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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Reform of the Lords update

24th April 2003

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

* We recommend:

(i) that the Bench of Bishops be completely removed from the House of Lords and that the new Second Chamber should not have any religious representation whether ex-officio or appointed, whether of Christian denominations or any other faiths and

(ii) that, in future, neither prayers nor religious oaths should form any part of the proceedings of the Second Chamber.

* Research commissioned by the National Secular Society (table in Sect. 4) reveals that the United Kingdom is unique among Western democracies in having ex-officio religious representation in its legislature. The vast majority of Western democracies have abandoned all links between Church and State, with no discernible adverse consequences.

* Retaining the Bench of Bishops or extending religious representation by selection on religious grounds alone would be inimical to the Government's stated aim of "modernisation" and is an affront to democracy. (Sect. 6)

* Independently published research shows long term and steepening decline in church attendance. Normal Sunday attendance in England is officially estimated to drop by 2005 to 6.6% of the population, included in which is only 1.7% for the established church. These statistics cast doubt on claims that the Bishops - or any other religious representatives - speak for any significant constituency. Since the trend towards rejection of organised religion is predicted to continue, the role in Parliament of any religious representatives will become increasingly irrelevant, and the suggestion of adding more representatives seems by any rational analysis, perverse. (Sect. 7)

* We reject the implication that the Bishops somehow provide special moral insights denied to other members of the House. Many temporal peers already identify themselves as being religiously motivated. Furthermore, those who profess no religion are no less capable of making moral and ethical judgements. The absolutist moral positions of most of the likely religious candidates for additional seats are out of touch with the population and are regarded my many (especially in matters of sexual ethics) as extreme and inhumane. (Sect. 9)

* Were representation to be extended to other denominations or faiths, religious factionalism is very likely to lead to large and increasing demands for representation from the many religions and their various sects extant in Britain. Those unhappy as to the extent of the representation they were granted (if any), would probably claim this was the result of discrimination, and, possibly racism. The Established Church has already reacted with hostility to the suggestion that its representation should be reduced from 26 to 16. (Sect. 10)

* A "reformed" House of Lords which contained extended religious representation would become unworkable. Not only would it be distracted by sometimes strident sectarian and doctrinal arguments, this unrepresentative (and mostly morally absolutist) group could, if it were more than minimal in number, vote en bloc and even hold the balance of power in debates over specialised issues. (Sect. 11) This has happened in other fora - e.g. the United Nations.

There is no democratic justification for extending privileged religious representation, thereby further eroding the franchise of the many who are non-religious.

* In our view, all oaths should be replaced by non-religious affirmation and public prayers should be abolished from the Chamber. (Sect. 14)

NATIONAL SECULAR SOCIETY