously, excludes Christians from many occupations.”

Catholic commentator Cristina Odone took this paranoia to new heights in a blog in the Daily Telegraph with the headline “Christianity isn’t dying, it’s being eradicated” in which she states that the judges in the Johns’ case: “declared that we live in a secular state, and that the Johns’ religious convictions disqualified them from raising citizens of that state.”

Unsurprisingly, Melanie Phillips in the Spectator similarly ludicrously overstates the case, calling it a “secular inquisition against Christians.” Tellingly, the article is illustrated with an engraving of the real inquisition, with a sinister priest presiding enthusiastically over the torture.

No-one in this country is torturing Christians. Perhaps Melanie Phillips should concentrate her fire on Pakistan, where real persecution is taking place.

Another over-the-top Christian apologist, the blogger Archbishop Cranmer, even went so far as to claim: “If Christian morality is harmful to children and unacceptable to the state, how long will it be before our children are forcibly removed from us, lest they be ‘infected’ with Christian moral beliefs?”

It is clear that the leaders of the evangelical movement are ahead of their propagandists. They have come to realise that, in the end, frequent false cries of “Wolf!” results in nobody taking any notice when the real wolf puts in his appearance. Now it is time for them to ask their journalistic friends to tone down the bombastic rhetoric.

Let us hope also that Andrea Minichiello Williams and deluded Barrister Paul Diamond can be reined in so as to save the legal system much time and money having to rule on these ludicrous cases.

As this case made a strong and unambiguous argument for a completely secular legal system, we urge you to read more about the judgment on our website.
See also: The Christians who are proud to be prejudiced
Would you pass the fostering test?

New study of chaplains shows little benefit to clinical outcomes

A study of NHS trusts in England has shown that £29m of healthcare money was used to pay for hospital chaplains in 2009/10. The study revealed that many of the country’s best hospitals spent the lowest proportion of their expenditure on chaplaincy services and concluded that the NHS wastes millions every year on services that have no clinical benefit.

Statistical analysis showed that there was no relationship or positive correlation between how much hospitals spent on chaplaincy services and the overall quality of their patient care.

English NHS Trusts were asked how much they spent on hospital chaplaincy services using the Freedom of Information Act. The proportion that trusts spent on chaplaincy was compared to how well it performed on national quality ratings. The results showed huge variations in the proportions that similar hospitals spend, and that if all NHS Trusts brought their spending into line with the best trusts, savings of £18.5m a year would be made. £18.5m p.a. could pay for 1,000 nursing assistants or a brand new community hospital every year.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “Tax payers will be shocked to learn how much healthcare money is diverted into paying for chaplaincy services. The cash-strapped NHS should spend its money on front line services. It has been common knowledge for well over a year that massive cuts were on the way and it was recently reported that the NHS is to lose 50,000 jobs, including doctors and nurses. Yet our study showed that chaplaincy costs rose by 7% in the last year. This study shows that massive savings can be made immediately with no impact on clinical care. At a time when the NHS is under financial pressure, every hospital will want to use this benchmarking information to bring their chaplaincy costs into line with the best in their field.

“The National Secular Society is not seeking to oust chaplains from hospitals, but their cost should not be borne by public funds, especially when clinical services for patients are being cut. Many priests or their equivalents in other religions offer their services voluntarily, and this should become the norm. Alternatively, we have proposed that chaplaincy services should be paid for through charitable trusts, supported by churches and their parishioners. If churches really support ‘the big society’ then they will stop siphoning off NHS cash to fund chaplains’ salaries.”

About the study:

All 227 English NHS provider trusts responded to an FOI enquiry asking how much they spent on chaplaincy services in 2009/10.

The study compared the percentage of each trust’s total income spent on chaplaincy services to the trust’s performance on Standards for Better Health and the Standardised Mortality Rate (the national quality benchmarks for 2009/10). Statistical analysis showed that there was no relationship or positive correlation between how much hospitals spent on chaplaincy services and the overall quality of their patient care.

Applying the practice of the most efficient trusts to the whole NHS showed that from the total £29m spend, £18.5m savings could be made every year.
Read the study in full: Costing the heavens: Chaplaincy services in English NHS provider Trusts 2009/10 (pdf)

Our Director, Keith Porteous Wood, was a resident guest in an hour long phone-in earlier in the week on Radio 5 Live. It was clear that the public are on our side, particularly if they are asked whether chaplains or front line staff such as doctors, nurses or cleaners should be subject to job cuts. And even Daily Mail readers thought so, by a margin of more than 2 to 1.

We hope Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust will bear this in mind when, as part of its money-saving efforts, it is preparing to cut 10% of its staff. We wonder if the 8.5 chaplains that cost the Trust more than £400,000 in wages alone will be included in this cull?

Church-state confrontation over gay marriage could be solved with disestablishment

A major confrontation between the Church of England and the Government is brewing over gay marriage and civil partnerships.

The government intends to implement a House of Lords amendment to the Equality Act that would allow churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious buildings to host civil partnership ceremonies should the faith group so wish. The amendment is entirely permissive and no organisation will be forced to allow gay couples to hold ceremonies on their premises.

The equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has said that gay couples will not be able to sue churches that refuse to participate.

But the Archbishop of Canterbury has told a group of influential MPs at a private meeting that the Church will strongly resist any attempt to give gay couples the equivalent of marriage. A government consultation on the issue is to begin in April.

Both the prime minister, David Cameron, and his deputy Nick Clegg, favour opening civil marriage and civil partnerships to all couples, whether straight or gay. The government also privately hopes that religious ministers will be allowed to conduct gay marriages in the same way that they officiate at straight marriages.

When challenged by Simon Kirby, the conservative MP for Brighton Kempton, Dr Williams said he would not countenance weakening the church’s teaching on marriage or for its stance to be dictated by Government ministers.

“I hoped he might be more measured in his response and reflect on the cases for both sides of the argument more evenly, but he was very one sided,” Mr Kirby told the Sunday Telegraph. “Public opinion is moving faster than the Church on this issue and it is increasingly in danger of getting left behind. Obviously it is a difficult issue for the church, but it has many gay men and women who want to be treated the same way as everyone else,” he added.

A spokesman for Dr Williams said: “The Church still believes on the basis of Bible and tradition that marriage is between a man and a woman and does not accept that this needs to change. Civil partnerships now provide legal securities for same-sex couples, but this does not, in itself, alter what we believe to be unique about marriage. The Church of England is opposed to all forms of homophobia and would want to defend the civil liberties of homosexual people, and to welcome them into our churches.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “The Church of England fiercely defends its established status, but this seems to be becoming increasingly inconvenient as its doctrines come into conflict with modern thinking and knowledge. If the Church wants to act independently, it should do so from a position of independence – not privilege. It claims that its raison d’etre and the justification of its privileges is that it is the national church, open to all citizens. It can no longer claim this and then refuse to provide services to a section of the community of which it doesn’t approve.

“The time for the Church to be disestablished is long overdue. Such a move would be of great benefit not only to the state, but to the Church itself.”

Chris Patten and the BBC

Lord (Chris) Patten — the man who rescued the Pope’s visit from the Catholic Church’s incompetence — is mooted to be the new chairman of the BBC Trust. Lord Patten, like Mark Thompson, the BBC’s Director General, is a high profile Catholic. This has spurred several members of the NSS to contact us asking what the consequence of this could be.

Looking at speculation about the appointment, there seems more concern about his politics than his religion.

Right-wing commentators believe that Prime Minister David Cameron, who is convinced that the BBC’s coverage of the Tory party is biased against them, will want Lord Patten to use his influence to improve matters. They don’t hold out much hope of this because Lord Patten is considered to be on the left wing of the Tory Party.

But will he be able to do as Mr Cameron wants and bring a more sympathetic view of the Tories to the BBC? The Daily Telegraph doesn’t think he will be able to directly order the BBC to start broadcasting pro-Conservative propaganda. “The chairman of the BBC Trust has a powerful position,” the paper wrote, “but Patten won’t be able to interfere with day-to-day editorial decisions. Where he’ll be able to make an impact is by commissioning reports on, for example, how the BBC covers business or reports on religion. He’ll then be able to force programme-makers to absorb the lessons.”

So, it is clear that Lord Patten will be able to influence the BBC’s coverage of religion if he so desires, but we will have to wait and see whether that is part of his agenda.

Pope visit to Scotland – add another £880,000 to the bill

A Freedom of Information request has revealed that Strathclyde Police spent £649,203, employing 1,116 police officers to cover the Pope’s visit to Glasgow last year. Glasgow City Council spent £801,000 on the visit.

The total cost of the Pope’s one-day visit to Scotland for policing alone was £1.2 million, including the £649,000 spent by Lothian and Borders Police. The Government will reimburse £100,000 to Lothian and Borders Police and £150,000 to Strathclyde cops.

Edinburgh City Council shelled out £292,727 on non-police costs as its contribution to the religious jamboree.
See also: Scottish police anger at hole left in its budget by Pope visit

Humanists join church campaign to get RE in baccalaureate – report

The Church of England Newspaper reports on its front page today that the British Humanist Association and the European Humanist Federation are supporting a campaign from the churches to force the government into including Religious Education in the new English Baccalaureate.

At a debate about Professor Trevor Cooling’s report Doing God in Education held at the Royal Society for the Arts in London, Dr Joyce Miller, associate fellow of the Warwick Religion Education and Research Unit, announced that everyone involved in RE is opposed to the government’s proposal to omit the subject from the new performance measure. Dr Miller is a Buddhist.

Dr Miller’s position was supported by David Pollock, President of the European Humanist Federation and Andrew Copson of the BHA. Mr Pollock told The Church of England Newspaper that RE should be part of the baccalaureate, provided that it is taught critically, with regard for the historical context, and with all religions and the relationship between them being studied. He also said that the views of humanists and those without any religious beliefs should be studied in the curriculum.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA, told the Church of England Newspaper that humanists believe “all pupils in all types of schools should have the opportunity to consider philosophical and fundamental questions and that in a pluralist society we should learn about each other’s beliefs, including humanist ones”.

The Church of England’s Chief Education Officer, the Rev Jan Ainsworth, notes that the subject will still have to be taught by law but has expressed fears that, if RE does not form part of the baccalaureate, schools will not give it high priority. She believes there will be less incentive to employ specialist teachers. She also fears that “we could go back to the days when anyone was considered suitable to teach RE”.
See also: Catholic leader supports RE in baccalaureate
Lady Warsi supports RE campaign

Secular anger as Pope is invited to address European Parliament

News that the President of the European Parliament, Jercy Buzek (Christian Democrat) has invited the Pope to address the parliament has been greeted with dismay and anger by secularists in Britain and Europe.

Dutch MEP, and NSS honorary associate, Sophie in ‘t Veld, has written to Mr Buzek protesting on behalf of the European Parliamentary Platform for Secularism in Politics. Ms ‘int Veld says:

“The plenary session in this assembly discusses and decides policies for all 500 million European citizens, regardless of their belief, faith or religion. It is wholly inappropriate for plenary meetings to be used as a podium for religious messages.

“The European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics has repeatedly invited you, as President of this House, for an exchange of views on the implementation of Treaty article 17, regarding the relation between the EU institutions and churches and non-confessional organisations. So far you have not found the opportunity to attend one of our meetings, and you recently cancelled a date that had been set well in advance.

“In view of your invitation to the Pope, we feel it is even more urgent to have a debate on the place of churches and religious organisations within the EU institutions.

“The European Union has to defend the rights of every citizen, regardless of their religion or belief. Freedom of religion is an individual right, it is not a collective privilege. Freedom of religion can only be safeguarded if the EU institutions do not favour certain groups over others. All beliefs and convictions must be heard, including secularist voices.”

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, added: “If the Pope is invited to speak at the European Parliament it will represent a slap in the face for the tens of thousands of victims of child abuse committed by Catholic priests and covered up by the Vatican hierarchy. I have twice challenged the Holy See to fulfil its obligations under the European Convention of the Rights of the Child at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and there has yet to be any action.

“To treat the Pope as an honoured guest after he has presided over two decades of institutionalised cover-ups of this criminal activity is grossly insulting. He should be made to answer for his sins, not lauded for them.

“We consider that inviting the Vatican — Europe’s last remaining theocracy — to the heart of the European Parliament to be undesirable and unhealthy. The Catholic Church already exerts far too much influence in the EU. This should be discouraged and curtailed rather than encouraged in this way.”

But William Oddie, the rather extreme Catholic commentator, saw things very differently in an article in the Catholic Herald.

See also: Berlusconi engages in a spot of gay bashing to please the pope
“Holy See” tells UN committee: Girls must be denied abortion rights

Lawyers attempt to prosecute pope in International Criminal Court

Two lawyers from Germany are trying to prosecute the pope at the International Criminal Court, alleging crimes against humanity. Christian Sailer and Gert-Joachim Hetzel, based at Marktheidenfeld in the Pope’s home state of Bavaria, last week submitted a 16,500-word document to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at the Hague, Dr Luis Moreno Ocampo.

Their charges concern “three worldwide crimes which until now have not been denounced… (as) the traditional reverence toward ‘ecclesiastical authority’ has clouded the sense of right and wrong”.

They claim the Pope “is responsible for the preservation and leadership of a worldwide totalitarian regime of coercion which subjugates its members with terrifying and health-endangering threats”.

They allege he is also responsible for “the adherence to a fatal forbiddance of the use of condoms, even when the danger of HIV-Aids infection exists” and for “the establishment and maintenance of a worldwide system of cover-up of the sexual crimes committed by Catholic priests and their preferential treatment, which aids and abets ever new crimes”.

They claim the Catholic Church “acquires its members through a compulsory act, namely, through the baptism of infants that do not yet have a will of their own”. This act was “irrevocable” and is buttressed by threats of excommunication and the fires of hell.

It was “a grave impairment of the personal freedom of development and of a person’s emotional and mental integrity”. The Pope was “responsible for its preservation and enforcement and, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of his Church, he was jointly responsible” with Pope John Paul II.

Catholics “threatened by HIV-AIDS… are faced with a terrible alternative: If they protect themselves with condoms during sexual intercourse, they become grave sinners; if they do not protect themselves out of fear of the punishment of sin threatened by the church, they become candidates for death.”

There was also “strong suspicion that Dr Joseph Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of his church and as Pope, has up to the present day systematically covered up the sexual abuse of children and youths and protected the perpetrators, thereby aiding and abetting further sexual violence toward young people”.
Read the full charge sheet (pdf)

German Catholic Church offers abuse victims “insulting” 5,000 euros each

The Catholic Church in Germany has proposed paying victims of sexual abuse up to 5,000 euros (£4,200) each, in cases that can no longer be brought to court because too much time has elapsed since the alleged crime took place. In particularly serious cases, the church says a higher sum would be paid out. In addition, the church will pay for the cost of therapy for those abused by priests or other church employees.

But Matthias Katsch from the victims’ group “Square Table” rejected the proposal, calling the sum “insulting.” Katsch told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper it showed how “the richest church in the world was trying to distance itself from the affair.”

NSS member and RC abuse survivor Sue Cox added: “the amount they are offering them is just like saying ‘here’s a Kleenex, love, off you go’ – disrespectful and too easy.”

No religious opt-out from providing morning-after pill for Irish pharmacists

Unlike their English equivalents, Irish pharmacists are obliged to sell the Morning-After-Pill (MAP) regardless of their beliefs, or they could fall foul of the pharmacists’ Code of Conduct.

Last week, the Irish Medicines Board approved the sale of Norlevo, a new type of MAP, over the counter without the need for a prescription.

Questioned by the Irish Catholic magazine, The Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI) confirmed that under their Code of Conduct, pharmacists must stock the MAP or “take reasonable action to ensure that these medicines or services are provided”.

The Code makes no provision for the possible conscientious objections on religious or any other grounds.

The Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland said that if a pharmacy did not have a supply of the MAP in stock at a given point in time, they would have to refer a customer to another pharmacy. On the issue of the lack of “conscience clause”, the PSI said “the Code is as it stands”.

Principle One of the Code of Conduct states: ”The practice by a pharmacist of his/her profession must be directed to maintaining and improving the health, wellbeing, care and safety of the patient. This is the primary principle and the following principles must be read in light of this principle.”

Interpreting Principle One, the guide to the Code says pharmacists must ”ensure that in instances where they are unable to provide prescribed medicines or pharmacy services to a patient they must take reasonable action to ensure these medicines/services are provided and the patient’s care is not jeopardised”.

A spokesperson for the PSI stated: ”The Pharmacy Act (2007) obliges pharmacists to practise under this code which places the health, wellbeing, care and safety of patients as their primary concern.”

In Britain, however, the Code of The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) does allow pharmacists with strong religious convictions to opt out of providing the morning after pill. This has resulted in several high profile cases of women who were outraged when they were refused the MAP by pharmacists on grounds of religious conscience.

The NSS and the Secular Medical Forum have taken every opportunity to oppose this, with the NSS making its first objection to the GPhC’s predecessor body in 2004.
See also: Is there a place for God in the Irish classroom?

Secularist of the Year approaches – have you got your ticket?

This year’s Secularist of the Year prize-giving ceremony is now only a couple of weeks away, and ticket sales will have to close shortly so that the venue can make appropriate catering arrangements. As the date approaches, there has been a surge in bookings, so if you’d like to be at this exciting and genial event, please order your tickets as soon as possible.

The nominations for the Irwin Prize are here and the winner will receive £5,000 and the Golden Ammonite trophy.

The presentation will take place at a glittering lunchtime event in London’s Soho on Saturday 19 March. After a welcome cocktail and a three course lunch (including tea or coffee), the prizes will be handed out. We’re also honouring our volunteers of the year and giving a special extra prize for outstanding achievement (this has previously been won by Ariane Sherine for her atheist bus campaign and Samantha Stein for her work on Camp Quest).

We are delighted to be able to announce that the winner of Secularist of the Year will be there in person to collect the prize. It will be presented by our special guest of honour, author and philosopher Professor A.C. Grayling. Several other honorary associates will be in attendance, as well as NSS members from around the country. It’s always a friendly and light-hearted event and will end early enough in the afternoon for those outside of London to make their way home in good time.

And while you’re enjoying your top-notch lunch, Neil Edwards (“Mr Trickman” himself) a leading “table magician” will be defying your skepticism with a mind boggling selection of sleight of hand illusions.

Tickets are selling fast, so you need to book quickly if you want to be there, you can book online or by post from NSS SoY, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Tickets are £45 each (£15 for students with identification). Please include the names of all your party, together with any requests for special dietary needs.

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Newsline – 25 February 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).

Join Britain’s only organisation working exclusively towards a secular society




In this week’s Newsline

  • Will tribunal case have an impact on religious equality legislation?
  • Ed Miliband on “faith schools”
  • Pope visit figures just don’t add up
  • No change to Act of Settlement says bishop
  • Yesterday’s man makes yesterday’s argument
  • Humanist weddings outpace Catholic ones in Scotland
  • Taliban’s violent methods of female repression arrive in east London
  • Secularist of the Year approaches – who will win this year’s prize?
  • Can we really make any impact on the outcome of the census?
  • End to hijab ban mooted in Tunisia – the end of secularism?
  • Consultation for NSS members on the Secular Charter
  • Bush era medical “conscience clause” revoked

Will tribunal case have an impact on religious equality legislation?
A case currently being considered by an employment tribunal could have far-reaching effects on religious discrimination legislation. The case concerns Joe Hashman, who claims he was dismissed from his job at Orchard Park Garden Centre, in Gillingham, Dorset on the grounds of his moral beliefs and activities connected to animal rights. If he wins his case, it will help further define what constitutes a “religion or belief” under the Act.

Mr Hashman says his employers were pro-hunting and had been involved for many years with local hunting organisations. They had been unaware of his involvement in animal welfare campaigns, but when they found out, they sacked him. However, the garden centre argued that his work was not generating enough cash to justify his employment.

The tribunal has reserved its decision on whether or not the former employee’s beliefs in fact constitute a philosophical belief under the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations Act 2003.

At the pre-hearing review of the case Mr Hashman argued that “Believing in animal rights means believing in the sanctity of all life” … “I believe that hunting is completely morally unacceptable.”… “I don’t believe that there can be any justification for the horrible husbandry techniques and slaughter methods which humans employ just to feed themselves” … “I am devoted to the causes arising from my philosophical belief and I will not stop fighting for animal rights”.

The catalyst appears to be the conviction of celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson-Wright for illegal hunting. Dickson-Wright, former co-host of the cooking programme Two Fat Ladies, was convicted of attending two hare-coursing events in March 2007. Hare-coursing, according to The Times, involves hares being “driven by beaters into a field to be chased by greyhounds,” and was outlawed under the Hunting Act 2004.

Joe Hashman was one of the activists who secretly filmed the hunt in progress. The day after Dickson-Wright’s conviction, he was fired from his job via email.

If the courts do decide in favour of Mr Hashman, it may have a dramatic effect on the substantial number of cases that could potentially be brought to court by an individual’s everyday choices which are deemed “philosophical”.

One man, Tim Nicholson, has already won a judgement stating that his strong views on climate change went “beyond a mere opinion” and amounted to a belief capable of protection under the law. There’s no reason that a deep, philosophical belief in animal rights should not enjoy the same protections as a deep, philosophical belief in climate change.

Ed Miliband on “faith schools”
Labour leader Ed Miliband was asked by Totally Jewish magazine his opinion of faith schools. His response was reassuringly unenthusiastic. He said:

“You’ve got to respect the important job faith schools do. I was interested in talking to members of the Jewish community about the number of children from a Jewish background who go to faith schools. I agreed to visit one of the schools to see the kind of education being provided. Some parents will want their kids to go to faith schools, others will not. Many faith schools do a good job in having a mixed intake. I think we should look at each proposal in relation to faith schools on its merits. That’s the right approach.”

Meanwhile, the Bishop of Nottingham, Malcolm McMahon, the chairman of the Catholic Education Service, told the Guardian that the Coalition Government is more sympathetic to faith schools than the previous Labour administration. He said that Coalition ministers have a better understanding of the aims of religious education and what faith means to people. Referring to the 2007 Equality Act [Sexual Orientation] which prohibited adoption agencies from refusing applications from gay couples because of their sexuality, he said “there aren’t the secularists trying to close things down” in the current administration.

Pope visit figures just don’t add up
The Government has released what it says is the total amount paid out by the taxpayer on the visit of the pope last September. Apparently it was only £6.9 million (pdf) (rather than the £10.2 million they had projected).

The Government also paid £6.3 million up front on behalf of the Catholic Church, which the Church says it will repay by 1 March (and we’re watching to ensure that it does). As far as we know, no interest is being charged on this massive six-month loan.

But the figures provided by the Government take no account of policing and security costs or the costs to local authorities, which are substantial and mounting. Nor do they take into account the money spent on the one-day visit to Scotland. So, let’s see what wasn’t on the Government spreadsheet.

The Scottish Government this week revealed, for instance, that it spent £800,000 (£85,000 per hour that the pope was in the country). This does not include the final bills for Edinburgh or Glasgow councils or the policing.

So far, Edinburgh has announced that it spent £300,000, while the NSS has discovered, through an FoI enquiry, that Lothian and Borders Police spent £543,000, employing 900 officers for the few hours that the pope was in the city. The Strathclyde Police, who covered the Glasgow element of the visit spent £649,000, using 1,116 officers.

The West Midlands police spent £280,000; Birmingham City Council spent £82,000; Warwickshire Police spent £80,000 on planning a mass at Coventry Airport that was subsequently cancelled. The Metropolitan Police’s initial estimate (likely to be more) is £1.8 million.

The cost to the security services is unlikely ever to be discovered, although it is sure to be a massive amount.

On 1 September 2010, just two weeks before the Pope was due to arrive, the Government and the Church reached an agreement whereby the Foreign Office would pay a majority of the costs of the visit up front and would later be reimbursed by the Church. Under this agreement the Church has until 1 March to pay around £6.3m. On top of this figure, however, the Church in England, Wales and Scotland also paid £3.8m in costs it incurred independently.

Originally, the Church said its side of the cost would be £7m; however, this figure crept upwards as the visit got closer. The figures show that both Church and State had to pay over £100,000 each on “pre-visit venue location and research costs” which includes the costs incurred for changing the venue of Cardinal Newman’s beatification from Coventry Airport to Cofton Park, Birmingham.

The final figure for the Church stands at £10.1m and the total cost of the visit for both State and Church £16.1 million. The cost for the taxpayer from other sources, though, is considerably higher.

According to the documents, the major costs for the Church included £4.4m for the “beatification Mass” at Cofton Park – the high cost was due to the need to construct a stage and site from scratch; £1.1m for the prayer vigil at Hyde Park; and £385,000 for the education event at St Mary’s, Twickenham (south west London).

On the state’s side, the major cost was more than £3m for media centre facilities at all venues during the visit – presumably to ensure that the Vatican was able to make maximum propaganda from the visit. Also, the taxpayer paid for accommodation for members of the papal entourage. The hangers-on, known as the “seguito”, stayed at the five-star Goring Hotel in central London at a cost of £17,500 and were treated to a banquet that cost the state more than £18,000.

A statement issued by Papal Visit Ltd, the company set up by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and that of Scotland, said it had raised a total of £7.5m. A spokesman said the outstanding £2.6m would be taken up and underwritten by the dioceses, which would need to pay the money by October 2012.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “These Government figures are very revealing. What on earth is the state doing using £1,673,000 of scarce taxpayers’ money to stage a “beatification ceremony”? Or £327,000 on a “prayer vigil”? Or £264,000 on a mass? What business is it of the state to provide such events? Surely these religious services should have been the entire responsibility of the Catholic Church? And why is no interest being charged on the £6.3 million loan to the Church? UK Citizens would receive no such mercy from HM Revenue and Customs if they were even slightly late with their tax payments.”

No change to Act of Settlement says bishop
The Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch, says he opposes any changes to the Act of Settlement — which bars Catholics from ascending the throne — because of Catholic attitudes to Anglicans.

The Bishop wrote in Crux, the diocesan magazine, that any move to alter the 300-year-old law could lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Bishop McCulloch, who since 1997 has been Lord Almoner and is therefore a member of the royal household, says: “As supreme governor, the sovereign should be able to join in communion with Church of England members. But, unless the Roman Catholic Church is prepared to soften its rules on its own members’ involvement with the Church of England — whose orders it regards as null and void — it is hard to see how the Act of Settlement can be changed without paving way for disestablishment.”

Although that might be welcome to some, “it would be of concern to many – including Anglicans, other Christians and other faiths,” the bishop claims.

Yesterday’s man makes yesterday’s argument
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a speech at Lambeth Palace on 16 February entitled “Faith in Politics .”

In it, Mr Brown said that he opposed both theocracy and “liberal secularism”, but he thought that faith had a place in politics because it brought with it a moral structure that would otherwise be lacking. He opined that liberal secularism’s desire to drive “faith” from the public square would make it an “empty square”.

Mr Brown said: “The suggestion that somebody is a more moral person simply by virtue of having faith or having a particular faith is, I believe, a perversion of the religious idea itself”. Yet his whole speech revolved around the idea that religious people have a special moral insight that is denied to those who do not believe in God. He says that religiously-motivated politicians should bring their faith-inspired values to their political thinking, but not try to use their position to impose specific religious doctrines or to claim that their actions were inspired by God (an obvious dig at his arch-enemy Tony Blair). All decisions must be rational and for the benefit of the majority.

Mr Brown complained — as did his predecessor — that it was difficult for him to express his “faith” openly while he was in Number 10 because “no one speech then could deal with all the necessary caveats,” and he would have been “laughed out of court”.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “Mr Brown’s attack on secular liberalism and his characterising of it as the other side of the coin to theocracy is unfortunate. Secular liberalism certainly wouldn’t deny a place in the democratic process for any citizen, whether religious or not. But it would deny a particular religion a privileged voice in the legislative process.

“But there is an overweening emphasis on Christianity in Mr Brown’s speech – and although he does not criticise other religious traditions, he doesn’t praise them either. He admits that this is no longer a religious country, but still, for some reason, thinks religious people should have a special place in running it. This is no longer tenable.

“Religious individuals can, of course, take part in elections and bring their values to the debates on law-making. But they cannot expect their particular take on life to dominate and control, which is what Mr Brown seems to imagine is a desirable outcome. On so many issues the religious establishment has taken a stance that is opposed to the desires of the population – on euthanasia, on homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion. Fortunately, because of liberal secularism, their will has not prevailed in most instances in parliament. But we constantly see the privileged influence of religion in our legislature trying to impose theocratic values. In some instances, such as the assisted dying debate, they have succeeded.

“Only liberal secularism can save us from this destructive resurgence of religion in politics. It seeks not to deprive believers of their stake in democracy, merely to ensure that democracy is protected from religious power-seeking.”

Humanist weddings outpace Catholic ones in Scotland
Humanist weddings are now more popular in Scotland than those conducted by the Catholic Church, according to new figures. From January to September 2010, there were 1,706 weddings led by a humanist celebrant, compared to 1,506 Catholic weddings – making humanist marriages the third most popular.

During the same time period there were 11,569 civil marriages at registry offices across the country and 5,013 Church of Scotland marriages.

Humanist wedding ceremonies have the same legal status as civil and religious weddings as long as they are conducted by a Humanist Society of Scotland celebrant who has been authorised by the Registrar General of Scotland and can be held anywhere “safe and dignified”. Many of the secular ceremonies are conducted in hotels and castles, with some couples even opting to get married at open-air venues.

Humanist Society of Scotland Convenor Juliet Wilson says, “We are very grateful to the Registrar General of Scotland for granting humanist weddings legal status in 2005, and to registrars around the country for their continuing support. We believe that more and more people are choosing to marry in a humanist ceremony because they identify with the humanist values of equality, reason, compassion and tolerance, and these are the values that bind society together. The rise in popularity of our ceremonies is due in large part to the dedication and professionalism of our celebrants, of whom we are rightly proud.”

Full figures for 2010 are expected to be released by the Registrar General of Scotland in his annual report in August, but these findings suggest humanist weddings have increased in popularity by 2000% since they became legal in Scotland.

A spokesman for HSS said: “In 2007, just over a year after humanist weddings were first made legal in Scotland, we forecast that 2010 would be the year that humanist weddings became more popular than Catholic ones. We’re delighted our prediction has come true. By the same projection, we expect to see that humanist ceremonies will overtake those of the Church of Scotland in 2015.”

Taliban’s violent methods of female repression arrive in east London
Four Muslim men are awaiting sentencing after being convicted of slashing a teacher’s face with a knife because they did not approve of a British school’s lessons on world religions being given to Muslim girls. Gary Smith, a religious studies teacher, was attacked by the gang in Bow, east London, on July 12.

Akmol Hussein, 26, Sheikh Rashid, 27, Azad Hussain, 25, and 19-year-old Simon Alam pleaded guilty to the attack this week at London’s Snaresbrook Crown Court.

Smith, 37, suffered a fractured skull and needed three operations to repair his face after being attacked with a knife, an iron bar and a lump of concrete.

Read more

Secularist of the Year approaches – who will win this year’s prize?
Excitement is mounting for this year’s Secularist of the Year event. The nominations are in (although, to be honest, we don’t hold out much hope for the pope or Sarah Palin), and the Golden Ammonite trophy is being buffed up in readiness for the presentation of the £5,000 Irwin Prize.

The presentation will take place at a glittering lunchtime event in London’s Soho on Saturday 19 March. After a welcome cocktail and a three course lunch (including tea or coffee), the prizes will be handed out. We’re also honouring our volunteers of the year and giving a special extra prize for outstanding achievement (this has previously been won by Ariane Sherine for her atheist bus campaign and Samantha Stein for her work on Camp Quest).

The prizes will be presented by our special guest of honour, author and philosopher Professor A.C. Grayling. Several other of our honorary associates will be in attendance, as well as NSS members from around the country. It’s always a friendly and congenial event and will be over early enough in the afternoon for those outside of London to make their way home in good time.

Tickets are now selling fast, so if you want to be there, you can book online or by post from NSS SoY, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Tickets are £45 each (£15 for students with identification). Please include the names of all your party, together with any requests for special dietary needs.

Can we really make any impact on the outcome of the census?
Editorial by Terry Sanderson
This year’s census will be on 27th March, and this week the Government launched its massive £4.5 million awareness campaign.

Of course, most controversy seems to revolve around the religion question. The previous census, ten years ago, showed that around 72% of people in Britain were prepared to state that they were “Christian”. We argued at the time that this was a travesty – every other poll and report showed that when questioned differently and in more detail, only about 45% of the population ended up claiming to be Christian. And even then, it was clear that most of them weren’t really Christian in any meaningful sense. A spokesman for the Office for National Statistics defended the question, saying: “The religion question measures the number of people who self-identify an affiliation with a religion, irrespective of the extent of their religious belief or practice.”

According to research by the ONS and the Tearfund charity published on January 26, nothing much has changed in the ten years since the last census. There are still 72% of Britons claiming to be Christian – even though only 32% of those say they practise their religion (and even that claim is highly suspect). Most of these so-called “Christians” also admit that their religion has little or no effect on their lives, with some 30 per cent saying it might affect the school they send their children to. However, at least three million of those who don’t attend church say that choice of school would only be a slight encouragement to make them go.

Asking people about their religion in polls is notoriously imprecise. Even those Christians who gather data admit that the answers people give about their religious activities are generally wildly overstated. Not to mention confused.

We’ve had polls showing that people who said they were Christian also said they didn’t believe in God (and lots of self-proclaimed atheists who said they prayed regularly). The British seem all up in the air about religion. They don’t practise it, they aren’t interested in it, they’re generally ignorant about it and yet they still claim to be Christians.

It is clear that for some people being a “Christian” is now a cipher for not being a Muslim. It is only since the Muslim community has had such a high profile here, with many of its spokespeople insisting that Islam is the be-all and end-all of their identity, that others feel that they must start defining themselves by religion, too. This is how religious separatism, suspicion and hostility flourishes.

There is also a sentimental attachment to Christianity in this country which many of us carry into adulthood from the gentle (but persistent) indoctrination we received at school. We are cultural Christians in the way many non-practising Jews are culturally Jewish.

Is this year’s census result going to be any different to the last one ten years ago? Has anything happened in the past decade that will cause people to think more carefully before they tick the “Christian” box?

Certainly the “new atheist” explosion has caused many to reassess their relationship with religion. It has given millions of people a message that it’s OK to say you don’t believe and you aren’t a Christian. This year’s census will be, to an extent, a measure of how successful that onslaught on religion by people like Dawkins and Hitchens has been. The ONS research seems to suggest not very.

So is there anything that we can do to affect the outcome? Or will the Jedis once again grab the headlines?

The British Humanist Association is launching a poster campaign under the slogan “If you aren’t religious, for God’s sake say so”, encouraging people to tick the “No Religion” box. On the other hand, the influential (if rather extremist) Christian blogger “Archbishop Cranmer” is encouraging people to write “Mind your own $%£!+?^ business” on the religion question, on the basis that the Government can never have a “window into men’s souls” and know what they really believe.

NSS member Tony Akkermans wrote to his local paper to raise the topic and ask people to think more carefully before ticking. We can all do that. Why not send a letter to your local paper – perhaps based on the one by Mr Akkermans – and start a debate about the issue? You can also do it on any blog you may be writing or forum you may contribute to. Local radio phone-ins also present an opportunity. Raise the issue at work with your colleagues, among your family and fiends.

Although we can’t hope to mount the massive PR campaign that would be necessary to really influence the outcome (for instance, despite the Government’s multi-million pound awareness raising propaganda, there are still great swathes of the population who have absolutely no idea that the census is happening or even what it is) we can all do our bit to try to persuade at least one of our friends or family to be truthful about what they say about their religion (or lack of it). And if each of them did it among their friends – we might be able to get a real show on the road.

But whether anything can shake the complacency of the British people over religion remains to be seen.
See also: Big Brother Watch calls for intrusive census questions to be scrapped
The census is senseless

End to hijab ban mooted in Tunisia – the end of secularism?
After years of restrictive policies against religious attire, Tunisia might soon rescind its long-standing ban on the hijab in public institutions.

Religious Affairs Minister Laroussi Mizouri announced that the veil is a personal matter and part of women’s individual freedom in the first official statement regarding the issue.

Under Tunisian law, the veil is considered “sectarian dress” rather than a religious duty. The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, outlawed the hijab in public places, and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, vowed to preserve the Personal Status Code.

“Our manager imposed a complete ban on wearing the veil at work,” complained Sonia Labadh, who works in the public sector. “Therefore, I had to take it off at the door of the department and put it back on when I leave; something that caused me much embarrassment.”

“I’ve always hated these behaviours from the former regime,” she added. “How could they prevent anyone from wearing what they like and from observing their religious duties in a country that is supposed to be Muslim?”
See also: Secular revolutions, religious landscapes

Consultation for NSS members on the Secular Charter
As announced at the National Secular Society’s AGM in November, the organisation has launched a consultation for its members on the proposed incorporation of the Secular Charter into the NSS’s objectives. Details of the consultation are contained in the members’ Spring Bulletin, which will arrive in the next week or so. We hope that you’ll let us know your ideas and opinions on this Charter so that a finalised version can be presented for approval at the next AGM.

Please, only respond using the online form (paper version available on request to the office).

The consultation is for members only.

Bush era medical “conscience clause” revoked
As President George W. Bush was about to leave office in the USA, his administration adopted a “conscience rule” that gave health care workers wide latitude to refuse to offer services and treatment that conflicted with their moral or religious beliefs.

The Obama administration last Friday rescinded major parts of that regulation, which was interpreted to permit doctors and others to refuse to prescribe the “morning after pill,” to provide contraceptives to unmarried people and even to treat gay and lesbian people.

The rule revised by the Health and Human Services Department retained the right of health care professionals to refuse to perform abortions and sterilizations. But they would not be allowed to withhold most other kinds of treatment.

The Obama administration insisted its new rule protects the rights of health care workers while removing “definitions and terms of the previous rule that cause confusion and could be taken as overly broad.”

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