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Newsline 16 June 2017

Tim Farron's decision to stand down as Lib Dem leader and widespread public hostility to the Government's deal with the DUP creationists again demonstrates that religion and politics don't mix well.

Secularism defends the right to practise a religion but insists that governments makes rational and secular policy decisions, without reference to anyone's interpretation of Holy Scripture. The need for a secular approach to politics in Britain's pluralistic society is clear. If you support our work for the separation of religion and state and equal respect for everyone's human rights, please make a donation today – and we'll put your principles into action.

Was Tim Farron a secularist?

Was Tim Farron a secularist?

Opinion | Thu, 15 Jun 2017

Tim Farron was a classic secularist, but found himself unable to reconcile his personal faith and his party's socially liberal positions and made his own choice, argues Terry Sanderson.

So, does the former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron now join the ranks of the "persecuted Christians" that some elements of the evangelical Christian movement in this country insist is growing? Was he hounded out of his position because of anti-Christian bigotry?

Or did the bigotry that characterises his brand of conservative Christianity make him a totally unsustainable leader of a liberal political party?

Brian Paddick, the LibDem front bencher in the House of Lords couldn't take Mr Farron's contradictory stance on the issues of homosexuality and abortion, and resigned yesterday. Within hours, Mr Farron, too, had stepped down as party leader.

Mr Farron, in his resignation statement, said: "The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. A better, wiser person may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to remain faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment. To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithful to the Bible's teaching has felt impossible for me."

But he also asserted that society is not liberal if it cannot tolerate a man of faith as a party leader.

These developments will come as blessed relief to many Lib Dems. If reaction on social media is anything to go by, there will be dancing in the streets by some.

In one way it is clear cut. Mr Farron was trying to juggle two entirely contradictory points of view.

His Christianity is obviously extremely important to him but he insisted that at no time would he attempt to impose it on anyone else. Other evangelical Christians (some of whom, as Farron admits, are in parliament) spend their whole time trying to enforce their own biblical view of the world on to other people. Some of them have entered parliament for that express purpose.

In another way we, as secularists, are charged to respect people's freedom of religion, their right to worship and believe whatever they want. On that basis Mr Farron was a secularist – he said he supported the party's pro- disestablishment stance and policy of ending discriminatory admissions to 'faith schools'. He thought he could be a Christian and not let that intrude into his politics.

He has now discovered that such hefty contradictions are impossible to sustain. His religious beliefs and his political beliefs inevitably collided, and when the time came for him to make a choice, he chose Jesus.

At least that is honest, and Mr Farron should be respected for that.

But he was not hounded out of the leadership by his party alone. The public saw Mr Farron's conflicted conscience clearly on display during the election campaign. They didn't like it. The LibDems faltered at a time when they should have been resurgent.

Whether Mr Farron's apparently reformed political views were perceived by the electorate as insincere we won't know. Whether such a perception influenced potential voters, we also won't ever know.

The British people are less and less inclined to support overt religion in politics. You can see this in the reaction to Mrs May's proposed arrangement with the DUP, a party of extreme religious conviction. We do not want this sanctimonious sectarianism – so destructive in Northern Ireland - introduced on to the mainland. We do not want the illiberal views of Arlene Foster and her creationist crew to intrude into our lives in any way.

Of course, the Prime Minister herself could one day find herself in a similar bind to that of Tim Farron. She, too, is an overt Christian, repeatedly informing us that she is the daughter of a vicar, repeatedly being filmed going to church on Sunday, as though to suggest some kind of superior moral standing, but then claiming that Christians are somehow discouraged from speaking out about their faith. On the contrary, it sometimes seems that some Christians in politics don't know when to shut up.

But this idea that Christians are being somehow silenced and side-lined because they don't have universal approval is itself intolerant. Why shouldn't those who don't like religion be able to say so? Respect has to be earned, it can't be imposed by divine right. If a Christian or a Muslim or any other religious figure behaves in an admirable way, he or she will gain admiration. But it cannot be assumed that admiration and respect will follow simply because that individual has a religious belief. Those days are long gone.

Ipsos MORI conducted a poll in 2012 among those who had identified themselves Christian in the preceding year's census. It found that: 73% strongly agree or tend to agree that religion should not have a special influence on public policy. 78% say Christianity would have no, or not very much, influence on how they vote in general elections.

The British Social Attitudes Survey of 2010 found that 75% of those questioned believed their religious leaders should not try to influence their voting behaviour. 67% believe religious leaders should stay out of government decision making. 45% of Britons believe that the involvement of religious leaders would have a deleterious effect on policy.

More pertinently, 73% of respondents believe that 'people with very strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant of others'. This view was held by 82% of people who class themselves as non-religious, and 63% of those who consider themselves religious.

This does not bode well for Mrs May's appeal to the intolerant DUP.

We have seen previous clashes between religion and politics. Ruth Kelly, who was a minister in Tony Blair's Government, kept secret her involvement with the sinister and extremist Catholic organisation, Opus Dei. She had been allowed to miss votes on social policy that were part of the Labour Party's manifesto but which clashed with her own religious convictions. In a free parliamentary vote on 20 May 2008, Kelly voted for cutting the upper limit for abortions from 24 to 12 weeks, along with two other Catholic cabinet ministers Des Browne and Paul Murphy. She opposed lowering the age of consent for homosexuality, as well as voting against placing children with homosexuals for adoption. Out of fourteen votes during the Blair government surrounding the political issues of homosexuality, Ruth Kelly had only attended two.Once her religious allegiances were exposed and it was clear that they were being put ahead of the Party's interests – particularly as she was a minister - she had to resign.

Tony Blair's Catholicism, on the other hand, was also kept concealed until after he left Downing Street, but it did not seem to impede in any way the Party's reformist agenda. In that sense, Blair was a secularist in that his religion and his politics were always separated. "We don't do God", as Alistair Campbell so famously put it. What he meant was, "Mr Blair doesn't do God in parliament, but at home he does".

That approach would be acceptable to any secularist. But those politicians who feel it is their religious duty to promote the teachings of their faith above the wishes of their constituents, should be honest and transparent with those who have elected them. They should also be challenged.

The National Secular Society will continue to be vigilant with the new parliament intake. And, if the surveys are correct, the people who elected them will too.

Terry Sanderson is the president of the National Secular Society. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS. You can follow Terry on Twitter @TerrySanderson4

Supreme Court rules NI women don’t have equal right to abortion services in England

Supreme Court rules NI women don’t have equal right to abortion services in England

News | Wed, 14 Jun 2017

In a three/two decision, the UK Supreme Court has ruled that UK citizens normally resident in Northern Ireland do not have a right to free abortion services from NHS England on the same basis as other UK citizens.

Abortion ruling is a missed opportunity to recognise the disparity in women’s reproductive health rights across the UK

Abortion ruling is a missed opportunity to recognise the disparity in women’s reproductive health rights across the UK

Opinion | Thu, 15 Jun 2017

Ensuring that NHS abortion services are made available, free of charge, to UK citizens travelling from Northern Ireland would be a way of mitigating the harm caused by a disparity in women's reproductive health rights across the UK, argues Dr Antony Lempert.

This week's disappointing Supreme Court ruling that women from Northern Ireland are not entitled to free access to abortions on the NHS is a wasted opportunity to recognise the disparity in women's reproductive health rights across the UK and to mitigate the harm.

On mainland UK, women are allowed to have an abortion only if they satisfy the requirements of the 1967 abortion Act which includes requiring two doctors to make the treatment decision on women's bodies.

In Northern Ireland, where religion and politics are deeply intertwined, the 1967 Act doesn't apply; instead there is a collusion of religious conservatism across the religio-political divide.

The number of legal abortions in the province has always been very low and most recently was measured at just 15 per year. The situation is so dire that in November 2015 the Belfast High Court ruled that the law was in breach of international human rights laws by not even permitting a pregnancy to be terminated in cases of rape, incest or serious foetal abnormalities.

Back-street abortions or unsupervised internet-procured drugs for medical abortions can be risky; sympathetic doctors in Northern Ireland who support internationally recognised human rights standards face the very real prospect of prosecution and jail for their efforts.

Everybody, irrespective of the prevailing regional religion, should have the basic human right to determine what happens to their own body. If the Protestant and Catholic unity in this regard is so strong that legislators can't see their way to allowing women autonomy within the province, then at the very least those women who travel to mainland UK should not be further penalised by being denied equal access to health services on the mainland.

That's why we'll be writing to the Prime Minister and the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales calling on them to ensure that NHS abortion services are made available, free of charge, to women travelling from Northern Ireland.

Dr Antony Lempert is chair of the NSS's Secular Medical Forum. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Scottish care provider’s decision to drop faith test should prompt a rethink over equality exceptions

Scottish care provider’s decision to drop faith test should prompt a rethink over equality exceptions

Opinion | Tue, 13 Jun 2017

When religious organisations are delivering state-funded public services they should neither discriminate nor proselytize – argues Stephen Evans, looking at the case of CrossReach and its implications.

The decision of The Church of Scotland this week to ditch its policy of barring non-Christians from non-managerial posts at its social care service may be a step in the right direction, but again highlights some of the problems that occur when religious organisations become involved in the provision of public services.

The social care provider CrossReach (previously known as the Church of Scotland Board of Social Responsibility) has agreed to drop its insistence that all employees be practising Christians, not because it now realises that such discrimination is wrong in principle, but because it is facing a recruitment crisis and can't find enough Christians to fill the posts.

Such employment discrimination is only possible in the first place because the law allows employers to make certain exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination where a job has genuine 'occupational requirement' (GOR).

Until now, being Christian has been deemed an 'occupational requirement' for all 2,000 staff working for CrossReach, which provides support to some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland.

But now, amid a recruitment crisis, the care provider says it no longer believes that the requirement for all care and support staff to be Christian is a 'proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim".

But if being a Christian isn't a job requirement now, why was this discriminatory policy against non-Christians ever necessary in the first place?

CrossReach, which will still require managerial and supervisory post-holders to be of the 'correct' faith, will point to its Christian ethos and the fact that it "offers services in Christ's name to people in need as part of the Church's mission".

But most of CrossReach's annual expenditure of £51 million comes from local authorities and it's reasonable to expect that our public services are underpinned by principles of equality and a respect for the rights and dignity of the individual service user. As a leader piece in this week's Herald points out, "the recipient of care is unlikely to be too concerned about their helper's religion".

The decision to continue to apply a faith test for managers and supervisors creates not so much a glass ceiling as one of reinforced concrete to non-Christian care staff, regardless of however much their performance merits promotion. This sort of state funded religious discrimination should have no place in modern public service provision.

Social action by faith-based organisations has contributed enormously to the welfare of our society, but where religious organisations join others in delivering public services, surely it isn't too much to ask for them do so without discriminating against their employees or proselytising when delivering that service.

The decision by CrossReach to drop its policy requiring social care staff to be Christians should prompt a review of the overly wide exceptions that also allow faith schools to discriminate on religious grounds when taking on new staff.

Currently, otherwise suitably qualified teachers can be discriminated against in a third of all publicly funded schools. Equality Act exemptions permit faith schools to apply a religious test in appointing, remunerating and promoting teachers, including head teachers. In voluntary controlled schools, up to one fifth of positions (including since 2006 the headteacher) can be 'reserved'. But over three fifths of faith schools follow the voluntary aided model, in which every teaching and leadership position can potentially be the subject of a religious test.

The Catholic Church would presumably prefer to have an exclusively Catholic teaching staff in the schools it runs - this is afterall the reason they lobbied for the ability to apply a faith test to all positions in the first place. Just 8.3% of the adult population in England and Wales identify as Catholic and in reality there simply aren't enough Catholic teachers to fill all of England's 2142 state-funded Catholic schools with practising Catholics, but the fact that 51% of teachers in Catholic schools are Catholic demonstrates that there is a fair amount of unjustifiable preferential treatment going on. After all, just how Catholic do you need to be to teach English, maths, science, history, geography, modern foreign languages – or even religious education for that matter?

It's clear that religious groups have too much freedom to discriminate. The exemptions they have under British equality law must be narrowed.

“Glastonbury of Freethinkers”: conference on freedom of conscience and expression

“Glastonbury of Freethinkers”: conference on freedom of conscience and expression

Opinion | Mon, 12 Jun 2017

Saturday 22 – Monday 24 July will see activists from around the world gather for a weekend of discussions and debates on freedom of conscience and expression in the 21st century. Maryam Namazie tells us why it is such an important event.

Atheists and freethinkers are targeted by Islamists and religious-Right movements across the globe. Despite the brutal attacks, blasphemy and apostasy laws are often legitimised. Even where no such laws exist, there is a chorus of voices insisting that freedom of expression and conscience have limits, particularly when it comes to Islam. "Hurt" sensibilities are almost always deemed more important than threats, intimidation, censorship, violence and even murder. And victims are blamed whilst perpetrators pose as victims.

The International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression in the 21 Century organised by One Law for All and Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (marking its tenth anniversary) - and sponsored by the National Secular Society, Richard Dawkins Foundation and others - aims to bring together the largest international gathering of ex-Muslims and freethinkers as a show of strength to reaffirm the right to think and live outside the confines imposed by religion and the religious-Right.

Key issues such as women's resistance, the veil, religious morality, religion in the law and state, identity politics, communalism and multiculturalism, Islamophobia, LGBT rights and secularism will be discussed by distinguished atheists and freethinkers primarily from the "Muslim world".

Many of the speakers are on the frontlines of the tsunami of atheism and freethought that has taken hold of societies under Islamist influence with social media doing to Islam what the printing press has done to Christianity.

Speakers include: Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Egyptian Nude Photo Revolutionary; Bonya Ahmed, a published author and moderator at the renowned Bangladeshi Mukto-mona blog begun by the murdered blogger Avijit Roy; Filmmaker Deeyah Khan who recently produced 'Islam's Non Believers'; Fauzia Ilyas who founded Atheist Agnostic Alliance Pakistan; Egyptian founder of Black Ducks Ismail Mohamed who was the first Egyptian to publicly announce his atheism on national TV; Mazen Abou Hamden, co-Founder of Freethought Lebanon; Mohammed AlKhadra, Founder of Jordanian Atheists Group; Nadia ElFani, Tunisian Filmmaker accused of blasphemy; Rana Ahmed who anonymously held an "Atheist" sign in Mecca; Performance artist Shabana Rehman who is known for Mullah-lifting; Waleed Al Husseini, writer arrested by the Palestinian Authority for blasphemy; Zehra Pala, President of Atheism Association of Turkey, the first legally recognised Atheist Organisation and Zineb El Rhazoui, a Morocco-born former columnist for Charlie Hebdo who was away when the publication's office was attacked and many of her colleagues murdered. They are the suffragettes, the anti-[gender] apartheid and civil rights leaders, the anti-fascist resistance of our times.

When dissenters continue to be threatened, silenced, no-platformed, intimidated and even killed for rejecting and criticising Islam, a celebration of apostasy, blasphemy and the free word are historical tasks.

The conference will highlight and honour dissenters such as the Bangladeshi bloggers; Raif Badawi sentenced to 10 years in prison for blogging and Ahmad Al-Shamri sentenced to death for atheism in Saudi Arabia; ex-Muslim atheist H Farook hacked to death in India; 21 year old Sina Dehghan sentenced to death for "insulting the prophet" in Iran; Ayaz Nizami and Rana Noman arrested on blasphemy charges and 23 year old Mashal Khan lynched by a mob at his university in Pakistan …

The gathering – labelled the "Glastonbury of Freethinkers" – will stand out, loud and proud to remind the world that the freedom of conscience and expression are also for those who reject and criticise religion and the religious-Right. And that the demand for these freedoms are universal.

For more information on the conference, visit www.secularconference.com. Get your tickets now and support today's suffragettes, civil rights leaders, anti- [gender] apartheid heroes, and the anti-fascist resistance. Please note that no tickets will be sold at the door.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author (@MaryamNamazie) and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

Leaders claim freedom of religion is unaffected after Samoa becomes a “Christian state”

Leaders claim freedom of religion is unaffected after Samoa becomes a “Christian state”

News | Thu, 15 Jun 2017

The island nation Samoa has amended its constitution to proclaim itself a "Christian state".

People of faith should be welcome in politics – but religion is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card

People of faith should be welcome in politics – but religion is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin - Left Foot Forward

People of all faiths and none contribute to our politics and society. But in a secular democracy, faith isn't a get out of jail free card. If your faith is at odds with the policies of your party, then voters are entitled to question how you align the two.

In defense of secularism: Learn from thy enemy, shun racism and sectarianism

In defense of secularism: Learn from thy enemy, shun racism and sectarianism

Ahmad Al-Sarraf - The Arab Times

Why secular democracies protect religious pluralism: they don't care about the beliefs of other people or their religions. Secularism is not considered infidelity or heresy or degradation or disintegration, but means freedom of belief and non-interference of the state in the religious practices of citizens and residents.

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