1. Skip to content

National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Religion: is the fight back under way?

Last month, the Council of Europe passed two resolutions which made clear that it is a secular organisation. It needed to do this because, like many institutions throughout Europe, it is under pressure from religious bodies to give them special privileges.

The first resolution called on member states to repeal all laws relating to blasphemy. It also said that religious groups must accept that in a free society their activities and doctrines cannot be protected from criticism and open examination.

The resolution was passed with a large majority. It read, in part: “criticism of religious groups should be tolerated in democratic societies” with the only limits being dictated by the need to stop incitement to hatred, disturbance of public order or the targeting of members of religious groups.

The second resolution asserted that if human rights and religious rights were in conflict, human rights must always prevail. It also made clear that church and state should be kept separate.

Although the Council of Europe accepted that religions should be respected as “institutions set up by and involving citizens who have the right to freedom of religion”, it reaffirmed “that one of Europe’s shared values, transcending national differences, is the separation of church and state” and that “each person’s religion, including the option of having no religion, is a strictly personal matter.” The Council categorically states: “Governance and religion should not mix

This vigorous statement of the importance of secularism from such a key European body is important, because it indicates that there is a growing resistance to the attempted incursion of religion into what have become de facto secular areas of life.

Let us look at the score-sheet so far as religious evangelists try to reclaim Britain as their own.

Sikh activists in Birmingham didn’t like the way their community was presented in a play at the local Rep Theatre. They protested and eventually rioted in front of the theatre and the play was taken off.
Score: Religionists 1, Secularists 0.

The BBC came under intense pressure from religious activists when it decided to show Jerry Springer - the Opera. Tens of thousands of born-agains (very few of whom had seen the opera) bombarded the Corporation with emails and letters demanding that the show be cancelled. The BBC went ahead and showed it.
Score: Religionists 1, Secularists 1.

Stephen Green, director of Christian Voice, which had tried to stop the broadcast of Jerry Springer - the Opera, tried to bring a prosecution for blasphemy against the Director General of the BBC. The court threw his application out.
Religionists 1, Secularists 2

The Government recently wanted to change the entry requirements at “faith schools” to permit 25% intake of children from other religions. The Catholic Church screamed blue murder and the Government backed down.
Religionists 2, Secularists 2

The Catholic Church wanted an exemption from the new Sexual Orientation Discrimination Regulations which would permit it to refuse services at its adoption agencies to gay couples. The Government refused.
Score: Religionists 2, Secularists 3

Shabena Begum, a Muslim schoolgirl, wanted her school to change its uniform policy so that she could wear a flowing Islamic gown. After several appeals, the courts upheld the schools right to say no.
Score: Religionists 2, Secularists 4

In Glasgow a man defining himself as an atheist was working at a Catholic school. He was denied promotion because he wasn’t of the faith. He took the school to a tribunal and won. Glasgow City Council appealed the decision, but lost and was told by the court that it had no business promoting any particular religion.
Score: Religionists 2, Secularists 5

Employment protection for tens of thousands of non-religious head teachers and non-teaching staff in various types of “faith schools” was removed by the Government at the behest of the Church of England in the recent Education and Inspections Act, despite vigorous opposition from secular parliamentarians being advised by the National Secular Society.
Score: Religionists 3, Secularists 5

A woman working for British Airways wanted to wear a crucifix over her uniform, in contravention of the company’s policy. After the usual cries of persecution from the evangelicals, and a media humiliation led by the Daily Mail, BA backed down.
Score: Religionists 4, Secularists 5

Lydia Playfoot sued her school because it refused to let her wear a “purity ring”. The court ruled in the school’s favour.
Score: Religionists 4, Secularists 6

A gay man took the Bishop of Hereford to a tribunal for blocking his appointment to a job in the diocese as a youth worker. The tribunal said the Bishop had illegally discriminated.
Score: Religionists 4, Secularists 7

An independent adjudicator ruled that the human rights of the members of the Christian Union at Exeter University had not been infringed when its funds were frozen by the University’s Student Guild. The Guild had decided that the Christian Union’s own equal opportunity policy had been violated by the Christians. The case will now go to the High Court, so, at the moment the
score: Religionists 4, Secularists 8 (Read BBC story)

The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that a full-page advertisement taken out in The Times by a group of evangelical Christians to protest against the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Regulations had been misleading.
Score: Religionists 4, Secularists 9

Shambo the bull was designated as “holy” by a group of Hindus in Wales. When he tested positive for bovine TB it was ruled that he should be slaughtered. The Hindus went to court saying their human rights were being infringed. The judge agreed, but then the Court of Appeal overturned that decision and the law prevailed.
Score: Religionists 4, Secularists 10.

The point of listing these battles is that they are part of a growing pattern of determination by religious people to impose their way of life on to all of us. And they are trying to use parliament and the courts to do it. Let us hope this firming up of secular resistance continues. Certainly we in the National Secular Society will be on the front line of this war.


Published Fri, 03 Aug 2007