Posts Tagged ‘ Scotland ’

Newsline – 27th 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 www.secularism.org.uk

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

Victory for community school fighting merger with Church school
Gay marriage promised in Scotland – but Church wangles concessions in schools
Christian group targets schools with frightening and dubious anti-abortion message
Swiss and Austrian hospitals suspend infant circumcision procedures

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Newsline – 16th December 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 www.secularism.org.uk

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

“Faith schools” plan to up the amount of religion condemned as “brainwashing”
Cameron says he wants to “enhance faith-based education”
Christopher Hitchens dies
Only half of people claiming a religion say that it influences their day-to-day lives
Conflict over oaths in Maltese court
EHF calls for end to religious influence in stem cell research

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Newsline – 9th December 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 www.secularism.org.uk

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

NSS argues for an end to council prayers at High Court
More councils re-evaluate prayers at meetings
Reaction to council prayer challenge
Large-scale survey shows religion in rapid decline in Britain
Quarter of the population intend to go to church at Christmas – yeah, right
Scottish regional council spreads the Gospel in schools

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Newsline – 7th October 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 www.secularism.org.uk

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

  • Community school enters partnership with Church 
  • NSS challenges Church expansionism into education 
  • Scottish Minister to meet bishop as bigotry row escalates 
  • NSS and BBC blamed for anti-Christian political correctness 
  • Study supporting gay conversion challenged 
  • Churches challenge plans for gay marriage

Read the full newsletter BY CLICKING HERE

N.B. We apologise for the missing audio newsletter for the past 3 weeks.  We had a small problem with our blog audio files which has now been fixed

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 www.secularism.org.uk

AUDIO VERSION

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 – 22nd 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 www.secularism.org.uk

AUDIO VERSION


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

In this week’s Newsline

  • Bishop admits that church schools succeed because of selection
  • NSS calls on PM to remove bar on Catholics in royal succession
  • Sectarianism in Scottish football runs deep
  • Christian group seeks to take over library from council
  • Opposition grows to Catholic school in Richmond
  • Vatican looking for new ally in ambition to dominate European Union
  • Sex allegations against clergy cost US Catholic Church $2.34 billion since 2004

Bishop admits that church schools succeed because of selection


The National Secular Society says that the Church of England’s new head of education, the Bishop of Oxford, Rt Rev John Pritchard, is the first high-profile Anglican to admit that Church schools get their league-topping results by using privileged admissions criteria to select the best pupils.

Mr Pritchard is likely to set the cat among the pigeons this week by telling the Times Education Supplement that he would like to open up church schools to more non-Anglicans – reserving only 10 per cent of places for the children of church-goers.

By doing so, he said:

“We may not get the startling results that some church schools do because of getting some very able children, but we will make a difference to people’s lives.”

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

“The Church has repeatedly denied that the strict selection criteria that are applied in some schools are the reason they perform so well. We are told that it is because of the ‘Christian ethos’. Now the cat is out of the bag and the Bishop of Oxford lets us know that the Church is fully aware of why their schools perform so well.”

Mr Sanderson said:

“It is astonishing that we are even having this discussion or that this is an issue at all. It is scandalous that state schools, paid for by the taxpayer, can refuse to admit children on the grounds of their parents’ religion or purported religion. In no other area would this kind of blatant religious discrimination be permitted.”

Mr Sanderson did concede that it was a step in the right direction, but he expressed doubt on whether any dramatic changes would be made in the near future, if at all. He said that voluntary aided schools control their own admissions policies and the church would not be able to force them to comply.

“Parents who access these schools won’t be too thrilled to see them opened up to the community at large,” he said. “We’ve all heard of pushy, non-religious parents suddenly becoming regular church-goers in order to get a letter from the vicar that is the open sesame to the local church school.

“The Church of England’s main focus these days is education, and if they give up their admissions privileges, their schools will become just like all the other schools in this country, and the resources that they hog to themselves will have to be more equally shared out.”

Mr Pritchard told the TES:

“I’m really committed to our schools being as open as they can be. Every school should have a policy that has a proportion of places for church youngsters… what I would be saying is that number ought to be minimised because our primary function and our privilege is to serve the wider community. Ultimately, I hope we can get the number of reserved places down to 10 per cent.”

Half of the 4,800 Church of England schools are voluntary aided, meaning they control their own admissions policies. He said that schools should not “collect nice Christians into safe places” but should serve the wider community.

The Bishop’s comments come ahead of the publication of new guidelines on admissions due in the summer.

The Bishop’s proposals are likely to face stiff opposition from others involved in education within the Church. Revd Clive Sedgewick, director of education for the dioceses of Bradford and Ripon & Leeds said there would be resistance from some parents who have come to regard Church schools as almost like a private education without the fees.

In an editorial in the TES, Gerard Kelly said:

“The vast majority of faith school funding is provided by taxpayers, who come in two varieties – the religious and the non-religious. Whatever the precise proportions, it is generally accepted that services paid for by taxpayers should be available to all. Except when it comes to faith schools. Here, believing taxpayers often take precedence over non-believing ones. One hundred per cent discrimination for the remarkably cheap price of 10 per cent contribution to building costs.

“This is patently unjust. Church leaders may retort that non-believing taxpayers have access to 80 per cent of schools that are non-faith. But that isn’t the point. Can you imagine a non-faith school refusing to admit a church-going pupil because there was a school for her sort locally? The Bishop has taken a principled stand. But it is time the state was equally brave and told faith schools to open their doors.”

NSS calls on PM to remove bar on Catholics in royal succession


The National Secular Society has written to The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister calling for Parliament to debate the removal of discrimination against Catholics in royal succession.

The letter from the Society’s Executive Director, Keith Porteous Wood, opened by welcoming steps being taken towards the removal of the discriminatory primogeniture provisions in respect of the heir to the throne. However, he pointed out that “It is unacceptable that any change in this area could be made without removing the equally inexcusable prohibition on the sovereign marrying a Roman Catholic.”

He continued:

“If consultation is to take place with Commonwealth leaders over primogeniture, it is unthinkable not to include the question of discrimination against Catholics, and indeed the former Government undertook to do this, two years ago. The question was discussed during the Royal Marriages and Succession to the Crown (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill introduced by Dr Evan Harris. The then Lord Chancellor concluded that debate with the phrase ‘I shall certainly ensure that soundings are taken among Commonwealth Heads of Government.’  We call upon you to confront this indefensible discrimination that would be illegal in every other situation by submitting it to the will of Parliament at Westminster. Positive feedback has already been given by senior representatives of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. As all legislation has to be interpreted in the light of the Human Rights Act, the Government may care to seek advice as to whether, as it seems, succession determined free of discrimination on grounds of sex or religion would already be lawful without any legislative changes.”

Later in the week, Mr Cameron was challenged on the Today programme by Evan Davis to explain his approach to the discrimination against Catholics and women in the royal succession. He replied that he supported the necessary changes “in principle”. But he warned that:

“The Queen is not only the Queen of the United Kingdom, but of many other jurisdictions, so discussions have to take place between the UK Government and other governments around the world and also the Palace to bring this about. So it will take time.”

John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, said that he agreed with the need to change the rules on primogeniture: “New Zealand supports that view.” But he cautioned: “I don’t know whether those changes will happen any time soon.”

Government sources in Canada and Australia have warned however that there is no political appetite in those countries for changing the royal succession, for fear it reopens the debate on republicanism and leaving the Commonwealth.

Permitting Catholics to inherit is expected to pose more of a constitutional and diplomatic problem than permitting females to inherit. Downing Street has said in the past that changing that rule would be “difficult and complex”.

The Act of Settlement was passed by Parliament to settle the royal succession on the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her Protestant heirs — the ancestors of the Windsor dynasty — and to exclude any claims by the deposed King James II, a Catholic, and his heirs. Along with the 1689 Bill of Rights, it remains one of the main constitutional laws governing the UK and the Commonwealth.

Changing it is fraught with difficulty. The British monarch is the head of state of 16 Commonwealth countries. The Act of Settlement cannot be altered in any realm except by that realm’s own parliament and, by convention, only with the consent of the other 15 realms, as it touches on the succession to the shared throne.

Sectarianism in Scottish football runs deep


After parcel bombs were sent to high-profile officials and fans of the Celtic football team, NSS council member Norman Bonney and Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood accuse the state of playing its own part in perpetuating sectarianism in Scotland.

Norman Bonney writes:


The disciplinary difficulties with the European football authorities that currently face Glasgow Rangers Football Club with respect to sectarian chanting of its supporters in European games were claimed by Glasgow Celtic manager Neil Lennon at the weekend to be deeply rooted in Scottish society and to be passed down at home from generation to generation – a view supported by The Scotsman in an editorial on Saturday 16 April 2011. However, the problem is more far-reaching than this. Parliamentarians and church leaders need to examine and amend the very structure of the Scottish state.

A new monarch is required by law, as one of his or her first acts, to swear an oath to maintain and preserve the protestant religion and the Presbyterian form of church government in Scotland.

This ancient legal requirement, part of the Acts of Union of 1706/7, reflects the religious divisions of over 300 years ago, and should be abolished.

Unless this happens the next monarch will find that he (or she) is contributing to the continuation of sectarian religious divisions in Scottish society and the state.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg should also consider the removal of this UK constitutional provision alongside plans announced this weekend to remove gender discrimination in succession to the throne.

Removal of the Scottish oath is entirely a UK matter and relatively simple compared to the new measure being considered by the Deputy Prime Minister since it does not require the consent of the other Commonwealth countries of which the Queen is head of state.

Keith Porteous Wood says sectarian schooling also plays a part in perpetuating hostility between Catholics and Protestants. He writes:


Catholic schools were established, mainly in the 19th century, because the appalling treatment of (mainly poverty stricken immigrant Irish) Catholics by the indigenous largely Protestant population. No one is suggesting that the Catholic sectarian schools in Scotland are teaching sectarianism, but few will think that it is a coincidence that the epicentre of these difficulties, west central Scotland, is the very area where the Catholic Church is most opposed to integration with mainstream “non-denominational” schools.

They are even obstructive about joint campuses. A statement from North Lanarkshire Council in 2004 set out the requirements of the Catholic Church in respect of joint campuses, including the following: “separate non-pupil entrances and receptions; separate staff rooms; provision of separate libraries; avoidance of crossover of staff and pupils through self-contained design of the schools to preserve the identity of both schools; … and pupils in each of the joint campus schools will have their own separate entrances.”

This bunker mentality by the Church, which in my view is doing its flocks no service, may also be a panic reaction about its own survival evidenced by plummeting mass attendance. In North Lanarkshire this dropped by 40% in just 18 years between 1984 and 2002, the latest figures available. In the same area, attendance at the Church of Scotland, while less than half that of the Catholic Church, has declined much more slowly: by less than a quarter. While I suspect that the Catholics are on balance more victims in this sectarianism, the integration of schools — into ones with no confessional teaching — must be made an absolute priority in strife-torn areas. As with multi-religious/multi-ethnic/multicultural areas south of the border, a prerequisite to integration is children from the whole community being educated together.

Christian group seeks to take over library from council


As the cuts in the public sector deepen we are seeing more and more incursions by religious groups into services that were once considered the responsibility of local authorities. Last week in Perivale, west London, a Christian group offered to run the local library, which the Council was proposing to close as part of its economy measures.

At a meeting of local residents, Philip Edwards, pastor of Hope Community Centre, responded to the council’s request for volunteers to help run the libraries at reduced cost. Mr Edwards said:

“The library is open 33 hours a week at the moment. We could open it as a library for at least 25 hours from Wednesday afternoon to Saturday and we could use it the rest of the week.”

Indeed, the church is at present holding its services at Horsenden Primary School, so a nice little council-owned property that could be used for that purpose would be very welcome. It is significant that the group does not propose to open the library on Sunday – not for library purposes, anyway.

Pastor Edwards said:

“We want to be in the community, I realise that people are nervous of any religious group taking it over. We want to go along and change things in society for good. If we can do something together, let’s do it.”

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

“The prospect of some evangelical group taking over a library raises all kinds of issues. Not only the fact that they intend to install their church rent free on the premises, but we do not know what kind of censorship policy — overt or covert — they would operate. Churches are for praying and saving souls, not running civic services. Let’s hope the residents of Perivale can find some other way of keeping their library open.”

Opposition grows to Catholic school in Richmond


After it was revealed that the counselling and welfare of school children in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames had been handed over to an anti-gay Catholic group, a new row has erupted over the establishment of a Catholic school in the borough.

Despite a poll by the local paper showing 63% of residents opposed the creation of the proposed Catholic secondary school, the local council has supported the plan.

At a packed public meeting, Lord True, leader of Richmond Council, said that the Pope’s speech to youngsters in Richmond last year made him realise “how sad it was” they had no Catholic secondary education in the borough.

He said: “I thought this is a long standing aspiration of this Council and community and it would be great if, in memory of the papal visit and in answer to those aspirations, we could do something.” He said:

“I am not a Catholic, but the challenge and the spirituality of the present Pope are of enormous contemporary relevance. He has put forward arguments which need to be listened to by people.”

But the newly formed Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign said it was disappointed no councillors spoke on behalf of residents who oppose the policy. Indeed, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for education and schools on the council, councillor Malcolm Eady, pledged his group’s support for the policy, but said he would be surprised if the Government offered funding.

The Inclusive Schools Campaign said the majority of its supporters were parents and included two school governors, along with religious and non-religious residents. Group member Jennifer Singer said:

“Given high demand for places among residents, Richmond’s new schools must be open to all children.”

Lord True said he hoped to announce details of the council’s plans by the summer.

But the Catholic Church is turning out its big guns to push its claims. The Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, stepped in to the argument, saying:

“I fully support the desire and aspirations of parents in Richmond for a Catholic secondary school. I understand that this is a matter which has been the subject of plans and wishes over a number of years, and that the local authority is keen to have, and is supportive of, such a project.”

What the Archbishop did not reveal was that when he was Archbishop of Wales he had said that gay people living in relationships should not be permitted to be teachers. In 2005 he told Wales on Sunday:

“It’s not just about somebody being a good teacher – it’s more than that. Someone living a life in manifest contradiction to the Church’s doctrine would not, in my view, be suitable to be employed by the Catholic Church. It would not give the right example to staff or pupils. When it comes to Catholic teaching, we expect teachers in all our schools to uphold the Catholic ethos. If someone is living a lifestyle which is in conflict to the moral teaching of the church then there is a real difficulty.”

Jeremy Rodell, chairman of the South West London Humanists, countered:

“Our campaign against this school is not anti-Catholic, we are saying the proposal is unfair and discriminative for taxpayers, including the 90 per cent who are not Catholic. To have to fund a school which is socially divisive against most people in the area and provides privileges to a small minority, that just seems completely wrong.”

Vatican looking for new ally in ambition to dominate European Union


The Vatican is supporting the ambitions of Croatia to become a full member of the European Union on the assumption that this overwhelmingly Catholic country will be an ally in the pope’s desire to see Europe once more under Catholic control.

“Affirming that Europe does not have Christian roots would be the equivalent to pretending that a person could live without oxygen or food,” the pope said in a message welcoming Croatia’s new ambassador, Filip Vucak, to the “Holy See”.

Mr Ratzinger also said that “irritating voices contest the reality of Europe’s religious roots with surprising regularity. And he urged Croatia, where nearly 90 per cent of the population is claimed as Catholic, not to be afraid to insist that the EU respect “its cultural and religious identity”.

Croatia hopes to become a full EU member in 2013 or 2014 after the expected passage of a national referendum later this year. The pope will reinforce his influence by visiting the Croatian capital of Zagreb on 4–5 June.

The pope told Mr Vucak:

“I am sure that your country will be able to defend its identity with conviction and pride, avoiding the new obstacles that, under the pretext of a misunderstood idea of religious freedom, are contrary to natural law, the family and — quite simply — morals.”

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

“Here we have the Vatican’s classic techniques of manipulation and control all summed up in a couple of sentences. The pope talks of Croatia’s ‘religious identity’ as though it was a foregone conclusion because 90% of the population were baptised as babes in arms. There is no reason not to think that the abandonment of the Catholic Church that is happening in other parts of Europe isn’t also happening in Croatia.  He talks of ‘natural law’. But in Vatican-speak ‘natural’ is whatever the pope decrees is natural. And when the pope involves ‘the family’, gay people had better watch out. And, as for morality – well, I wonder if the Church in Croatia — which has an iron grip on the country — is being more successful at covering up priestly child abuse than other societies? And as for the ‘irritating voices’ he complains of – that, presumably, would be anybody who dares to disagree with him.”

Sex allegations against clergy cost US Catholic Church $2.34 billion since 2004


In 2010 alone, the clerical abuse scandal cost American dioceses $123.7 million, according to an annual report released on April 11 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Only 70% of those funds were allotted to settlements ($70.4 million), therapy for abuse victims ($6.4 million) and support for offenders ($9.9 million). The rest was spent on attorneys’ fees ($33.9 million) and “other costs” ($3.1 million).

The clerical abuse scandal cost religious institutes an additional $25.9 million in 2010. These expenses brought the total cost of the clerical abuse scandal to American dioceses and religious institutes between 2004 and 2009 to $2.344 billion: $2.021billion for dioceses and eparchies, and $0.323 billion for religious institutes.

In addition, American dioceses spent nearly $21 million in 2010 on safe environment programs and background checks.

The report found that 428 new credible allegations of child sexual abuse were lodged against 345 diocesan priests or deacons in 2010. Only seven of the 428 allegations involved those who are currently minors; the other allegations were made by adults who allege they were abused as minors. In all, 74 abuse allegations since 2004 have involved those who were minors in the year of the allegation.

Of the 428 new credible allegations, 82% involved male victims, with 20% of victims under the age of ten.

“Two-thirds of new allegations (66 percent) occurred or began between 1960 and 1984,” the report continued. “The most common time period for allegations reported in 2010 was 1970–1974. This is approximately the same time pattern that has been reported in previous years, with most allegations reportedly occurring or beginning between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s.”

“Of the 428 new credible allegations reported in 2010, 71 new allegations (17 percent) were unsubstantiated or determined to be false by 31 December 2010,” the report added. “In addition, 25 allegations received prior to 2010 were unsubstantiated or determined to be false during 2010.”

Thirty of the allegations involved abuse that allegedly took place in 2010, rather than in a previous year. Following investigation by law enforcement, eight allegations (27%) were determined to be credible, seven (23%) were determined to be false, three (10%) remained under investigation, and 12 (40%) were determined to be boundary violations, not sexual abuse. Examples of boundary violations cited in the report included “kissing girls on top of the head, inappropriate hugging, and an adult patting a minor on the knee. In all cases civil authorities were called, and an investigation was conducted; also in all cases the civil authorities concluded there was no sexual misconduct.” Twelve (40%) of these 30 allegations involved foreign priests.

Only 72% of religious communities responded to a request for information by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. According to these surveys, male religious communities received “77 new credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor committed by a priest or deacon of the community, all of which are alleged to have occurred prior to 2010.” 77% of the victims were male; 19% were under age ten.

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).

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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.

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