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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).

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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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