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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Muslim police? Christian doctors? Sikh judges? What happened to neutrality in the delivery of public services?

By Terry Sanderson

Last week we took exception to Cherie Blair apparently treating a defendant in her court differently because he was “a religious man”. That was bad enough, but as far we know, Mrs Blair does not refer to herself as a “Christian judge” or even a “Catholic judge” but just “a judge” – which is a point in her favour.

Last week there was a controversy over the Sikh ceremonial dagger, the Kirpan, which a retired judge had argued should be permitted in schools and other buildings with high security.

Sir Mota Singh QC was referred to repeatedly in the media as a “retired Sikh judge”. But surely he was a retired judge who was a Sikh? This new convention of putting a religious adjective before occupations that should be neutral is worrying.

Now we have “Hindu police” and “Christian doctors” and “Muslim scouts” and “Catholic teachers”. In all these instances, surely the religion of the person being referred to should be of secondary importance. Instead it appears to be the primary definer. Doesn’t anyone see the danger of encouraging “Muslim police officers” rather than simply “police officers”? How, for instance, will people in the Jewish community react to officers who want to define themselves as “Muslim police” and vice versa? See here for an instance of it. How will “Sikh police officers” deal with Hindus when we know there is a history of conflict between their communities?

Last week also saw the formation of the first “Muslim scout troop” in Bradford. There were celebrations among the local mosque community, but to us it is not something to be cheered, it’s really quite tragic. Not only are children from Muslim backgrounds being encouraged by the Government to go to separatist schools, they are now being kept away from the majority population in “Muslim” scout troops. How on earth are they ever going to feel part of this country when they are kept almost entirely apart from it? Segregation is bad enough as it is.

Similarly, “Christian doctors” are now demanding that they be given the right to treat their patients differently on the basis of religion. “Christian pharmacists” don’t want to dispense contraception; “Muslim check out” persons don’t want to handle pork or alcohol; “Christian registrars” don’t want to carry out civil partnerships for gay people.

It is time this was stopped. If people who work in a public service are to provide that service without fear or favour, it must be made clear to them that, when carrying out their professional duties, their religion must be secondary. And if they say it can’t be, then they should find another job.

All sectarian organisations set up within public services, whether it is Muslim Police or Christian Doctors or Sikh judges or Quaker civil servants should be dismantled immediately. Hospitals, courts, schools, the police, local authorities and Government and its departments, should be secular for all our sakes.

Published Fri, 12 Feb 2010