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Newsline 14 June 2013

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Rethink ordered over discriminatory school transport cuts

Rethink ordered over discriminatory school transport cuts

News | Tue, 11 Jun 2013

A controversial plan by Flintshire Council to cut funding for transport to faith schools for pupils unable to prove their religious beliefs has been thrown into doubt after a scrutiny committee called for it to be scrapped.

Secular petitions highlight the sectarian issues in Scottish education

Secular petitions highlight the sectarian issues in Scottish education

Opinion | Thu, 13 Jun 2013

The last few weeks have seen the topic of religious observance (RO) in schools hit the headlines in Scotland. Two petitions have been lodged, one at central government and one at local government level.

Secular Scotland, a group of Glasgow secularists, launched a petition asking the Scottish Government to change the current parental RO opt-out provision to an opt-in, while petition by NSS member and Edinburgh parent Veronica Wikman, backed by Edinburgh Secular Society, asked the City of Edinburgh Council to remove RO completely from Edinburgh schools.

Some observers believe that the issue of RO in schools will be the next battleground when it comes to "culture wars" in Scotland once the same-sex marriage debate has run its course. This is partly due to the highly questionable objectives and nature of some Christian groups now active in schools with the blessing of the Scottish Government's guidance on RO, and indeed with the patronage of the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church in Scotland.

Predictably, both petitions have drawn fire from religious interests north of the border. Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, said religious observance was part of the "fabric of the community life" in Catholic schools and they would contest any effort to remove the statutory requirement for it. McGrath added: "Some secularist groups appear determined to dismantle any public signs of this country's religious traditions, values and practices. We would be happy for them to establish their own schools as 'non-faith schools', just as the Catholic community did in the 19th century."

So here is the Catholic Church solution – yet more sectarianism in Scotland from an organisation that assails us regularly with its victimhood as a result of the sectarianism we already have. It wants this new sectarianism introduced into an already sectarian education system, where yet more innocent and intellectually vulnerable children are to be segregated and educated separately in accordance with the religious beliefs of their parents. And of course McGrath prefers to rely on the old euphemisms of 'traditions, cultures and practices' when he really means privileged access for religion for purposes of indoctrination.

McGrath added that his solution would allow non-believing parents "to promote their own values."

A similar call was made by a Dundee Free Church of Scotland minister and director of an organisation called the Solas Centre for Public Christianity. The Reverend David Robertson has urged the government to allow secularists and the Churches to run their own state-funded schools, to ensure that parents are offered "real choice, real diversity and equality" and where secularists "have their schools, teaching their values and let the Churches return to a system where we run state-funded Christian schools."

Robertson's proposed solution points up additional problems. The National Secular Society maintains that schools should teach universal values, common to all regardless of what any parent believes or doesn't believe about the supernatural. An education system that teaches different sets of values to different sets of children cannot possibly lead to a safer, happier and more integrated world.

Robertson's church has been one of the most ardent and high-profile critics of equal rights for gay people and same-sex marriage, occasionally rivalling the now disgraced Cardinal O'Brien in its splenetic outpourings. Robertson himself wrote a book to challenge the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, arguing from essentially a biblical creationist perspective. One wonders what values would be taught in his Christian schools about the role of women in society, or a woman's right to control her own body, or evolution or the rights of gay people. No doubt there would be more Islamic, Sikh and Hindu schools in Scotland too, and thus even more religious sectarianism and competing values, with the 'diversity' on offer being little more than further segregated and isolated communities running parallel with segregated after-school activities such as scout groups.

In an interesting aside to this debate, there are independent schools in Scotland run by the Focus Learning Trust, a front for the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church and which claims its schools "are committed to values that are based on the Holy Bible" and uphold "fundamental Christian teachings and beliefs" and "the truth and authority of the Holy Bible." Yet the Trust also states on its web site that while its schools are registered as Independent Schools with a Special Religious Character, "no formal religious observances or services are held at the school. Current Affairs and Bible Studies programs are the responsibility of the community."

It is reasonable to ask why the Scottish Government is promoting Religious Observance in schools while a fundamentalist Christian sect doesn't bother with them and sees them – rightly, as it happens – as the responsibility of family and community outwith the school day and life.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the secular petitions currently lodged in the administrative processes of government is Scotland, two things are clear. One, whether examining the denominational or non-denominational school system in Scotland, both petitions draw attention to the fact that schools have been turned into pulpits and churches, while secularists would argue that schools should be for teaching, not preaching. Two, both petitions have managed to force the religious to reveal their own take on the purpose and nature of Scotland's education system – to be a playground for sectarianism, discrimination, segregation and indoctrination. Or should that be "real choice, real diversity and equality?"

Reaction to Woking parking challenge reveals national implications

Reaction to Woking parking challenge reveals national implications

Opinion | Thu, 13 Jun 2013

By Terry Sanderson

There has been some interesting reaction to our challenge to Woking Borough Council's policy of providing free parking for worshippers in the town.

The Kentish Gazette, for instance, revealed that there is also subsidised parking for worshippers:

Churchgoers in Canterbury, Herne Bay and Whitstable, and Quakers in Faversham, can buy a £30-a-year worshippers' permit, which allows them free parking in the nearest car park to their church during services," The paper reported.

Canterbury City Council has offered worshippers' permits since 2001, with 250 people currently signed up. Permit holders must gain a minister's signature in support of their application.

Spokesman Rob Davies said: "We review the range of permits we offer and their cost each year, and the worshippers' permit will be looked at again in the autumn as part of the annual parking review. We are aware of the test case in Woking and will follow what happens."

Canterbury Cathedral spokesman Lisa Emanuel says it will not comment until the outcome of the case, only choosing to say: "We are grateful for the support that we receive from Canterbury City Council."

The Kentish Gazette then followed this up with an editorial, which reads as follows:

Cheap parking is not a divine right

Churches across Canterbury and Faversham will be keeping a close eye on the campaign to overturn special parking permits for worshippers.

The National Secular Society's (NSS) claim against Woking Borough Council to get rid of the 'pray and display' scheme could have major consequences for our churchgoers.

Last month, the Church of England said attendances at services was stabilising after years of decline - although in Canterbury they have decreased.

Could losing the perk of subsidised parking sound the death knell for city churches, with congregations opting not to pay the weekend charges in the same way shoppers do for time in the city?

One point the NSS does make, which is hard to argue against, is the thousands and thousands of pounds in lost revenue councils are foregoing to run the worshippers' scheme.

Whether you are religious or not, surely it is plain to see any income the council can generate is crucial at a time when the economy is flat lining and the shoots of recovery are not forthcoming.

Maybe this case could lead to a watershed in Canterbury where worshippers lose the divine right to cheap parking and the prayers for more money in the council coffers are answered.

Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Evening Post, carried a letter from Mr Michael Sargood of Meanwood. It reads:

In the past few weeks I have had the misfortune of attending services at Leeds Cathedral with my well-intending partner. On both occasions, the congregation has been encouraged to sign petitions.

The first was in opposition to the proposed removal of a whopping £800,000 of entirely discretionary funding by the Leeds council taxpayer to ship children the length and breadth of the city so that they can attend a faith school of their parents' preference, when they have perfectly good non-faith schools on their doorstep. This represents a staggering five per cent of Leeds's entire home-to-school transport budget and could pay for over 25 much-needed teachers.

As such funding is not available to accommodate other parental preferences – such as sending their child to a sports college or a school with academy status or the proposed change would simply level the playing field for non-believers.

The second petition was in opposition to the introduction of Sunday parking fees in Leeds. Again, where Sunday parking fees have been introduced in other parts of the country in recent months, notably in Woking, the local churches have been successful in securing exemption for their congregations. This, despite the fact that Sunday shoppers pump money into the economy while worshippers merely take a free biscuit and sip of wine and promptly leave. Surely, everyone should pay or no-one should.

Why must these wealthy institutions – which claim to stand for fairness – constantly plead for special treatment and dispensations? And more importantly, why do we so often pander to them?

This pleading has been all too clearly exemplified at a national level too, with churches making aggressive demands for exemption from teaching about gay marriage in their schools and exemption from equality laws in their recruitment, notably of female clergy.

I hope that our councillors have the courage to resist pressure from these self-interested private members clubs and that taxpayers are not asked to subsidise others' faith.

Meanwhile, churchgoers in Edinburgh are also lobbying for concessions.

Read this week's Newsline in full (PDF)

NSS Speaks Out

Keith Porteous Wood was on BBC Radio Ulster talking about the Woking parking challenge. Terry Sanderson was quoted in the Times in relation to the amount of religion on the BBC (subscription).

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