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Newsline 16 May 2014

Newsline is a weekly round-up of news and opinion from the NSS website. If you're not already a member, becoming one is the most tangible way of supporting our work. Our campaigning is wholly supported by our members, people like you who share our belief that secularism is an essential element in promoting equality between all citizens. Please join today.

The Law Society should stay out of the theology business

The Law Society should stay out of the theology business

Opinion | Tue, 13 May 2014

Sadikur Rahman, of the Lawyers' Secular Society, argues that the Law Society's response to criticism of its sharia guidance misses the point that the society has gone beyond its mandate and given credibility to discriminatory practices.

The Law Society's response of 8 May 2014 to the LSS's open letter of 24 April 2014 concerning the practice note on "Sharia succession rules" is, it seems, to simply ignore the criticism and protests and to bury its head in the sand about the misogynistic and discriminatory nature of its guidance. The Law Society has also chosen to ignore virtually all the questions the LSS had asked, including key questions about the Public Sector Equality Duty.

The LSS (and many other campaigners) have always made it clear we are not challenging the English law concept of testamentary freedom, and so the repeated (correct) argument by the Law Society that people are free to do what they want in their wills is really a moot point. Frankly, it's getting boring now. The LSS has always focused on the fact that the Law Society's guidance gives legitimacy and credibility to discriminatory practices and to sharia law more generally, because this guidance comes from a respectable organisation which the legal profession, and the wider public, are entitled to trust.

The Law Society believes that in publishing this guidance it is not promoting or endorsing sharia law, or Mohammed Al Jibaly for that matter. The Law Society claims it is simply explaining the law on wills and sharia law. In fact it does even state in its response that "there is no such thing as 'Sharia Law'", and so it does encouragingly acknowledge, at least, that sharia law has no basis in English law. But as the LSS statement of yesterday said, this begs the question even more: why give guidance on it?

Given the Law Society's response I think it's important to direct people to the actual guidance rather than all the numerous articles since its publication. People can then see for themselves the reason this guidance has caused so much public outrage.

Section 3 is titled "Drafting a Sharia compliant will". It states:

"In order to prepare a Sharia compliant will, you need to understand how the estate is applied under Sharia succession rules.

  • First, the cost of the burial and any debts are paid.
  • Secondly, a third of the estate may be given to charities or individuals who are not obligatory heirs.
  • Finally, the remainder is given to a defined set of 'primary' and then 'residual' heirs".

Section 3.6 is titled "Drafting techniques and amending precedent clauses". It states:

"Certain principles of Sharia are different to English succession laws. For example, it is not possible to inherit under Sharia rules via a deceased relative. No distinction is made between children of different marriages, but illegitimate and adopted children are not Sharia heirs.

"The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class. Non-Muslims may not inherit at all, and only Muslim marriages are recognised. Similarly, a divorced spouse is no longer a Sharia heir, as the entitlement depends on a valid Muslim marriage existing at the date of death.

"This means you should amend or delete some standard will clauses. For example, you should consider excluding the provisions of s33 of the Wills Act 1837 because these operate to pass a gift to the children of a deceased 'descendent'. Under Sharia rules, the children of a deceased heir have no entitlement, although they can benefit from the freely disposable third.

"Similarly, you should amend clauses which define the term 'children' or 'issue' to exclude those who are illegitimate or adopted. The burial clause should also specify whether the deceased wishes to be buried in accordance with Sharia rules".

It is quite clear from the headings and the text that this is more than simply an explanation. The guidance is specifically advising solicitors how to draft a document in accordance with a specific interpretation of sharia law. Furthermore, given the above, consider whether the following statements from the Law Society's letter make any sense whatsoever:

"We have been transparent about the source material because we recognise that there is no such thing as "Sharia Law". The law of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or any other country whose law reflects Islamic values is based on different interpretations of Sharia principles.

"Naturally we would be happy to consider other available guidance on Sharia succession rules.

"Our approach to the guidance does not seek to offer opinions on faith based systems of law or secular based systems. We simply seek to assist our members in properly advising on this aspect of the law of England and Wales."

If the Law Society acknowledges there is no such thing as sharia law (I'm sure many Islamic scholars might beg to differ) then why exactly is it giving guidance on something that doesn't even exist as a legal concept? Perhaps the Law Society means there is no uniform "sharia law". In that case why is the guidance it has chosen to publish one that is based on the most discriminatory and patriarchal interpretation, supported by reference to the work of a writer, Mohammed Al Jibaly, who holds disturbing views (see paragraph 9 of the LSS letter of 24 April 2014)? The Law Society says it is not endorsing Al Jibaly's book, but what is the reasonable reader supposed to conclude when he or she sees this book specifically referenced in the practice note? Whatever the Law Society says, its judgment in referencing this book in the first place, and then subsequently defending its inclusion after the LSS had pointed out Al Jibaly's disturbing views, is highly questionable.

The Law Society states that its guidance "does not offer an opinion on faith based systems of law", when it has clearly done so. Indeed it is a Sunni interpretation. This is stated in the guidance itself and is also reflected in the fact that some sharia law experts say you can use the freely disposable third to equalise the shares for women, whereas this guidance specifically states that this is not possible. So perhaps it is not only secularists who should be outraged, but Muslim groups as well, on the basis their own alternative interpretations haven't been catered for.

Since there are a multitude of interpretations, why bother to focus on only one interpretation? Perhaps it would be interesting to know who lobbied for this guidance. Unfortunately the Law Society has chosen not to tell the LSS who the "sharia law experts" who produced this guidance were, even though the LSS specifically asked this question.

The Law Society seems to be suggesting in its letter that it would be open to producing further sharia guidance in the future ("Naturally we would be happy to consider other available guidance on Sharia succession rules"). This "keep everyone happy" approach is a dangerous game to play. The Law Society might decide to issue what it perceives as non-discriminatory sharia guidance. In some ways this would be even more harmful than the discriminatory guidance it has produced because it would create a wholly misleading impression that sharia law is benign and that it treats men and women equally. We know this is not the case. The only acceptable thing for the Law Society to do is to leave the business of theology to theologians. As my LSS colleague Charlie Klendjian noted in his protest speech, to the extent the Law Society has any role to play in sharia law it is to call attention to the legal harm it creates. If the Law Society is not willing to do this, is it too much to ask that it just stays out of the theology business completely?

The only sensible thing in their response is that the Law Society acknowledges sharia law has no legal basis. We already knew that, though. It's a simple statement of fact. The LSS's complaint was always that the decision to issue this guidance gives sharia law the credibility of a legal discipline, and legitimises and endorses it. For the Law Society to say it is not endorsing sharia law ignores the influence practice notes have, and the influence the Law Society has. The LSS's concern is that although sharia law may not at present have any basis in English law, this guidance helps it to become an acceptable part of the legal and wider social landscape, because it helps it achieve crucial respectability. It enables it to become a de facto legal discipline.

The Law Society's analogy in its letter to gay/lesbian rights is particularly poor. There is a massive difference in simply stating that there was discrimination against gays and lesbians before civil partnerships, and actually advising people on how to discriminate. I'd be interested to see any historic guidance from the Law Society that advised lawyers specifically how to discriminate against gay and lesbian people. The analogy is also poor because there was previously in fact unequal legal treatment of gays and lesbians, whereas the sharia guidance the Law Society has produced effectively turns the clock back on a legal battle that has more or less been won in legal terms in this jurisdiction: equal legal treatment for women, for people of all faiths and none, for adopted children and for "illegitimate" children.

I am thoroughly disappointed and saddened that the Law Society has decided to keep its guidance. It is a slap in the face to all those organisations and individuals, Muslim and non-Muslim, who have protested so vociferously. The Law Society has chosen to enter a theological debate, which by definition is not within its remit, and it has produced blatantly discriminatory advice.

I recognise that guidance is only guidance, but in that case why give guidance that doesn't cater for people who might want, say, a Sharia compliant will? This is not to suggest that the Law Society should offer guidance on Sharia wills, or Jewish wills, or Protestant wills, or Mormon wills, or Scientology wills, but to hit home the point of how ridiculous it is for the Law Society to enter the business of theology at all, and how this completely undermines the idea of a secular legal system. It certainly is not one law for all.

Sadikur Rahman is a member of the Lawyers' Secular Society. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

Big changes for religious reporting

Big changes for religious reporting

News | Thu, 15 May 2014

The BBC has announced that it is replacing its present religious affairs correspondent, Robert Pigott, with Caroline Wyatt who is currently its defence correspondent.

Pigott has been covering the BBC's religion mandate for ten years and from July joins the pool of general reporters. He will cover the General Synod debate on women bishops as his last assignment in the job.

Caroline Wyatt has been BBC defence correspondent since 2007. She also covered the 2003 invasion ofIraq, joining British troops on the ground there. She has also been the BBC'sMoscowcorrespondent.

Ms Wyatt has been told to be "ambitious" in her new brief, "covering religion, faith and ethics at home and abroad".

She told the BBC's in-house magazine Ariel: "I'm really looking forward to exploring the religious faultlines around the globe, looking at the challenges posed at home and abroad by religious extremism, and covering the beliefs and ethics of the billions of people of different faiths around the world.

"I'm also keen to explore the scientific debate over religion and the nature of belief, and reflect on what religion means to people in the UK and elsewhere."

She told the magazine that she wanted to show religion in all its aspects – positive and negative – "how it can be harnessed for great good, but also be used to divide nations and communities, sometimes with terrible consequences".

Wyatt will hold the same religious affairs correspondent title as Pigott, rather than that of religious affairs editor - a title that would carry more authority. The Church of England called for such a position in 2010, when it said there was a need for "a recognised expert to bring greater co-ordination and depth to the corporation's religious output across all channels". The BBC has resisted that demand.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: "This is welcome news. It sounds as though Caroline Wyatt will have a much more balanced approach to religion than Robert Pigott and is likely to be far more realistic about it."

Mr Sanderson said that over the years Robert Pigott had produced some of the most unbalanced reports he had seen on the BBC news. "Look at the last one over the recent 'Britain-is-a-Christian-nation" debate which is totally skewed, giving any opposition only a passing reference and almost all the time to making Christian propaganda."

Mr Sanderson said that Pigott had managed to report the NSS's council prayers court case without including any spokesperson from the NSS in his TV news packages.

On a similar theme, The Times has scrapped the post of religious affairs correspondent, ending the 27-year long tenure of Ruth Gledhill. The Times was the last national newspaper to have a reporter dedicated solely to religious matters.

Commenting in the Catholic magazine, The Tablet, Clifford Longley, who is a former religious affairs correspondent for both The Times and The Daily Telegraph, said: "In the case of newspapers, they will continue to report on religion though less of it. In a subject of considerable complexity rife with public misunderstanding, expertise is no longer, by and large, thought necessary. That is itself an insidious kind of secular judgement - that making a mess of the coverage of religion is now a risk the media is prepared to run because the subject doesn't matter any more."

See also: BBC's review of breadth of opinion - NSS response

Embedded religious privilege triumphs on Scottish education issues

Embedded religious privilege triumphs on Scottish education issues

Opinion | Mon, 12 May 2014

National Secular Society's spokesperson for Scotland, Alistair McBay, argues that the Scottish Parliament has helped entrench religious privilege in the country's education system.

Tuesday 6 May was a busy day in the Scottish Parliament which saw a triumph for embedded religious privilege in the country's sectarian education system.

Two secular petitions were heard by the Education and Culture Committee of the Scottish Government. The first, submitted by the Scottish Secular Society, sought to change required religious observance (RO) in Scottish state schools from a parental opt-out to an opt-in basis. The Committee rejected the petition, but did urge the Scottish Government to see that parents were better advised of the right to opt-out their children. They also advised that schools should make better provision of 'meaningful' alternatives for those opted out. This was a predictable cop-out by the Committee and will have come as welcome news to religious interests in Scotland, although it was to be expected given the Scottish Government's now reaffirmed support for RO in schools.

Here is an example of why the decision was never going to be anything else, in spite of some excellent campaigning for change. A report submitted by the NSS to Education Scotland last year stated that in our view the present guidance issued by the Scottish Government in 2011 betrayed four underlying beliefs:

Now consider in this context this paragraph from this current guidance to schools, which at Tuesday's hearing the Scottish Government said remained 'relevant and up-to-date":

"Scottish Government Ministers consider that religious observance complements religious education and is an important contribution to pupils' development. It should also have a role in promoting the ethos of a school by bringing pupils together and creating a sense of community. Schools are therefore encouraged to inform parents of this without applying pressure to change their minds.

This is a clear endorsement of RO as an essential element to religious education, positively underpinning the creation of a school ethos with the need for all pupils to participate in confessional religious experiences. In effect the only RO experience children get in Scotland is of a Christian variety – Protestant in non-denominational schools, Catholic in Catholic schools. No explanation is offered as to why such an experience is necessary to create 'a sense of community', nor why creating a sense of community without it is impossible. The so-called encouragement to schools 'to inform parents of this (essential ethos element) without applying pressure to change their minds'is clearly intended to play a guilt-trip on parents, that by withdrawing their children from RO (regardless of whether they opt-out or don't opt in) they will be undermining the very ethos of the school. What parent would want to be singled out as being responsible for that? As the NSS has also demonstrated, it is no longer simply a case of a child being withdrawn from a formal RO assembly setting. With RO to be practised in a wider range of school activities beyond the 'most common vehicle' of the school assembly, it becomes very difficult for pupils to be withdrawn on every RO occasion. No doubt this is also a desirable outcome from the current guidance.

So let's not hold our breath as to how these revised guidelines will be phrased and implemented, given that the underlying belief of the Scottish Government is that RO is a good thing and must remain. It is not simply, as the chairman of the Education and Culture Committee stated, a case of parents being made fully aware of their rights. It is a case of the Scottish Government supporting what amounts to religious indoctrination in so-called non-denominational schools. And so we might reasonably ask if the revised guidance will alter the instruction to inform parents exercising their right to opt-out that RO is essential for a school ethos and community culture "without applying pressure to change their minds". In an interesting observation, the Committee quoted the Scottish Government as stating that a switch from a parental opt-out to an opt-in would not be 'helpful' to young learners. What does that mean, I wonder? If an opt-in was granted, might it mean that not enough parents would take up the option, such that Government's effort to promote indoctrination in schools to the maximum number of pupils would be diminished? Why are parents who exercise their right to opt their children out not being helpful to their children's learning process?

The Education and Culture Committee also disposed of the Edinburgh Secular Society petition. This sought to secure removal of the legal obligation on Scottish local authorities to accept the nomination of three external voting religious members to their education committees which are otherwise composed of elected councillors. The Committee convenor stated that since the Scottish Government had made known its opposition to changing this, so there was no point in pursuing it.

Should we be surprised? The Scottish Government was unlikely to consider any dilution of the embedded Christian privilege in the education system so soon after the same-sex marriage debate. There remains a large residual fury among Christian organisations in Scotland over the same-sex marriage consultation and its eventual passing on to the statute book. Even now Christians continue to misrepresent the Government same-sex marriage consultation as a referendum which ignored the wishes of the majority in Scotland. It remains a worry that, with an independence referendum and draft constitution awaited, there will be some sort of conciliatory offering to religious groups in the wake of the same-sex marriage legislation. Perhaps we are already seeing this in the dismissal of these two secular petitions. It must also be remembered that the Scottish Government counts both the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Catholic Church as key strategic partners. It is hardly likely to demonstrate this by emasculating them.

It mattered not in the consideration of the ESS petition that it drew support from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The EHRC pointed out to the Scottish Government that Section 149 of the Equality Act requires public authorities in Scotland to give due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation; advance equality of opportunity between different groups; and foster good relations between different groups. While the legislation concerning religious representatives predates these public sector equality duties, the Commission nevertheless believed an appropriate course of action for Scottish Ministers "may be to assess whether these provisions and the policies and practices which flow from them meet the requirement to give due regard to the three elements of the Equality Duty listed above."

Was this consideration given in the Scottish Government's decision-making process? If not, why not? And if so, on what basis was the EHRC advice rejected? Why was the responsible Scottish Government minister, Mike Russell MSP (coincidentally a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church) not called to the Committee to explain his reasons for dismissing the EHRC advice?

The issue will be raised again in the coming weeks, this time in the main Parliament chamber, in a private member's bill on transparency and accountability in Scottish local government being pursued by independent MSP John Finnie.

In conclusion then, May 6 2014 was a good day for the defence of unwarranted religious privilege in the Scottish education system, and a bad day for equality, democracy and community cohesion. While the Scottish Government is now aware of a growing body of objection to the influence of religious organisations in education, the churches and other faiths have also been alerted to this and any complacency in their ranks has been thoroughly dissipated. Their well-funded and resourced lobby machines will be redoubling their defensive efforts to continue to use Scotland's schools as pulpits. It seems, sadly, that they can count on the Scottish Government for support while continuing their tailspin of decline – currently the Church of Scotland has no fewer than 25 churches and church halls for sale.

NSS Speaks Out

Terry Sanderson took part in a debate at Nottingham Secular Society with the motion "All religions should embrace secularism". The debate was filmed and is available on YouTube. Campaigns manager Stephen Evans was quoted in the Sun on Sunday over concerns religious hardliners are involved with inspecting independent 'faith schools'.

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