Posts Tagged ‘ Bishops’ Bench ’

Newsline – 13th July 2012

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

Parents, teachers and governors ignored as council hands community school to church – and first “religionisation” teachers’ strike
Bishops come under fire but Lords Reform now looks a distant prospect
Vatican’s use of the law to try to hide its secrets will backfire
The myth of the Nadia Eweida case gets another dishonest outing

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Newsline – 6th July 2012

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

Listen to the AUDIO VERSION by clicking the play button below

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

In this week’s Newsline

National Trust puts creationism on show at new visitor centre
Dagenham teachers to strike over “faith school” proposals
Public supports getting rid of the bishops’ bench
Why won’t the Government get rid of this pesky threat to free speech that nobody wants?
Religious circumcision ruled unlawful in German court

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Newsline – 3rd February 2012

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

Listen to the AUDIO VERSION by clicking the play button below

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

In this week’s Newsline

Majority of Britons want bishops out of the House of Lords
Religious education GCSE will lose its appeal when the exam is toughened up
Adverts claiming cures through prayer are banned
London School of Economics brings back blasphemy
Vested interests delay scrapping of “faith school” transport subsidies
Cheddar Parish Council vote to continue praying
Sarkozy’s smoke and mirrors promises to religious leaders

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Newsline – 1st July 2011

Newsline is the weekly newsletter from the National Secular Society.  Every week we collate the stories and issues or most importance to our members and offer reportage and insight.  Our audio edition takes the main stories and offers them in an easy-to-listen podcast, available online and via iTunes subscription (for free).

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

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

Religion has many privileges in European dialogue, says NSS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NSS stands up for Human Rights in Brussels

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minister reinforces role of faith groups in local communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishops happy to be included in Lords Reform plans

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

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

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

No discrimination by not releasing worker for Friday prayers

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

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

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

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

British Medical Association Conference ignores circumcision and opposes assisted dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vicar foists religion on children in McDonald’s

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

He said:

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

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

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

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

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

Newsline – 8th April 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

  • Catholic Church hopes The Big Society will increase its influence
  • Bishops’ bench will survive in reformed House of Lords
  • Ending religious schools’ transport privilege “breaches human rights”, says churchman
  • Exploitative church rakes in millions from taxpayer – Charity Commission unconcerned
  • French secularism in trouble as it becomes a political football
  • Hand over the money, Irish government tells religious orders
  • Catholic Church Losing Influence in Latin America

Catholic Church hopes The Big Society will increase its influence

A conference this week showed just how the Catholic Church is preparing itself for increased social and political influence which it hopes to attain by exploiting the Government’s “Big Society” idea.

One of the speakers at the Catholic-organised London conference entitled “Building a new culture of social responsibility” was Baroness Warsi, co-chair of the Conservative Party. She said the Catholic Church “has the power, creativity and ability to change communities through its social action, now that the old system of top-down government has failed Britain and its deeply divided society”. She urged Catholics to continue their work that would help society move away “from a big, bossy state”.

The conference was attended by around 200 Catholic bishops, charity directors, politicians, Lords, academics and thinkers who are examining the methods by which they will be able to bring as much social provision under Catholic control as possible.

Baroness Warsi went on to say that the State had “sapped” responsibility from individuals and that the “top-down, big Government approach” had “failed Britain. She added: “This Government recognises and respects the role that religion and “people of faith” play in our society.”

The Conference was well aware that the Government was not going to provide the money for their big expansion plans, but as the Catholic propagandist Austen Ivereigh wrote in America magazine:

Church charities are more protected than others: nine out of ten of them receive less than 40 per cent of their support from the state. That means that in five years time Catholic and other faith charities are likely to play a relatively larger role; they’ll still be standing while other NGOs created by state funding have gone to the wall. This should lead to a bigger political influence.

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

“This gives us a glimpse into the future where religious organisations see themselves playing a very large and dominating role in many people’s lives. We have seen from the experience of the United States how ruthless and relentless the Catholic Church can be in pushing their teachings as the cost of accessing their social provisions. There is no reason to think it will be any different here once they have the reins of power.”

Bishops’ bench will survive in reformed House of Lords

It was revealed this week that the bench of bishops will be retained as part of proposed reforms to the House of Lords, although their numbers will be reduced. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Tuesday that the Government will be publishing a draft bill in May.

Mr Clegg has had to concede that his preference for a fully-elected second chamber would be unlikely to pass and about 60 peers will still be appointed, including a number of Church of England bishops.

At present 26 bishops sit as of right in the House of Lords and this number is likely to be reduced, probably to 16.

The Press Association reported the president of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, saying:

“The coalition has lost its nerve and as a result the House of Lords will remain a place of privilege and cronyism – as well as many ridiculous anachronisms, not least of which is the presence of the bishops. The abolition of the bench of bishops, in its entirety, is long overdue.

“How can a modern democracy function properly when it retains elements of theocracy? The UK is the only Western nation to invite clerics into its parliament, just like Iran.

“Instead, we now have a proposal to significantly reduce the number of bishops. But we fear that this will now result in even more representatives from other religions being introduced into Parliament.

“The Government should realise that it can’t win with this approach – where do you stop, given that there are hundreds of different religions represented in Britain. How do you avoid resentment from those who don’t get a place? The coalition should have the courage to secularise the new upper House and rid themselves once and for all of the unnecessary complication of religious representation.”

Ending religious schools’ transport privilege “breaches human rights”, says churchman

Plans by Durham County Council to cut subsidised transport to religious schools have been condemned by a Catholic leader as being a threat to the “human rights” of parents.

Joseph Hughes, director of the Roman Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle’s education service who oversees much of the region’s Catholic education, said Durham County Council’s proposals undermined a 60-year-old legal principle that there should be financial help available for faith school travel costs and threatened a parent’s right to freedom of choice.

He said:

“We are strongly opposed to these proposals. I can’t make it any clearer than that.”

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

“I don’t know what legal principle Mr Hughes is talking about, it’s not one that I know of. The provision of these financial privileges solely to people who claim to be religious is discriminatory, unjust and probably illegal.”

Catholic priests in the area are urging parents to complain to the Council, which is carrying out a consultation on the issue which closes on Tuesday.

Exploitative church rakes in millions from taxpayer – Charity Commission unconcerned

According to The Times, the Charity Commission is refusing to investigate the activities of a controversial Pentecostal church, The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), which the paper says is exploiting its congregations and amassing a fortune on the backs of some of the poorest people in London. The Times says UCKG has encouraged its members to get themselves into debt and ignore bills in order to donate more money to the church.

The Times investigation showed that since 2003 the UCKG (the Church) had also benefited from almost £8 million in taxpayer subsidies through the Gift Aid scheme. Gift Aid is a government scheme that allows registered charities, including churches, to claim back the income tax paid by supporters on donations, including their collections. (Changes to the Gift Aid rules announced in the Budget last week are likely to make it even easier for all churches to claim a public subsidy despite the serious concerns raised about its conduct.)

The paper reports:

The Church’s accounts also reveal that the UCKG owns a large portfolio of freehold and leasehold property. In 2009–10, the church reported that it had £33.7 million in fixed assets, despite having operated in the UK for only 16 years. Last year it spent three quarters of total donations on the purchase of more than £7 million of fixed assets. A spokesman for the church says: “We acquire properties because, unlike other churches, we have not had the chance to build a portfolio over a thousand years. We currently own 11 freehold properties, which were purchased over a 16-year period from 1995. We also work from a further 14 leasehold properties. All 25 properties operate as ‘Help Centres’.”

The Church’s accounts also state that services collectively brought in £9,683,234 of donations, equivalent to £248,288 per congregation — more than ten times the amount raised by the Church of England per congregation.

Times Money‘s initial investigation in November found that the Church was encouraging worshippers to sell all their possessions and even default on bills to make large donations. Pastors taught that gifts to the church, which they represented as gifts to God, were necessary to secure the Lord’s intervention and bring about earthly prosperity and salvation.

The Church even used sessions supposedly designed to help worshippers with financial troubles to elicit more cash. At one such session, witnessed by Times Money, the pastor encouraged his congregation to give money in exchange for strips of his tie, which he said were invested with God’s power to make financial miracles. Our investigation also uncovered that the Church was using demonstrably false testimonies by worshippers to encourage donations from others. At the time of Times Money‘s initial investigation, the Church said that it asked people at financial help sessions to donate money because it gave them “a sense of self-worth and communal involvement”. However, the Church now denies encouraging worshippers into debt.

Despite The Times‘ findings, the Charity Commission said last month that it would not investigate the UCKG, saying the investigation did not demonstrate either “a serious risk of harm to beneficiaries” or “pressure on vulnerable beneficiaries”, the grounds on which it might have intervened.

French secularism in trouble as it becomes a political football
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

On Monday, France will implement a new law against face-coverings in public places. Women who wear face-covering Muslim veils, including the hijab and burka, in “the street and areas open to the public, as well as cinemas, restaurants, stations, public transport or schools” will be fined £125 or ordered to follow citizenship classes, or both. Veils must also be removed while driving, while crossing borders or taking part in official ceremonies to acquire French nationality.

Husbands and fathers who force such veils on women and girls risk a year of prison and a £25,000 fine, with both penalties doubled if the victim is a minor.

But the authorities in France know in their hearts that this is a law that cannot work. The Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, has issued a nine-page document telling the police to move carefully and with great diplomacy when trying to enforce the law. He says that women wearing the full veil cannot be forcibly obliged to remove it in public.

Officers who stop a woman wearing the garment must instead “invite the person to show their face in order to check their identity and establish a fine.” If the woman persists, officers are instructed to take her to the nearest police station “as a last resort,” but not to either place her in custody or keep her waiting for more than four hours. If she still refuses to comply, the rules state that police should contact the public prosecutor.

Rather than force, police are invited to employ “persuasion” and, where possible, involve a female officer.

The guidelines emphasise that the full veil ban does not apply in the home or to car passengers. Nor is the ban to be enforced in or around mosques, so as not to be “interpreted as an indirect restriction of religious freedom.” Police are also told not to go on “veil hunts” or to seek confrontation over the veil.

The law to “forbid concealing one’s face in public” was voted through last October after a year of heated national debate over the issue. Nine out of ten French people back it, a recent poll suggested.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has already described the burka as a “sign of debasement”, and women’s rights campaigners denounced it as “a walking coffin”. Michele Alliot-Marie, the former interior minister, said it “cuts [women] off from society and rejects the very spirit of the French republic, founded on a desire to live together.” Around 2,000 women, out of France’s 5 million Muslims, are estimated to wear the face-covering garments, according to interior ministry figures.

France banned wearing conspicuous religious symbols such as veils, Jewish skullcaps and crucifixes in schools in 2004.

The guidelines came as France’s ruling UMP party initiated a highly controversial debate on Islam and secularism on Tuesday. Organisers say it was to address changes in French society such as a growing demand for building mosques in a country where a 1905 law formally separates the Church and state.

It is quite clear that the issue of Islam is being used by established parties on the right to appeal to those French people who would otherwise be attracted to the ultra-rightwing National Front.

Secularism is being seen as a tool and an excuse by these right-wingers to punish and isolate Muslims. And this is probably something that has the Islamic extremists rubbing their hands with glee.

There is nothing they would like better than a Muslim population that feels aggrieved, discriminated against and even persecuted. It will drive more and more of them into the arms of radicalism. It will also enrage the liberals and leftists who feel it is their duty to protect Muslims from the bullying right.

At the same time, there is little doubt that Islamists have engineered many of the challenges that are being made to the secular ideal of France, and which enrage republicans.

French people who are deeply attached to the idea of separation of religion from the state are enraged by demands for only halal meat to be served in school canteens, for separate hours for Muslim women only in swimming pools, for state subsidies for the building of mosques, for special treatment in hospitals.

It is also clear that the new law will create confrontations over the burka with women refusing to remove it, refusing to pay fines and eventually being threatened with prison. It is a nightmare in the making.

The main casualty in all this will be laïcité — the French form of secularism — which will now be portrayed as discriminatory and Islamophobic. Many religious leaders boycotted the debate this week, saying it was an attempt to further push religion from public discourse. The Catholic Church, again using its age-old tactic of playing the victim, see how this wicked secularism creates disadvantage for Catholics as well as Muslims, they say.

During the debate it was said that France’s law of 1905, which separates church from state, needs to be updated to take into account the changes in French life. There were few Muslims in the country when it was implemented, but now there are between five and ten million and many new challenges to the concept of laïcité.

It was suggested that 26 changes would be made that would strengthen secularism in the light of the rise of Islam in the country.

But debating anything to do with Islam is fraught with danger. Even the title of the debate had to be changed from “Secularism and Islam” to the more anodyne “Secularism: Living better together”. Now the interior minister Claude Guéant has been threatened with prosecution by The Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples for supposedly “Islamophobic remarks” after he said: “This growth in the number of (Muslims) and a certain number of behaviours cause problems. There is no reason why the nation should accord to one particular religion more rights than religions that were formerly anchored in our country.”

So debate is rendered next to impossible by hair-trigger sensibilities that detect “Islamophobia” in anyone who tries to move the debate on.

It is this kind of chaos that the Islamists thrive upon. And it poses a severe threat to France’s secular tradition.

Hand over the money, Irish government tells religious orders

The Irish government is to ask religious orders to hand over title to property worth up to €200 million, the Department of Education has confirmed.

The €200 million is the shortfall the State considers it is owed by the 18 religious orders which agreed to share the cost of the €1.36 billion bill for survivors of institutional abuse.

Last year the 18 congregations named in the Ryan report on clerical sexual abuse agreed to pay €476 million towards the cost of compensation. As this is €200 million short of an even split of the bill with the State, proposals for the remaining payment are being sought.

It is understood the religious orders paid €128 million in 2002. Some €110 million was promised in cash and €235 million was promised in property. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has pointed out this amount leaves the €200 million shortfall, and he is now seeking the transfer to the State of the legal ownership of religious-owned schools to meet this deficit.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education last night confirmed Mr Quinn was seeking transfer of ownership of the some of the schools to the State, but even these are likely to become multi-denominational rather than secular schools.

Mr Quinn has indicated he did not want to bankrupt the religious orders and was not intending to change the structure by which the religious orders were able to continue to be in charge of the schools. The Church is still talking of a ‘minimum non-negotiable requirement’ with any schools transferred, insisting on no change on confessional religious instruction.

The Minister’s concern is said to be in relation to the amount of the total compensation bill which will have to be paid by the taxpayer, as well he might, given his Government’s parlous financial position. The current overwhelming dominance in the publicly funded sector of Catholic schools insisting on confessional religious instruction as part of the school day is believed by the Irish Human Rights Commission to breach the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The Executive Director of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, observed: “The Irish state is in unprecedented need of hard cash and the promised transfer of assets by the Church to the State achieves virtually nothing unless those assets are ones that can be realised, which cannot be true of the schools. The citizens of Ireland are in danger of being duped and abused yet again by their church and their Government.”

Catholic Church losing influence in Latin America

A leading expert on religion in Mexico has said that “Catholicism is destined to be abandoned” in the country and across Latin America. He bases his prediction on an analysis of census returns that show about 1,300 Mexicans leaving the church every day.

Roberto Blancarte said that this added up to some 4 million Mexicans defecting from the Church between 2000 and 2010. He said the decline had continued uninterrupted for 60 years and was escalating.

Blancarte — from the Colegio de Mexico and the National Autonomous University of Mexico — said that one of the main conclusions to be drawn from the 2010 census is that Mexico is no longer a predominantly Catholic country and has become a nation of religious pluralism. One of the fastest growing demographic groups is those who profess to have no religion: 5.2 million.

In 1950, 98.21 percent of Mexicans said they were Catholic; the latest figure shows that this has dropped to 83.9 percent.

Blancarte said that this change is not exclusive to Mexico but extends across the region. In Brazil, for example, surveys have found that Catholics make up less than 70 percent of the population.



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