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Newsline 10 June 2016

We've had very positive and welcome news this week from the UN, after the Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the UK government to abolish the archaic and unfair laws requiring collective worship in schools, to give pupils the right to withdraw themselves from religious worship held in schools, and to ensure that all schools provide pupils with full and comprehensive sex education.

We called on the United Nations to make these recommendations and we'll be campaigning to ensure that the Government acts upon them.

You can help us do this by joining the NSS today, or, if you are already a member, by giving a donation to our 150th anniversary fundraising appeal.

UN children’s rights Committee calls on UK to abolish compulsory worship in schools

UN children’s rights Committee calls on UK to abolish compulsory worship in schools

News | Fri, 10 Jun 2016

A United Nations committee has urged the UK to repeal laws requiring the provision of 'broadly Christian' worship in UK schools. It also called for pupils to be given the independent right of withdrawal from any religious worship held in schools.

In a report published this week, the UN also calls for age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health education to become mandatory in all schools, including faith schools.

The recommendations reflect concerns raised by the National Secular Society in a briefing submitted to the body leading up to the publication of the report.

Collective worship

In a section on Freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the UN reports states:

The Committee is concerned that pupils are required by law to take part in a daily religious worship which is "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character" in publicly funded schools in England and Wales, and that children do not have the right to withdraw from such worship without parental permission before entering the sixth form. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, children do not have right to withdraw from collective worship without parental permission.

The Committee recommends that the State party repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious worship at school.

Sex and relationships education

In a section on adolescent health, the Committee expresses concern that:

Relationships and sexuality education is not mandatory in all schools, its contents and quality varies depending on the school, and LGBT children do not have access to accurate information on their sexuality.

It calls on UK governments to:

Ensure that meaningful sexual and reproductive health education is part of the mandatory school curriculum for all schools, including academies, special schools and youth detention centres, in all areas of the State party. Such education should provide age-appropriate information on: confidential sexual and reproductive health-care services; contraceptives; prevention of sexual abuse or exploitation, including sexual bullying; available support in cases of such abuse and exploitation; and sexuality, including that of LGBT children.

The report also demands the decriminalization of abortion in Northern Ireland in all circumstances and calls for NI to review its legislation "with a view to ensuring girls' access to safe abortion and post-abortion care services".

Faith schools

The UN Committee also calls on Northern Ireland to "actively promote a fully integrated education system and carefully monitor the provision of shared education, with the participation of children, in order to ensure that it facilitates social integration".

Keith Porteous Wood, National Secular Society executive director, said:

"We're pleased that the UN Committee has endorsed our assertion that the UK's laws requiring worship are a breach of young people's rights. Our 70 year old statutes on collective worship were drawn up before any human rights charters and fail to recognise that pupils have human rights too. I hope the UN's endorsement of our long-standing concerns about children's rights on compulsory collective worship and minimal pupil self-opt-out will be a wakeup call to the Government to change our outdated legislation in this area.

"Laws that mandate worship are inimical to religious freedom and go beyond the legitimate function of the state.

"We also hope that the UN's intervention will encourage the Government to ensure that young people's long overdue right to objective, comprehensive and age-appropriate sex and relationships education is put on a statutory basis."

The NSS has been campaigning against compulsory collective worship for most of its 150 year history and worked with peers to put amendments before Parliament in 2011 very similar to those now recommended by the UN. They were rejected at the direction of Michael Gove MP when he was Secretary of State for Education.

The current right of withdrawal from worship for sixth form pupils follows an amendment proposed by the NSS in 2006.

Read the Committee on the Rights of the Child concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland here:

Read the National Secular Society's briefing to the Committee here:

Our supplementary evidence to the Committee is available here:

1200 cases of FGM reported in three months – but data “likely” to underestimate

1200 cases of FGM reported in three months – but data “likely” to underestimate

News | Thu, 09 Jun 2016

New data has shown a surge in reported cases of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in England, with over 1200 reports made in the first three months of 2016.

Religious belief is no barrier to criminality

Religious belief is no barrier to criminality

Opinion | Thu, 09 Jun 2016

A spate of media reports have suggested that criminals convicted of sex abuse feigned their religion. NSS Vice-President Alistair McBay argues that the media shouldn't seek to protect religion from criticism by misrepresenting these cases.

A disturbing new trend is developing in the field of reporting on child sex abuse cases involving the religious, whether clergy or ordinary worshippers. It infers these criminals were not, perhaps even could not have been religious, because if they had been then obviously they would not have committed the crimes. Their faith is therefore not relevant to their criminality.

The most recent example involved the vile Richard Huckle, sentenced in London for a catalogue of horrific child sex offences in Malaysia. The Press Association report widely used around the globe referred to Huckle as "posing as a respectable Christian English teacher and philanthropist." The Times chose to say "Huckle posed as a Christian", adding that he then "used his religion to infiltrate an impoverished Malaysian community. The BBC ran with "He presented himself as a practising Christian", while the Daily Mail said "Huckle masqueraded as a devout Christian."

Huckle 'posed as a Christian'? He 'presented himself' and 'masqueraded' as one?

We know Huckle was a church-going Christian, brought up in a comfortable middle class Christian household, and stood 'hands clasped in prayer' in the dock as the life sentences, all 22 of them, were handed down. Once you have been caught, tried, found guilty and sent down, it hardly seems worthwhile to keep up any 'posing' as something you're not! The same inference, that a devout Christian faith was nothing more than a sham to conceal paedophilia, was also apparent in the sentencing of Anglican bishop Peter Ball, with the phrase that he used 'religion as a cloak' cropping up in court, although prosecuting counsel also said Ball was "highly regarded as a Godly man".

It is perhaps understandable that Christians may want to play down Huckle's Christian belief or its place in his criminality. But should we now conclude that all the Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist and Anglican clergy who have been found guilty of sexually abusing children were only 'posing' as vicars and priests, and their devoutness was just play-acting? Was Bishop Ball only 'masquerading' as a Godly man?

We have seen these inferences before. In May 2014, a Scotsman article headed "Religion mustn't cause violence" claimed religion could not be the cause of violence or abuse otherwise there would be no accounting for the millions of religious believers who were peaceful, tolerant and inclusive of those of all faiths and none. It's not too difficult to turn that statement around – religion can't be the cause of people doing good things, otherwise there would be no accounting for believers who commit crimes against humanity and justify their actions on the basis of their God's demands!

That "religion mustn't cause violence" was refreshed later that year, in an interview with Nazir Afzal who at that time led the Crown Prosecution Service action against child abuse and violence against women and young girls. Afzal said religion couldn't have been a factor because the Rotherham men were not religious and in any case substance abuse and rape were forbidden in Islam. Forbidden they may be, but that didn't stop two of those convicted of similar crimes in Derby in 2010, both devout Muslims and family men with children of their own, becoming "vodka-swilling, cocaine-binging paedophiles who spent every available moment randomly targeting young girls on the street, befriending them, and then horrifically abusing them."

Possibly the greatest deceit of all in recent times concerned Jimmy Savile, a devout Catholic who attended a Catholic school, went to Mass daily and received a papal knighthood. One famous picture of Savile shows him standing smiling, side-by-side with that other notorious hypocrite, the now disgraced Scottish Cardinal and sexual predator Keith O'Brien. The Catholic Herald carried an article in November 2011 asking why various obituaries played down Savile's Catholicism, almost to the point of not mentioning his strong Christian faith at all. It asked: "Is it too much to call this a conspiracy of silence?"

Sadly, the author was asking this in relation to what he saw as "the underlying almost instinctive hostility in England to the notion that anything good (ie Savile's prolific charity works) could come from a life whose foundation is the Catholic religion". I'd like to suggest that the opposite is the case – this is another example of the media concealing the fact that Savile was a devout Christian. These 'posing as a Christian' references are increasingly put there to protect religion, rather than reflecting on the nature of religion and whether its teachings are culpable in some way.

I am not suggesting that the likes of Huckle, Savile, O'Brien or Ball (and countless other devout Christians) believed they were doing their God's work in abusing children, young adults and seminarians. But the manner of reporting on their crimes should not omit the hard fact that they were committed by people who genuinely held a devout religious belief and somehow managed to reconcile their faith to their actions through whatever means, perhaps through the confessional or offering prayers of repentance (the preferred option in the Catholic Church for punishing abusive priests). These people were Christians, whether or not a majority of Christians feel they fairly represented their faith. The media shouldn't seek to protect religion from criticism by denying or misrepresenting details of these cases with smokescreens.

The key point is that while Huckle's faith may not have caused him to abuse children, it is supposed to have prevented him from doing so. It's the basic premise underlying the focus of forcing faith on children in the education system, to give them a source of moral purpose, as the Government puts it. After all, as the late Lord Denning famously remarked, "Without religion there can be no morality. There can be no law", enthusiastically quoted by the Archbishop of York in the House of Lords in April 2007.

But if you have religion and you then stray from its revealed moral code, does that mean religion is off the hook for your crimes, even if you still cleave to it for comfort and repentance?

Fatalism in Bangladesh after attacks on secularists, freethinkers and religious minorities

Fatalism in Bangladesh after attacks on secularists, freethinkers and religious minorities

Many in Bangladesh continue to live in terror. Twenty-five associates of one victim, a gay rights activist, have taken refuge in safe houses provided by diplomatic missions. Several dozen bloggers have fled the country. Those who remain have grown fatalistic. The New York Times reports on the situation in Bangladesh.

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