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Newsline 10 March 2017

It's your last chance to get your ticket for Secularist of the Year 2017!

If you've got your ticket already we look forward to seeing you in just over a week. We have a shortlist of brilliant candidates, who have all done so much to contribute to the secularist cause.

If you'd like to do your bit for our movement, consider signing up today (or making a donation if you are already a member). We do a lot with the resources we have, and every contribution aids our work and increases our reach.

We hope to see you soon.

A faith-based education system is deeply inefficient

A faith-based education system is deeply inefficient

Opinion | Tue, 07 Mar 2017

Both the Government and the Labour Party have wilful blind spots around faith schools, and as the Government looks set to launch a new wave of faith schools amid an education funding crisis, how can such an inefficient system be justified?

The Prime Minister has expressed her concern that "for too many children, a good school place remains out of reach" and that their "options [are] determined by where they live or how much money their parents have."

But their options are also determined by their parents' faith, or at least their willingness to fake it to get into the most convenient school. But she doesn't seem concerned about that.

The Government is going to plough more money into free schools, many of which will surely have a religious ethos. There are even reports that to boost integration 'Christian schools' will be opened in 'Muslim areas'.

There are stronger arguments against faith schools than this, but the cost of opening and operating duplicated facilities to cater for every religious minority with the sufficient size and local political clout to get their own school must be unjustifiably expensive.

The UK suffers from a fantastic level of national debt, public services face cuts, some schools are even reportedly asking for donations to stave off staff losses, and yet despite these incredible pressures, many of the new schools the Government is opening will only cater to one segment of the local population.

The ludicrous result of these conditions is seen in Northern Ireland, where around 20% of school places are empty. Any system that segregates is going to be riddled with pockets of inefficiency: undersubscribed minority faith schools with empty seats in classrooms, while other schools in the same area are badly oversubscribed.

The stronger arguments to one side, how can the cost of duplicative faith schools, in these conditions, possible be justified?

Whatever else the objections to an education system that discriminates, we cannot afford to have redundant school places and duplicate buildings for each faith group that wants one.

Meanwhile Labour howl against grammar schools 'segregating' children – but totally ignore actual segregation when it is done on religious grounds.

Whether you support grammar schools or not, the separation of children is done for an academic purpose. It isn't 'segregation' (which suggests racial or religious partition) but a form of differentiation.

There is however actual segregation going on across the country, with no academic rationale, and it is being accelerated by the Government. Yet Labour have nothing to say about it. In some areas, where religion and ethnicity are closely correlated, separating children by religious background has the effect of racial segregation.

To rail against segregation in schooling when it concerns grammars, and ignore the genuine example of segregation by religion is incomprehensible.

Segregation on religious grounds is a strange blind spot, and one that afflicts both of the major parties.

Where faith schools are concerned Labour set aside their 'principled' objection to 'segregation', and the Government put aside their commitment to run public services in the most efficient and cost effective way possible.

The human rights of women and secularism go hand in hand

The human rights of women and secularism go hand in hand

Opinion | Wed, 08 Mar 2017

On International Women's Day 2017 NSS campaigns officer Alastair Lichten reflects on the intersection of gender and religious privilege, and what the secularist movement can learn from IWD.

The theocratic mindset has always had a particular obsession with policing women's bodies and religion has often been used as a tool of patriarchy. When religious feminists have challenged the patriarchy within their religion, they have similarly been challenging the religious privilege of male leaders.

Too often male religious leaders are treated as representatives of their 'groups', while women's rights are sacrificed to religious concerns. Too often religious privilege supports attacks on women's reproductive rights and transwomen's identity. Religious privilege has allowed the terrible crime of FGM to go unpunished and has seen gender segregation normalised in universities and even schools.

It was religious privilege that saw the National Secular Society's founder Charles Bradlaugh and vice-president Annie Besant and prosecuted for making information about birth-control available to working class women. Religious privilege has been used to block and to shame women fleeing forced marriages, to block reforms making marriage more equitable, and to block Trans and non-heterosexual women from it entirely.

Religious privilege allows narratives of 'modesty' – underpinned by coercion and shame – to control women's clothing choices. While those who criticise such 'modest' clothing as the burka from an anti-Muslim position get the lion's share of attention, feminist critiques and women's rights advocates are often sidelined.

As many of the events of IWD show, challenging sexism needs to involve both men and women – while still preserving a space for women's specific experiences – both benefit from equality.

Similarly – without silencing critiques of religion or alienating its support among atheists – the secularist movement can do more to involve religious voices, including those on the front line of challenging theocracy.

Secularism can respect the cultural and lived experience of religious people, while campaigning against religious privilege and patriarchy. A point made so effectively by UN Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune, in her acclaimed book Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism. While over two thirds of Britons support gender equality, only 7% identify as feminist. Similarly, many have sought to make secularism a dirty word, even though it's principles of basic fairness have broad support, including among the religious.

There are male feminists working to put forward new models of masculinity divorced from gender privilege. We can learn from this, if religious secularists step up and put forward new models of religiosity, which embrace personal spirituality while rejecting religious identity policing or privilege.

In 2016 both the National Secular Society and the Fawcett Society celebrated their 150th anniversaries – both societies having emerged during the same period of nineteenth century radicalism. Despite all that needs to be done, our movements can look back over the last 150 years with huge pride.

Our movements have shifted the debate and made appeals to fairness the default position. We're all at least feminist-ish now, we're all at least secular-ish and privilege now feels the need to at least try and disguise itself.

The secularist movement is still too dominated by male voices, while the contributions of female secular activists, particularly women of colour are often overlooked.

There are things we can do to change this, from giving platform to and speaking out on religious privilege issues affecting women to celebrating the work of female secularists.

This is something we've always sought to do through our Secularist of the Year awards – just over half of which have gone to women. Women like Safak Pavey and Sophie in 't Veld for their international work promoting secularism. Women like Maryam Namazie and Southall Black Sisters for challenging religious patriarchy and defending free speech.

This year's shortlist includes three inspiring women. Asma Jahangir, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, who has campaigned so bravely for secular justice. Houzan Mahmoud who has created innovative spaces for women to challenge theocracy. And Yasmin Rehman, who has campaigned tirelessly for secular approaches to human rights. The awards will be presented by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a powerful advocate for women's rights and a fierce critic of sharia law and faith schools.

International Women's Day is a reminder that a secular approach to policy making is vital for the implementation of the human rights of women. Secularism and gender equality very much go hand in hand.

Why are we still allowing religion to retard young people’s education and health rights?

Why are we still allowing religion to retard young people’s education and health rights?

Opinion | Thu, 09 Mar 2017

The Government's proposals on Relationships and Sex Education are a welcome step in the right direction – but religious opt outs mean many children will continue to be left behind, writes Stephen Evans.

The Government's move to make Relationships and Sex Education mandatory in schools has been enthusiastically welcomed by all but religious conservatives. But whilst the new legislation is a very welcome step in the right direction, the decision to allow parental opt-outs and give faith schools leeway to teach the subject in accordance with their religion means some children will be left behind. This isn't acceptable.

The move towards statutory RSE comes amid increasing concerns around child sexual exploitation, sexual health and the growing risks associated with growing up in a digital age. There is a clear need for schools to tackle issues around sex, relationships, consent, gender equality, LGBT-inclusivity and sexuality. If there is a compelling case to act in relation to pupil safety then surely the proposals should apply equally to all children and young people, irrespective of their religious or cultural background.

Yet under the proposals, some of the children and young people most in need of this information, those denied it at home by socially or religiously conservative parents, will still be denied it.

The Government says it is important that we "ensure universal coverage for all pupils and improved quality" only to then undermine itself by granting de-facto opt-outs to religious schools.

All children deserve the same chances in life. Good quality comprehensive sex education should be every child's right. Instead, under these proposals, the subject will continue to be delivered according to the whims of religious authorities, rather than the needs of young people. These proposals risk reducing children in faith schools and from conservative religious backgrounds to second class status.

The limited scope of the subject also appears to be a sop to religion anxieties, fed by inaccurate tabloid 'scare' stories. Why, for example, why is the Government limiting primary school obligations to 'relationships education'? It is well established that the onset of puberty and sexual awareness, including of sexual orientation, occur for many children before they reach secondary school. Primary school children need age-appropriate education around the body, safe and unsafe touch, and puberty. What good reason is there to leave them in the dark?

The Government will hold discussions on what should be taught to children, and at what age, and there will be a full public consultation later this year. But the lack of explicit reference to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusivity in the proposals is a concern.

The legislation seems to fall short of the latest recommendation from the Committee of the Rights of the Child which called on the UK to "Ensure that meaningful sexual and reproductive health education is part of the mandatory school curriculum for all schools".

The human rights committee recommended:

"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 Government argues that specifying the content of the subjects on the face of primary legislation would be "too prescriptive" and would run the risk of the legislation becoming "quickly out of date as the world changes".

This risks giving the religious groups running schools the wriggle room they wanted to avoid topics they don't like. The areas listed by the UN aren't going "out of date" anytime soon and should be explicitly included and without exception.

There is a pressing need to promote inclusion and acceptance in education. A major Government survey of 15 year olds has shown that health indicators/outcomes and happiness levels are materially worse for gay adolescents/teenagers and very much worse still for bisexual adolescents/teenagers.

Extensive polling of British Muslim attitudes conducted by ICM found that 52% thought homosexuality should be illegal in Britain. 39% agreed that "wives should always obey their husbands".

A recent family court case in which a transgender woman was denied contact with her ultra-Orthodox Jewish children highlighted the corrosive effect of intolerant attitudes amongst ultra‐Orthodox Jewish communities - attitudes that are being perpetuated by religious schools, where homosexuality and transsexuality are unmentionable.

Even human biology is deemed beyond the pale for some faith schools. The publicly funded Yesodey Hatorah secondary girls' school in Hackney was rebuked by the exam regulator after a National Secular Society investigation revealed it was censoring exam paper questions on human reproduction - a common practice, it claimed, amongst charedi schools throughout England.

Organised religion's desire to control our collective sex lives is of course nothing new. In 1877 the National Secular Society's founder Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, a secularist and campaigner for women's rights, were brought to trial for 'obscenity' after disseminating a pamphlet on birth control. We can't allow a 19th century mindset to dictate modern education policy.

That's exactly what Justine Greening is doing by insisting that RSE needs to be "sensitive to the needs of the local community" and taught in accordance with the tenets of various religions in publicly funded faith schools - schools which are often attended by children from all religion and belief backgrounds.

Now that statutory RSE is secure, they key battleground will be over subject content and accompanying guidance. But the omens aren't good for the fight to ensure that no child is left behind. Announcing the Government's intentions in Parliament, the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, Edward Timpson MP, stressed that religious faith "will be respected as it has been in the past: that is reflected in the Bill, and will be reflected in the regulations and statutory guidance that will follow."

The Government's so called "21st century relationships and sex education" will not be worthy of that billing if it continues to allow young people's education and health rights to be retarded by religion.

Schools are the ideal place to foster a more tolerant and inclusive Britain and to encourage a healthier, more knowledgeable and sexually autonomous younger generation. Education policy that panders to religion will fall short of delivering this.

Mass grave full of children's remains at Catholic home reveals atrocities on a massive scale

Mass grave full of children's remains at Catholic home reveals atrocities on a massive scale

Opinion | Tue, 07 Mar 2017

With the latest revelations about human remains in an Irish Mother and Baby home, Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, seeks answers about how such atrocities could have happened on such a scale, and what can be done now.

An interim announcement by a Government Commission into eighteen homes, many run by the Catholic Church on behalf of the Irish state, has revealed that the remains of babies and young children have been found at a former Catholic home in Tuam, near the west coast of Ireland in what appeared to be a waste-water or sewage tank. The home took in unmarried mothers between 1925 and 1961 when the children of unmarried parents were, under conservative Catholic teaching, denied baptism and burial in consecrated ground.

On arrival at the home, children were separated from their mothers who were often forced to hand over their children for adoption.

The children were kept in appalling conditions. An Irish Government inspection in 1944 described some of the children at Tuam as "fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated" and the mortality rate far exceeded that in other such homes where the mortality rate was a spine-chilling 17%. In one year alone, according to the National Archives, 31.6% of babies under the age of one in Tuam died. "Debility from birth" and respiratory diseases were the cause of death listed for 40% of the 796 recorded deaths.

It is difficult to comprehend the living hell to which the mothers and children were routinely subjected in a civilised country and in living memory. If the facts are as alleged and widely believed, the depths of inhuman institutional depravity thrived in Tuam, which was practically a death camp operating under the guise of being a place of piety and refuge. There is a strong suspicion that there may be other such places yet to be discovered.

In early 2014 historian Catherine Corless published the catalogue of the 800 deaths, convinced that the bodies would be in the septic tanks in the grounds. While the place of burial was recorded as being in specific graves for a very few, it was not for the vast majority. Disturbing questions arise as to why the place of burial was not recorded for the remainder.

The Catholic League website acknowledges that around twenty bodies had been seen in a tank in the Home's grounds in the 1970s but evidently does not consider that 20 skeletons constitutes a mass grave. The League fulminates even now: "Mass graves. …. It is all a lie. It's about time this non-stop assault on truth and the Catholic Church stopped before no one believes anything the media tell us anymore about all matters Catholic." There remains doubt however whether these sightings, made by children exploring in 1970, were of all of the burial area; Corless found a second "continuation" site in 2014. No other burials sites, individual or mass, have been found for the remaining bodies.

The Corless findings were published widely including by the Daily Mail, CNN and AFP. Later in 2014 a French documentary maker for France 2 approached the Bon Secours sisters who ran the home - its headquarters are in Paris. She was told by their PR company that "you'll find no mass grave, no evidence that children were ever so buried", and a local police force saying sceptically "Yeah a few bones were found, but this was an area where famine victims were buried. So?" The PR company defended themselves by saying there was "absolutely no difference" between the substance of what they had said, and public pronouncements made by the Bon Secours sisters.

It wasn't quite made clear why victims of a mid-nineteenth-century famine would be found in a septic tanks with concrete covers.

Even after the latest revelations, the PR company initially refused to talk to the Irish Times, however the PR company belatedly acknowledges that "Nobody expected the kind of numbers that are being revealed today. Clearly there was extensive burial".

Rather than respectfully accept it had made the blunder of all blunders – assuming it was a blunder – the PR company could not resist seeking to dig itself out by tastelessly deflecting attention and changing the subject. By doing so it brazenly dug itself in yet deeper. It asked whether the number of children who died was "disproportionate to the number of children and toddlers who would have been dying in the ordinary population at this time?" It was. "And one other thing, what did they die of? Was it malnutrition, was it lack of care? What was it that killed the children?"

Forget reparations, I have yet to see the Bon Secours sisters or their PR advisers express the slightest remorse or even apology this litany of inhumanity. Bon Secours ignored formal approaches last year from our French sister organisation Libre Pensee and, similarly, on the pretext of the records having been handed over to Galway County Council, they made "no comment on today's announcement, other than to confirm our continued cooperation with and support for the work of the Commission in seeking the truth about the home". Had they refused to co-operate it would have stoked the media storm.

The tragedy is compounded by there being little realistic prospect of any individuals being held to account for this criminally or civilly; apparently no one left who was involved is capable of giving evidence.

According to an Irish Times article in March 2017 entitled "Nun lying 'through her teeth' about Tuam home, court hears" it states that "Following long investigations concerning indemnities to be given, those records were handed over…". I hope the state will investigate whether, much more recently, the nuns extracted indemnities in exchange for releasing information about the homes, and if so who gave them, why, with what authority, how binding they are and what legal remedies there may be.

But even that may not be as straightforward as it sounds; the article continues with a solicitor's claim that "[The Irish Government's Child and Family Agency] 'has sat on [the records]'".

Might Bon Secours itself yet pay a penalty for their alleged treachery to the children entrusted to their care, and for which they were paid? Bríd Smith TD (MP) looks as if she will do her best to make this happen. She accused the Bon Secour nuns of a "massive cover-up" of "criminal activity" which they had denied for many years. "Bon Secour now run, and make lucrative profits from two private hospitals. … They are a very wealthy organisation." "The order itself should be disbanded and their assets handed over to the State", she told a news conference; she is keen for these hospitals to serve the vulnerable in the community rather than those who can afford to pay.

Confirmation of these gruesome remains has stirred something in Irish society, now very much more secular. She concludes as no elected politician would have dared until recently: "We need to once and for all tell the church to get out of our lives, get out of the lives of our children, get out of the lives of our women, get out of beds, get out of our schools and get out of our hospitals". Similarly, those calling for the decriminalisation of abortion are now pointing to Tuam in support of their case.

Tuam is just one of the 18 homes being inspected, and Paul Redmond, chairperson of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors said that he expects the commission of investigation to ascertain that between 7,000 and 8,000 babies died in homes in Ireland from the 1920s up until the 60s. There are thought to have been 180 such institutions.

As well as the Bon Secours sisters, the Magdalene Laundries were another arm of the Catholic Church operating also in Scotland, but in some cases these were "non-denominational" (Protestant) establishments. All were for women considered undesirable, not only unmarried mothers but traveller women who looked after their children well. These institutions were forced labour camps which the UN harshly criticised in 2014 – please see paras 37 and 38. There are also references to mass Magdalene Laundries graves here and a recent call in the Irish Times for redevelopments of two Magdalene Laundry sites in Dublin to be postponed until they have been searched for children's remains. A survivors' organisation has names of 1,600 who are thought to have died in the laundries, although the names of many were unknown; the women were stripped even of their names when entering the Laundries. In the largest one, High Park, a grave with 155 bodies was found solely because the nuns sold off laundry land to a property developer when a speculative stock market investment they had made went wrong. They had lost count of how many bodies were there and a third of the bodies were uncertified.

It is not the fault of children to be born out of marriage. Yet the message inherent in an official Catholic doctrine denying them a proper burial in an overwhelmingly Catholic country is that they do not deserve to be treated as humans. And these children appear to have been treated in ways that it would today be illegal to treat animals.

The other victims of these institutions were mostly unmarried pregnant women, with the fathers going almost entirely unpunished. Largely because of Catholic proscription, contraception remained illegal until 1980 and abortion still is. Only those able to afford to travel abroad could benefit from a safe legal abortion.

The level of reported clerical (almost entirely Catholic) child abuse in Ireland is the highest in the world. Being such a small island and largely rural, it seems inconceivable that cruelty in these homes and of clerical child abuse on such an industrial scale could have occurred for so long without being known to many people. While the reputation for friendliness of the Irish is undoubted, this may have been compromised by the legendary depth of Irish piety, and potential whistleblowers will have been unwilling to risk the religious threats for causing scandal to the Church. Could it be that the extent of that piety and threats of retribution allowed the patriarchal and in many respects misogynistic Church to do absolutely anything it wanted, particularly when it in effect controlled the government too? That is the very antithesis of secularism.

NSS Speaks Out

Our campaigns director Stephen Evans has an article published in the Huffington Post on the rights of all children to relationships and sex education. Executive director Keith Porteous Wood was quoted by The Economist on the Catholic Church's abject failure to bring child abuse perpetrators to justice. Our call last year to fix the secular Easter holiday in the calendar was again quoted by the Leicester Mercury.

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