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Newsline 11 April 2014

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Eric Pickles’ dictatorial disregard for the law is dangerous in a democracy

Eric Pickles’ dictatorial disregard for the law is dangerous in a democracy

Opinion | Mon, 07 Apr 2014

Eric Pickles, the Dickensian-style Communities Minister, has announced that Britain is a "Christian nation" and anyone who disagrees needs to "get over it".

He has the usual easy pop at "militant atheists" and dismisses anyone who opposes what he does as "politically correct."

He also reportedly says that "I've stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish. Heaven forbid. We're a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don't impose your politically correct intolerance on others."

He was referring, of course, to the National Secular Society's 2012 High Court case that ruled that it is illegal for local councils to include prayers as part of their official agenda.

After that decision, Mr Pickles rushed to bring forward by a few weeks the Localism Act and in doing so announced that councils could now keep prayers on their agenda if they want to.

There is no mention in the Localism Act of council prayers, nor was there any in the parliamentary debates leading up to it. And the Act was given Royal Assent long before the High Court judgment was issued.

In that case, the High Court ruling stands and Mr Pickles' contention that it doesn't has never been tested in court.

Mr Pickles' seems to be taking the Alice in Wonderland approach to the law, as to paraphrase Humpty Dumpty "the law means what I want it to mean".

The NSS has told Mr Pickles repeatedly that he is misrepresenting the facts of this case and yet he continues to do it. We never said that all prayers in Town Halls should be banned. We simply said that it shouldn't be part of official business so that everyone, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, atheist or anyone else - of whatever religion or non-religion - could serve on the council in good conscience and without intimidation.

Many councils now have prayers before the meeting agenda begins, and we have no objection to that.

Mr Pickles is entitled to be as enthusiastic an evangelical Christian as he wants to be, but we live in a democracy, not a theocracy. He cannot – as he has done – simply place his personal beliefs before the law.

The Big Society – to be run by churches - is Mr Cameron’s pipe dream

The Big Society – to be run by churches - is Mr Cameron’s pipe dream

Opinion | Thu, 10 Apr 2014

First the Communities Minister and now the Prime Minister have declared Britain to be a "Christian nation".

In a speech to "faith leaders" gathered at Downing Street Mr Cameron said that his Government intended to see that religious groups play a much bigger role in influencing its policies.

But not only were there the usual platitudes about how marvellous church is for everybody, Mr Cameron actually started talking like a classic proselytiser of religion saying he wanted to imbue people with a "sense of evangelism".

In his speech he said: "People sometimes say, 'You talk about the big society, don't you realise this is what the church has been doing for decades ...Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago.' I just want to see more of it."

He told the gathered bishops, vicars and other pious persons of his churchgoing at St Mary Abbot's in Kensington where he "pops in" perhaps "every other week" for a spot of peace and quiet.

He mentioned his children. "I'm proud to be at a reception for Christians here in Downing Street and proud to be a Christian myself and proud to have my children at a church school."

He said that he sometimes set quizzes for his children over breakfast testing them on their knowledge of the gospels.

But Mr Cameron's personal religious inclinations are not what concern us. It's when he starts talking about involving the churches in policy-making and service provision that our hackles rise.

He said he wanted to make life easier for faith organisations that run services such as food banks. "I want to see the possibilities for that to expand." If they were "finding obstacles in their way", he urged faith leaders to think of him as a "giant dyno-rod in Whitehall. I want to make it easier to unblock the things you do."

Of course, we've heard all this before. At the same event in 2012 he said:

The domestic challenge is, and you'd be surprised if I didn't bring it up, the issue of the Big Society. I think there is enormous potential in churches and faith-based organisations to tackle some of the deepest problems we have in our society, whether it is educational and under-attainment, whether it is homelessness, whether it is mental health. Just wandering around the room chatting to some of you, I was talking to a lady who runs very important residential clinics for young people who have been self-harming or indeed have eating disorders – a classic example of someone of faith who has a great belief in wanting to do good, in wanting to change the world and we should be encourage those faith-based organisations into the solving of social problems.

And last year he said:

"This government does care about faith. It does care about the institutions of faith, and it does want you to stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation."

The Big Society is a long time coming and the churches and mosques and temples would be well advised to be very wary of what is being asked of them. They may want desperately to provide services for the needy and hungry, which they complain the Government is not doing, but they are not equipped for the job as the state is.

I'm sure Mr Cameron would be very pleased to palm off the difficult and expensive elements of the state's welfare remit – such as taking care of the elderly and disabled, the disadvantaged and the unfortunate. Let the compassionate churches do it. They're very good at that sort of thing.

Yes, indeed, they are. They have plenty of experience; they used to run the workhouses, the asylums and the Magdalene laundries. They would love to be able to force people to pray and go to church in order to receive services that the state provides universally without question.

Unlikely? They're already doing it – ask the countless parents who are forced unwillingly into church in order to get their children into a taxpayer-funded state school. What will it be like when they have hospitals, old folks' homes and nurseries under their control?

But if the state cannot afford to run these services, then the church certainly can't.

If the churches collude with the Government in reducing and eliminating services that many depend on, then they will have a lot to answer for. And when they have them under their control and the money runs out and the services disappear altogether, who will be to blame?

We don't have to look far to see what welfare services are like when they are "faith-based". In Germany the Catholic Church runs many of the welfare services at the state's expense. They are discriminatory, authoritarian and intolerant. Read this article for an idea of what it is like when religion becomes a powerful arm of the state.

And churches should note: when they are an arm of the state, they become answerable to the state.

Mr Cameron and his friends who declare that Britain is a Christian nation obviously don't read the statistics. If they think it will bring them electoral advantage, they should think again.

I have a feeling that the Big Society is no nearer now than it has ever been. The country doesn't want it, and it is unlikely ever to have it on the scale that Mr Cameron envisages or the churches hope for.

NSS Speaks Out

The Sunday Telegraph picked up our story about children from atheist and Christian families being allocated places at a Sikh state school and quoted our campaigns manager Stephen Evans. Stephen also discussed this issue on BBC 3 Counties Radio, and took part in a broader debate about faith schools on London Live, the capital's new TV station.

Terry Sanderson was on BBC Radio London on Sunday talking about the falling number of Christians in Britain. On Monday he was on Radio 4's PM programme talking to Eddie Mair about Eric Pickles' latest outburst about Britain being a "Christian country".

Keith Porteous Wood was quoted in a Times article (subscription) about new research into ritual slaughter that showed mis-stunning was far less common than religious lobby groups have claimed.

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