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Newsline 1 November 2013

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Scotland’s young people deserve better than this

Scotland’s young people deserve better than this

Opinion | Tue, 29 Oct 2013

Young people have a human right to sexual health and relationships education. Something which the religious minority in Scotland is taking away, argues Gary McLelland.

Scotland, like many areas, is working to promote safe and healthy relationships, especially among its younger citizens.

As with many issues in Scottish education, religious sectarian divides exist to the detriment of youngsters.

The current guidance from the Scottish Government on sexual health and relationships education comes from a circular issued in 2001. This was produced just before the repeal of Section 28 (2A in Scotland), however as the guidance states, this was a key factor for consideration in the document.

The 2001 guidance states quite clearly that:

"Programmes of sex education should present facts in an objective, balanced and sensitive manner within a framework of sound values and an awareness of the law on sexual behaviour."

This was, at the time, a welcome progressive move from the Scottish Government, an acknowledgement that young people have a human right to appropriate factual education about sexual health and relationships, and given the political environment at the time, was clearly a sign of a move towards a progressive secular Scotland, where the reactionary cries of religious fanatics was being firmly put in its place.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond has made LGBT equality a cornerstone of his political career, the slogan 'It Gets Better' is used to denote his party's alliance with equality.

This image of progressive equality has taken a bit of a battering recently, with the discussions around the introduction of same-sex marriage. Religious groups have been the most vocal in Scotland against the introduction of marriage equality north of the border, with the meek and mild Church of Scotland being forced into embarrassing anti-social positions.

Despite the fact that many of Scotland's religious citizens, including the majority of Roman Catholics, are in favour of marriage equality, and the Quaker Church in Scotland of the opinion that it would strengthen the institution of marriage, religious groups have not been shy in queuing up to claim 'religious persecution'. Despite the Scottish Government's clear plans to legislate for same-sex marriage, it has held a lengthy consultation period, seeking a range of views on either side.

It seems that despite their previous commitment to equality and a progressive secular society, the Scottish Government is keen not to offend any religious groups. So much so that they are intent to legislate a 'conscience clause' or backdoor opt-out for any person who considers their religious beliefs to overrule equality.

Not content with ensuring that any religious groups can discriminate against same-sex couples whilst they act on behalf of the State to solemnise marriages, the Scottish Government has now gone one further in effectively making sexual health, relationships and parenthood education optional.

In a draft revision of the 2001 Circular, the Scottish Government has inserted a very vague conscience clause:

"In issuing this guidance it is the Scottish Government's expectation that if a teacher, child or young person is asked to do something against his or her conscience, he or she should be able to raise this with the school or local authority."

This clause is worryingly vague and has been written, by the Scottish Government's own admission, as a response to the proposed legislation on same-sex marriage. This is clearly an attempt by the Government to stop the requirement (of 2001) that teachers teach the law.

Even more worryingly is that this opt-out now applies to pupils as well. Unless this clause is seriously revised, or removed, we may see a situation in Scotland where religious teachers are not expected to teach the law, and parents and pupils may remove themselves.

It seems, for the Scottish Government at least, the vocal views of the religious minority have trumped the reasoned and sensible majority, and that the education of young Scots comes a mere second to the hurt feelings of the Godly.

As Scotland moves towards one of the most important periods in 300 years, is the Scottish Government really content to treat its young citizens in such a childish way.

The consultation can be viewed here.

Letters to editors: a useful tool for campaigners

Letters to editors: a useful tool for campaigners

Opinion | Tue, 29 Oct 2013

When you're active in campaigns that aim to change things in society, it can often be difficult to get your voice heard in the media. Groups with a message that seems radical or a threat to the status quo might be treated with suspicion, even hostility, by editors.

Secularists fall into this category. We are proposing something that is, actually, positive and well-established (the United States has had a secular constitution for centuries, the French have had theirs since 1905 and many other nations have a formal separation between church and state). But somehow some religious people have got it into their heads that we are threatening their "religious freedom", that we are trying to destroy their faith.

Consequently, we have a lot of opposition to deal with. Sometimes it is irrational, sometimes it has some basis. But it is difficult to get a balanced hearing when religion is so ingrained in the media, with special correspondents devoted to it on most newspapers and the BBC having its very own dedicated department.

They won't let us on Thought for the Day (or Pause for Thought) and our representatives are always given a tough ride when they do manage to get interviews on radio and TV.

But there is one area of the media where we can more easily get our voice heard and that is in the correspondence columns of newspapers. We all have opinions and this is one way of getting them out for discussion.

We have always encouraged secularists to make full use of the letters pages to contradict some of the wilder claims made by religious spokespeople (who long ago learned to dominate those columns). And we repeat our plea – use your local paper to get the message of secularism into the mainstream for debate. All of us can do our bit in this area. Just be rational, well-informed and brief.

And to give a little encouragement, here are two letters of interest from secularists that have been published this week, and one from a Christian as an example of the kind of thing that needs to be rebutted.

The first was from Charlie Klendjian, secretary of the Lawyers Secular Society, who wrote to the Law Society Gazette in response to this book review:

"I see the Gazette is wading into the choppy waters of religion and the law (Book Review: Islam, Sharia and Alternative Dispute Resolution, 21 October).

"The reviewer, Mr Thomson, says 'English law and sharia law are two distinct jurisdictions'. Yes, 'distinct' is certainly one way of putting it. The distinction between English law and sharia law is hardly trivial: even in the context of alternative dispute resolution, rather than a penal code, the difference can mean eye-watering consequences for domestic abuse of women, for gender equality generally and for the rights of children. Worryingly, although Mr Thomson recognises these two jurisdictions are 'distinct', he doesn't tell us which one ought to take precedence or indeed which one he prefers.

"He goes on to talk of the two jurisdictions 'enjoying a mutually positive interaction and reasonable accommodation'.

"I beg to differ. There is nothing positive about a legal system such as sharia, which routinely and explicitly treats human beings who happen to be female as second-class citizens, and which does not give paramount importance to the interests of children in family law matters. Accommodation here is merely a polite word for appeasement.

"One definition of a country is a set of people all subject to the same obligations and all enjoying the same rights. Accommodating sharia law makes a mockery of that noble principle. It sacrifices the priceless idea of legal equality on the high altar of 'cultural sensitivity', effectively sanctioning lower-grade legal status for those people who are considered different. This is the very antithesis of a good quality legal system.

"English law should not — it must not — accommodate sharia law. Equality before the law has served humans very well and I see no reason whatsoever to depart from it. I would very much hope that other lawyers might agree with me on this.

"Through the Lawyers' Secular Society and my involvement with similar organisations such as the National Secular Society and One Law For All, I have met countless women who came to the UK precisely to escape sharia law, only to see it politely sanctioned here with chillingly neutral words such as 'sensitivity' and 'accommodation'.

"I would ask your readers to go back to basics. No, in fact I would beg them. I would ask your readers this: would you accept any encroachment, however small, that chipped away at equality before the law? If your answer is no, and I hope it is, then ask yourself this: why make an exception for sharia law?"

NSS member Veronica Wikman wrote this to the Scotsman:

"It is difficult to persuade an adult who has been raised outside a religious environment to accept the claims made by monotheistic religions. It is, therefore, in the interest of evangelising religions, such as Christianity, to access children. Due to their natural immaturity, children are easy to mould and can be taught to adopt a reverential and unquestioning attitude towards religion and religious figures of authority.

"Religious belief is falling quite rapidly in Scotland. According to the latest census, the number of non-believers has now grown to 37%, outnumbering the members of the Church of Scotland. Consequently, the number of children enrolled in Sunday school, i.e. the next generation of church-goers, is also falling.

"This is a big problem for the churches, which is why the practise of automatically enrolling school children in state-sponsored prayers and worship (religious observance) is so appealing for them. While it is understandable that the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church would rather retain their power and influence over our state education system and not give up their privileged position, it is unacceptable and indefensible.

"As parents, we should not be forced to give religious organisations joint custody of our children in exchange for a state education. We should not be coerced into accepting evangelising activities for our children in order to avoid segregation and disadvantage.

"Religious observance equates to religious indoctrination. Granting unelected religious representatives seats on our education committees is an abuse of the democratic process.

"No amount of euphemistic language from the likes of Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, and Rev David Robertson, director of Solas Centre for Public Christianity (Friends of The Scotsman, 25 October), is going to change these facts."

On the other hand, the lead letter in last week's Church of England Newspaper came from Philippa Clark of Birmingham. It is when we see this kind of thing that we need to get tapping out our responses:

"I read the article "Evangelicals attacked for school work" (18 October) about the report produced by the National Secular Society (NSS) and noted there was response from only one of the groups mentioned in it. This organisation, the NSS, seems to have influence way beyond its size with its self-selected role of attacking Christianity in the public sphere at every opportunity.

"When is any senior bishop going to stand up and proclaim that we have a great national heritage entirely based on the Christian faith? When is the Church of England going to start resisting secularism in all its forms and the incursion of other faiths? There is no other way to maintain freedom for all in our country. As Peter Mullen wrote in his article: "In other words, if Christianity goes, the lot goes with it."

"I hope everyone remembers that one day we will all be held accountable for our actions by almighty God."

It's beholden on all of us to argue against this kind of thinking which is, unfortunately, increasingly familiar in the media. Please remember, next time you open your local paper – it has a ready platform to inform your fellow readers about the benefits of secularism, and to reassure religious people that we aren't out to get them. Do use it.

Muslim taxi driver penalised for refusing to carry disabled woman’s assistance dog

Muslim taxi driver penalised for refusing to carry disabled woman’s assistance dog

News | Wed, 30 Oct 2013

A Muslim taxi driver in East Sussex has been given 12 penalty points after he refused to carry a disabled woman in his cab because she had an assistance dog with her.

Are we being bamboozled by this charming Pope?

Are we being bamboozled by this charming Pope?

Opinion | Thu, 31 Oct 2013

Pope Francis may be charming – but he is part of a rehabilitation plan that depends on bamboozling us rather than delivering any real change, argues Terry Sanderson.

Am I being cynical or has the Vatican scored an amazing PR victory with Pope Francis?

Snr Bergoglio seems, within a few short months, to have passed beyond initial suspicions into the land beyond criticism. The global perception of him is of a benign, cuddly, modest man who everybody would like as their granddad. He can do no wrong.

What's not to like? He lives modestly, he deplores ostentatious displays of wealth and power, he makes reassuring noises at gay people – and even atheists. He kisses babies in a way that doesn't seem sinister. He rings up people who write to him and chats. He sends small amounts of money to old age pensioners who have been mugged (ensuring, of course, that everyone knows about it). He likes football, he seems relaxed when he is on public view. His every move is gleefully reported by an adoring media who take everything at face value.

So, has the papacy been revived after the sudden exit of Francis's rather unlikeable predecessor, Joseph Ratzinger (stage name, Benedict XVI)? Put it this way – if Francis decided to visit Britain, I think it would be difficult to raise a 'Protest the Pope' campaign on the same scale as the last one.

Should we all be celebrating? Is the nightmare of Ratzinger over? Is the Catholic Church suddenly going to embrace everyone without judgement and lighten its idiotic and damaging doctrines?

Well, let's have a look back and check what it was about Ratzinger that we deplored so much when we took to the streets in such numbers in 2010.

We said that it was horrendous that he denied contraception and abortion in developing countries where AIDS was rampant and poverty endemic. Is Francis going to change that any time soon?

No.

We objected to the Catholic Church's many aggressive campaigns aimed at the rights of homosexual people, the attempts to derail gay marriage, the sacking of gay teachers in Catholic schools. Is Francis going to change that?

No.

We complained about the way the Catholic Church treats women, keeping them out of its own hierarchy and attempting to control, at every level, their lives and decisions. Is Francis tackling this problem?

No.

We objected to the way that Ratzinger had covered up child abuse and put the interests of the church way ahead of the interests of the children who had been raped and exploited by priests. Has anything — beyond vague promises — been done about this?

No.

It was clear that Ratzinger was a disaster for the Church. All over the world people were repulsed by his intolerance, his coldness and his autocratic insistence that conservatism would rule the Catholic Church, and nothing of significance would change. Catholics all over the globe were ditching their attachment to the Church, distancing themselves from the inhumane institution that it had become. They were shocked by the revelations of the scale of child abuse and stunned that responsibility for its cover-up lead inevitably to the desk of the pontiff himself.

This catastrophe could not be permitted to continue. Ratzinger was single-handedly destroying the Church. He had to go.

Given the circumstances, he was lucky to escape with his life. History shows that inconvenient Popes have been lethally dispensed with more than once.

And so came his unprecedented resignation. He was too old, ill and decrepit to continue, he claimed. So off he went with his handsome Gaenswein into obscurity.

But Popes just don't do that. They soldier on until they very publically drop dead as did John Paul II (or until they die in mysterious circumstances, as did John Paul I).

Now it turns out that Ratzinger isn't ill at all. Visitors to his residence within the Vatican say that he is lively, active and on top form, Not exactly running marathons, but not fading away either.

So, then came Francis. Elected, we're told, in the traditional way by the College of Cardinals. The election was over in a few hours, almost as though they had gone through the motions to provide a spectacle for the TV cameras, with the result actually having been decided in advance. This is all speculation, of course, but it does seem very convenient.

And now we have warm and friendly Francis, the man who is expert at gesture politics, the kind of human interest stuff that keeps the newspapers happy, keeps the flock smiling and detracts from any inclination to ask awkward questions about the continuing nastiness of the Catholic Church's doctrines.

At the beginning there were questions about Francis's behaviour in his native Argentina. But that's all buried now. Nobody wants to know about that. He's too nice to try to smear with tales of co-operation with a tyrannical regime.

To be fair, the Pope is not the all-powerful dictator that some think. His powers are limited. Even if he wanted to (and there is no evidence that he does) he couldn't change any of these things unilaterally.

So, what we have is not a change of doctrine but a change of emphasis. We have a front man who will accentuate the positive and in doing so shove the negative out of site under the carpet.

But the bad boys are still there, and they're still at it.

Pope Francis may be personally charming, but he is part of a rehabilitation plan that depends on bamboozling us rather than delivering any real change.

The media storm of adoring stories about Francis and his "different approach" mislead us into thinking that something (other than emphasis) has changed.

As Kate Smurthwaite wrote in the Independent:

"The most frightening story of all however dates back to July when Pope Francis brought in new laws for the Vatican state. Again the superficial story — increasing the maximum sentence for child sex abusers in the state from 10 to 12 years — makes great positive press.

"We should first remember though that organisations representing victims of clerical abuse were not best-pleased with the changes, saying 'The Church hierarchy doesn't need new rules on abuse. It needs to follow long-established secular laws.' "

Secondly he took the opportunity to bring in a law meaning up to eight years jail time could be faced by anyone caught stealing or leaking information concerning the "fundamental interests" of the Vatican. Sneaking in one law behind another more headline-grabbing one and making it harder for insiders to whistle-blow on corrupt Vatican dealings? Smooth-operating spin doctors would be proud.

An opinion poll in Rome found that three out of four Italians liked the direction the Church was taking, compared with less than 45% last year. A YouGov/HuffPost poll of U.S. Catholics showed that more than four in five thought Francis had a positive effect on the Church.

"Most people clearly believe the church has turned a corner, and if they believe that then that's half the battle," said Maria Rossi, Opinioni's co-director.

And so, without changing a jot or tittle of doctrine, the Vatican now expects to see its wayward flock streaming back into the pews, together with their cheque books and credit cards – which have been sorely missed.

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