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Newsline 13 March 2015

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Eric Pickles' 'evangelical charter' on its way to becoming law

Eric Pickles' 'evangelical charter' on its way to becoming law

Opinion | Thu, 12 Mar 2015

A small group of Christians in parliament are changing the law to give local authorities the power to summon councillors to prayers. Stephen Evans argues that the right to freedom of religion should always be balanced by the right to be free from religion.

A small group of Christians in parliament are changing the law, almost unimpeded, to give local councils the power to introduce prayers to their meetings.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles, who regards Britain as a "Christian country" was outraged by the National Secular Society's 2012 High Court victory which delivered a landmark ruling that local councils had no statutory powers to summon councillors to prayer. The local government (religious etc. observances) bill is his revenge.

Immediately after the ruling, Pickles vowed to strike a blow for "freedom to worship over intolerant secularism". Shortly after the ruling he fast-tracked the Localism Act's 'general power of competence' which he claimed gave principal councils the power back to include acts of worship as part of their official meetings.

According to his department, this new bill simply corrects what it regards as an anomaly – and extends the power to hold prayers to smaller town and parish councils. This claim shouldn't be taken at face value.

Despite Pickles' protestations, it's not at all clear that the Localism Act actually permits principal councils to include acts of worship within their official business. Playing to the gallery and incensed by hysterical Daily Mail headlines about Christianity being 'under attack', Pickles announced that the "general power of competence" in his new Localism Act would "effectively reverse" the high court's ruling on council prayers.

But this is an untested assertion. There is no mention of prayers in the Localism Act, nor in any of the debates which gave rise to it.

Keith Peter-Lucas, a local government lawyer and partner at public services law firm Bevan Brittan, has expressed doubt about Pickles' wishful thinking:

"This general power has been oversold as a universal panacea. Despite the secretary of state confidently saying that this immediate implementation should effectively overtake Mr Justice Ouseley's ruling, the new general power may actually offer little assistance in this instance."

A number of other senior lawyers have also expressed doubt whether the Localism Act does, as Mr Pickles claims, make the inclusion of prayers in local authority meetings lawful. The Act was clearly not passed with that express intention.

So it seems the scope of this bill may not be as modest as its proponents would like us to believe.

The bill also gives authorities in England an explicit power to "support, facilitate, or be represented at religious or similar events". But can't they already do this?

Somewhat bizarrely, it's claimed by the bill's backers that, left unchallenged, the high court ruling could prevent local councillors from laying a wreath at a Remembrance Sunday event. At second reading in the Lords, Lord Cormack even suggested the bill was necessary to allow councils to close roads so people attending such ceremonies could do so safely.

This is nonsense on stilts.

The high court ruling simply clarified that local authorities have no power to hold prayers as part of their formal meetings or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda.

Of course councillors should be free to facilitate and attend important local community events where there may sometimes be a religious element, but there is absolutely nothing in law that currently prevents them from doing so. To suggest otherwise is simply disingenuous and should raise alarm bells about the real motivation behind this bill.

The effect of this bill is to give councils and a range of other authorities such as fire and rescue authorities, joint waste authorities, internal drainage boards and even Transport for London the power to 'support religion' and impose prayer. It reads like an evangelicals' charter.

It is true that nobody will be "forced to pray", but surely the religious freedom bar should be higher than that? This bill will permit local authorities to summon councillors to acts of worship. They may excuse themselves from the religious element of the meeting, and – if they can face it – shuffle out and, when the moment seems right, slink in again in full view of the public gallery. But there's no justification for placing such a burden on councillors. Surely our civic meetings should be conducted without anyone feeling compelled to participate in prayers, or feeling excluded, or that they have to absent themselves from any part of the meeting. Secularism promotes inclusivity. Prayers do not.

In arguing in favour of the bill, MPs and peers have remarked that both the House of Commons and House of Lords begin proceedings with prayers. It is indeed true that when the Chamber is at its busiest, parliamentary prayers act as a bizarre and antiquated seat reservation system; on certain days MPs and peers have no option but to attend prayers in order to reserve a seat. But this, to some 'quaint' tradition, also serves to assert the superiority of Christianity and the Church of England in particular at Westminster.

Although the 'appeal to tradition' is persuasive to some, many regard parliamentary prayers as an anachronism –inimical to a modern pluralistic secular democracy. Opposing the bill in the Commons, Conservative MP James Arbuthnot said the practice seemed "out of touch with the majority of the people we represent, because only a tiny proportion of our constituents go to church." Perhaps some MPs and peers ought to check their privilege.

Local authorities aren't religious communities. They should strive to be seen to serve the whole community equally. Councillors and the local communities they serve will not share a particular faith characteristic. Institutionalising a particular religion within the formal business of a council meeting or identifying the council with a belief - or even a range of beliefs - impedes councils from being equally representative of all local citizens.

Given that Christianity is the dominant religion in the UK, some councils may decide to start with Christian prayer. In other areas, Islamic observance may be chosen. This is the case in Oldham, where we see elected councillors standing to attention as the Mayor's imam declares "Allahu Akbar" and prays to the Almighty Allah to help those who are suffering in all parts of the world – but particularly Palestine.

Many who find the prayers embarrassing and possibly even anathema will choose to quietly but uncomfortably sit through them rather than leave the chamber. They are at the least the victims of bad manners, but is it not completely unreasonable to impose acts of worship on the unwilling? Surely there should never be any compulsion in religion. This is why religion belongs in the private, rather than the public, sphere. As the Earl of Clancarty argued at the Lords' second reading, the bill will be a "recipe for divisiveness and potential problems".

Many local councillors make a huge contribution to the communities they serve. Many will be motivated by their personal faith, and if they wish to pray for guidance prior to meetings they are free do so. But why do we need a law to enable believers to impose their worship on others by making a public show of it?

A point so many politicians miss is that freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike. The right of individuals to freedom of religion should always be balanced by the right to be free from religion. This bill is an attempt by a handful of religious enthusiasts in parliament to facilitate the encroachment of religion into secular spaces. Secularist peers have tabled a number of amendments in the Lords to make sure they don't get away with it. I wish them Godspeed.

Stephen Evans is the campaigns manager for the National Secular Society. The views expressed in the blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Secular Society. This post originally appeared at

New NHS guidance requires hospitals to provide pastoral care to non-religious

New NHS guidance requires hospitals to provide pastoral care to non-religious

News | Tue, 10 Mar 2015

New guidance published by NHS England will require hospitals in England to consider the needs of non-religious patients by ensuring they have access to appropriate pastoral care.

The Church, gratitude and the erosion of innocence

The Church, gratitude and the erosion of innocence

Opinion | Wed, 11 Mar 2015

A parent writes about the problem of innocuous children's activities run with a hidden religious agenda, and defends his right to raise his children how he wishes, without organisations using playgroups as a cover for proselytising to children.

There are probably many dads out there who would find this image beautiful. Not me. In fact, it makes me very uneasy – and it's particularly concerning to me now because I've just found out that my own 3 year old daughter is being led in prayer at a local playgroup.

The Church still plays a big role in the community in the UK. Churches and church halls are great facilities which run and host any number of activities and groups, some of which are very handy for parents looking for something to do with their kids. And it's all put forward as being very open and caring and innocent and, quite honestly, I'm made to feel bad for being sceptical.

But, of course, I try to be magnanimous – mostly for my daughter, who deserves a variety of activities – and trust that these activities, held in church-halls, which purport to be god-free, are indeed run out of the goodness of people's hearts, rather than as an opportunity to sow the seeds of religion in innocent young minds.

So, you can imagine my surprise when my daughter put her hands together one night as I put her to bed, and began reciting a prayer. It was a heart-sinking moment, which marks a crushing realisation in my life as a hopeful person and dad; I cannot protect her. And some people can't help themselves.

Turns out she was being led, with the rest of the children at the playgroup, in saying grace. The playgroup is held in the hall of a Catholic church but, like all of these groups, the suggestion is and has repeatedly been made to me, that this is simply a matter of logistics. And, when dealing with the minds of 3 year old children, you'd be forgiven for assuming that there would be nothing more to it, right?

It is at this point in the post where I issue the obligatory disclaimer stating that everyone is entitled to their beliefs and that they can raise their child in any way they see fit. And you may well be thinking what the big deal with saying grace is anyway?

It might be tempting to say it's all harmless, but pick a god you don't believe in – and let's start getting your child to pray to them, shall we?

I emailed the group organiser for clarification on the church's involvement in the group and her response was either massively sarcastic or worryingly oblivious. She seemed to take my "concerns" to mean I wanted more religion in the group, and even invited me to run a bible stories session. Fair dues to her, if that is a zing it's a good one – but forgive me if I don't laugh very long or hard for her lack of sympathy over my concerns.

It now falls to me to either be the bad guy and pull my child out of the group, leaving my mother-in-law at a loose end every Monday, or throw away my principles and go along with the "harmless" ritual.

Every dad will face these moments where they feel their children slip away ever so slightly, and I think this might be my first. And it is so sad that this world, in which I find so much beauty, holds such traps.

The views expressed in the blog are those of the author alone, and are not necessarily the views of the National Secular Society. This blog was first published at the Dads Rich Pageant blogsite and is reproduced here with kind permission.

NSS Speaks Out

Politics UK featured a comment piece from NSS campaigns Manager Stephen Evans on the Bill to give councils back the power to impose prayers. He also appeared on BBC Sussex and Surrey to discuss the findings of the Equality & Human Rights Commission's survey on religion and belief in the workplace. He was also quoted on this topic in the Telegraph and in the Huffington Post.

Stephen also appeared on a BBC Radio Kent debate about a new Church of England free school that plans to reserve places for children of churchgoers and was quoted by Breitbart on attempts to criminalise depictions of Mohammed.

In a busy week of media he also discussed secular objections to the funding of faith initiatives from police budgets on BBC Radio Northampton and was quoted on this in the Police Oracle.

Campaigns officer Alastair Lichten gave a talk on secularism as a Human Rights issue at Sheffield Freethought Convention, organised by the University of Sheffield Secular & Atheist Society.

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood attended the launch of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Human Rights and Democracy Report and also attended the TES hustings on education and a Theos conference on 'Chaplaincy in the UK'.

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