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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).

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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 .


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