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Newsline 19 May 2017

The three major parties have now released their manifestos for the General Election and you can read our analysis of them all below. What do they have to say on human rights, education, and extremism? We've picked through them all to bring you their comments on the issues that matter to secularists. Read on to see that and all of this week's news.

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What do the main parties have to say on secular issues?

What do the main parties have to say on secular issues?

Opinion | Thu, 18 May 2017

The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have all released their manifestos for the General Election. Read our analysis of what they say on issues from equality to human rights, Islamist extremism and education.

We'll continue to update this article as the other parties publish their manifestos.

Conservative Party

The Conservative Party manifesto states: "We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality."

One of the major injustices we deal with is parents facing religious discrimination when looking for a local taxpayer-funded school for their child. It isn't clear if the commitment to a "review of school admissions policy" will consider that.

The manifesto rightly states that in "too many parts of our country, we have communities that are divided, often along racial or religious lines" and it pledges a "new integration strategy". But worryingly the manifesto appears to roll back integration and inclusivity measures for faith schools, labelling these rules – and not the religiously (state and private) segregated schools that necessitate them – "unfair and ineffective".

The manifesto pledges to ensure schools with mon-ethnic/mono-cultural intakes "teach their students about pluralistic, British values and help them to get to know people with different ways of life."

Seemingly contradicting this aim, the manifesto pledges to open new 100% religiously selective faith schools. The new 'integration' measures designed to replace the current cap on religiously selective admissions are not effective. Requiring "new faith schools to prove that parents of other faiths and none would be prepared to send their children to that school" is a mockery, when those schools will be able to exclude those children.

The Conservatives say they "will push forward with our plan for tackling hate crime" committed on the basis of protected characteristics, and offer a welcome commitment to "strengthen the enforcement of equalities law – so that private landlords and businesses who deny people a service" on the basis of protected characteristics are "properly investigated and prosecuted".

They undertake to remain signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights for the "duration of the next parliament" and say they will not repeal or replace the Human Rights Act during the Brexit process.

The Conservative manifesto has several passages dealing with countering extremism "especially Islamist extremism", pledging to "to learn from how civil society and the state took on racism in the twentieth century". They propose a new 'Commission for Countering Extremism' as well as creating new criminal and aggravated offenses.

While the NSS shares the commitment to challenging extremism, we have concerns that 'extremism disruption orders', proposed several years ago, will chill free expression and can capture a whole range of views which are not dangerous or comparable to Islamist extremism.

The Party also promised to "expand our global efforts to combat extremism, terror, and the perpetration of violence against people because of their faith, gender or sexuality".

Read the full manifesto.

Labour Party

Labour commit to "enforce effective measures to prevent all forms of abuse, including female genital mutilation." There has never been a successful prosecution for FGM in the UK.

Labour commits to "review the Prevent programme with a view to assessing both its effectiveness and its potential to alienate minority communities." While many will have honestly-held concerns around Prevent, honest debate has been consistently undermined by myths and misinformation campaigns, often backed by those who would rather there was no counter-extremism programme whatsoever.

The Party says it will "address the government's failure to take any effective new measures against a growing problem of extreme or violent radicalisation." As mentioned, the proposed extremism disruption orders never surfaced from the Government, but the NSS is concerned that proposals from Labour or the Conservatives might result in measures that chill free speech with subjective definitions of 'extremism'.

On this point, the Party promises that new counter extremism powers will "not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties."

The Party plans to "build a society and world free from all forms of … Islamophobia." The NSS supports efforts to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry and all forms of sectarian hatred. However we (and many others) have criticised the unclear and much misused term 'Islamophobia'.

On equality law and hate crimes Labour says it "will bring the law on LGBT hate crimes into line with hate crimes based on race and faith, by making them aggravated offences" as well as supporting the Istanbul Convention and reporting responsibilities.

It says: "We need to celebrate the profound and enriching transformation brought by the diversity of people in this country".

Labour will "appoint dedicated global ambassadors for women's rights, LGBT rights and religious freedom to fight discrimination and promote equality globally." We are disappointed that the proposed ambassador for 'religious freedom' is not explicitly an ambassador for freedom of religion and belief.

The NSS would welcome such a role, provided they dealt with the closely related issues of religious freedom and freedom from religion. Around the world Christians, atheists and other religious and political minorities face persecution from theocratic regimes.

The plan to "extend the Freedom of Information Act to private companies that run public services" may help bring scrutiny where religious organisations are running public services.

Read the full manifesto.

Liberal Democrat Party

The LibDems offers a welcome promise to "outlaw caste discrimination." The late Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat peer and honorary associate of the NSS, was very active in our ongoing campaign to have caste discrimination explicitly outlawed in equality law.

They have also pledged to "Strengthen legal rights and obligations for couples by introducing mixed-sex civil partnerships and extending rights to cohabiting couples."

On education the Party will give local authorities "proper democratic control over admissions and new schools", something that has been weakened by academisation. There have been examples of local authorities being powerless to stop religious organisations running new or converted community schools.

It will also "repeal the rule that all new state-funded schools must be free schools or academies." The NSS has repeatedly raised concerns about the ways in which academisation can be used to drive the unwanted growth in faith school numbers.

However the Society questions the LibDem pledge to "Guarantee the freedom of people to wear religious or cultural dress". In almost all circumstances such a freedom rightly exists already, but there are many examples where this right is reasonably limited.

The LibDem spring conference backed the phasing out of religious discrimination in school admissions, an end to compulsory worship, and reform of religion and belief education – commitments missing from the manifesto.

Read the full manifesto.


Much of UKIP's manifesto is taken up with measures to combat Islamic fundamentalism.

The Party vows not to be intimidated by accusations of 'Islamophobia' and says that "mass uncontrolled immigration has opened the door to a host of people from cultures with little or no respect for women."

It laments the failure to successfully prosecute an FGM case and the manifesto vows to implement "a screening programme for girls identified to be at risk of FGM from birth to age sixteen, consisting of annual non-invasive physical check-ups".

Additional checks will be made on "at risk" girls when they return from countries where FGM is customary and calls for a mandatory minimum sentence of six years.

The Party will ban face coverings in public places and says, "There is no human right to conceal your identity."

UKIP promises to end Islamist extremism in schools and says "we must wake up to the reality that extremism is taking hold in our country."

Schools found to be exposing children to Islamism should be put into special measures by Ofsted, the Party says, and schools should dismiss teachers, staff and governors who support radical mosques or imams. UKIP also calls for and it would require Ofsted to conduct snap investigations of schools where "girls are being offered unequal access to music, dance, PE or drama lessons, or are otherwise discriminated against" or where anti-Semitic and hard-line views are expressed.

On radicalisation in prisons it says no prisoner should be given "perks" because of their faith, and it calls for prisons to refuse imams or preachers who promote "views contrary to British values".

Read the full manifesto here.

Green Party

The Greens say they will reject "the xenophobic Prevent strategy" and replace it will "community-led" and "collaborative approaches" to countering extremism.

They would bring academies and free schools under local authority control, and would abolish Ofsted.

They will implement a "strategy to tackle gender based violence" including FGM, but give no details in the manifesto.

The party says it will defend the Human Rights Act, and UK membership in the European Convention on Human Rights.

They also promise to tackle "discrimination on the basis of faith" and pledge "real equality for LGBTIQA+ people [and] equal rights for mixed gender couples to have a Civil Partnership."

Read the full manifesto.

National Secular Society: a manifesto for change

The NSS is a non-partisan organisation. Ahead of the snap General Election, we're writing to all major parties, calling on them to embrace a series of secular reforms, drawn from our recently published secular manifesto, that make society, our education system, and the law fairer for all.

You can view all of our recommendations in Rethinking religion and belief in public life: a manifesto for change and add your support.

The Catholic Church’s abuse scandal shows no sign of abating

The Catholic Church’s abuse scandal shows no sign of abating

Opinion | Mon, 15 May 2017

After forty years the Catholic Church is still more interested in protecting itself and its clerical culture than in truly eradicating child abuse, writes Richard Scorer.

"Organisational culture is a powerful force that guides decisions and actions. Leaders play a key role in defining organisational culture by what they say and what they do". These words come from the report by Professor Alexis Jay into the child grooming scandal in Rotherham. But they also go to the heart of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

Institutions which engage in groupthink, which suppress dissent, and which place loyalty to the institution above protection of children are likely to struggle to eradicate sex abuse.

For all the many reports, commissions and papal directives, the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church shows no sign of abating nearly 40 years after it first surfaced, and many Catholics are now asking whether the reason lies in deeply rooted aspects of the Church's culture. As the National Catholic Reporter concluded in an editorial in March 2017: "Something deeper is a play here". At the heart of the scandal, the editorial concluded, is "a resistance to change that is planted deep within the all-male clerical structure". After 40 years, this problem remains "largely unaddressed."

This fundamental cultural problem is no better illustrated than by the Catholic Church in Scotland. The Church there has been embroiled in scandal for many years; in 2013 this came to a head with allegations that Cardinal Keith O'Brien had engaged in predatory sexual harassment of young priests dating back to the 1980s, had operated a culture of sexual cronyism in his diocese, and had used the act of confession by young priests for the purposes of sexual grooming.

This was the same Cardinal O'Brien who had described homosexuality as "moral degradation" and claimed that same sex relationships were "demonstrably harmful", comments which had led to Stonewall awarding him the title of 'Bigot of the Year' in 2012. O'Brien initially contested the allegations, but eventually admitted that his sexual conduct had "fallen below the standards expected of a priest and cardinal".

O'Brien's hypocrisy – devastatingly chronicled by the Observer journalist Catherine Deveney – was so staggering that the affair was described by one leading historian as the "worst crisis to hit the Catholic Church in Scotland since the Reformation".

Of course, the sexual harassment of young priests was only one of several scandals over which O'Brien had presided: between 2006 and 2012, no fewer than 46 Catholic priests in Scotland were accused of sex abuse. In many cases it was alleged that abuse was covered up or ignored. Alan Draper, a respected child protection expert who worked for the Diocese of Motherwell for 7 years until 2003, but who was forced out after his advice was consistently ignored, pointed out that the annual audit of abuse claims promised by the Bishops in 1996 had never been delivered. The Bishops, said Draper, behaved like "kings in their castles accountable to nobody".

You would think that scandal of this magnitude would lead to profound soul searching and a comprehensive purging of the leadership which allowed it to happen. Yet although O'Brien announced his retirement in March 2013, his resignation was not formally accepted by Pope Francis until 2015, and he retains the title of Cardinal. Most of the other senior figures in the Scottish hierarchy have remained in post, although they cannot have been unaware of the widespread rumours about O'Brien's behaviour which circulated for many years.

The hierarchy's main response to the O'Brien scandal was to appoint Andrew McLellan, a Church of Scotland minister, to examine safeguarding in the Church. McLellan's report, released in 2015, was widely criticised as a whitewash. Kevin McKenna, a prominent Scottish journalist and a practising Catholic, complained that the report was "so soft and fluffy that it should have been delivered with a pink ribbon tied around it and pictures of Walt Disney characters on its cover". McLellan, he concluded, had been "used [as] a patsy by the Church hierarchy". Glance at the report, with its copious references to "Quality Assurance and Monitoring Procedures", and you can see what McKenna means. Crucially, the remit of the report did not include naming any guilty individuals or exposing wrongdoing at senior levels. (This is a standard feature of Catholic Church reports into clerical abuse scandals; the Nolan and Cumberlege commissions in England were similarly precluded from examining case studies).

Among McLellan's recommendations was better treatment of whistleblowers. But anyone wanting a clue as to the Scottish Catholic hierarchy's real attitude to whistleblowers in 2017 should consider the case of Father Matthew Despard. In 2010 Despard, a popular and well-respected parish priest in Motherwell, wrote a book – Priesthood in Crisis – claiming that a powerful clique of gay priests was operating at the top of the Catholic Church in Scotland and was responsible for sexual bullying. Despard cited instance after instance where he was pressured by fellow priests for sex, and was ostracised when he refused to comply. Given the later exposure of O'Brien, Despard's book was prophetic. But for Despard personally, the consequences of speaking out have been devastating: the loss of his home, where his elderly parents also lived, and more recently, it seems, the loss of his job. In November 2016 Despard received a 3 page letter from the Bishop of Motherwell demanding that he quit his post as a parish priest. Bishop Toal's letter complained that Despard had shown "disregard for authority" and caused "considerable scandal". This was a revealing complaint: Despard's greatest sin, apparently, was speaking out. This is the Scottish Catholic Church in 2016: the Church that a year earlier had publicly committed itself to supporting whistleblowers. As the Bible says, by their fruits you will know them.

Despard is, as a conservative, traditionalist Catholic, concerned by what he sees as the growth of liberalism and relativism in the Church. This raises another issue, since in the view of some traditionalist Catholics, the sex abuse crisis is itself closely bound up with a post Vatican-II tolerance of homosexuality in the Church. The abuse of children by clergy, say some conservatives, is a homosexual problem which can be solved by excluding gays from the priesthood. This may be the view of some of Despard's supporters, although not necessarily of Despard himself. In my study of the Catholic abuse crisis in England, I reject the attempt by some conservatives in the Vatican to conflate homosexuality and child abuse: as I explain, research evidence confirms that the Catholic Church has a gay subculture, but there is no evidence that this is the cause of the child abuse crisis, which has its origins in other, deep-rooted cultural factors. But the point about Despard is not whether one agrees with his traditionalist Catholicism, but the Church's appalling treatment of a dissident who tried to expose a culture of sexual harassment and cronyism and has now paid for it with his home and his job.

In December 2016 the Catholic Church in Scotland appointed Helen Liddell, a Labour peer and former Cabinet minister, to chair a review group tasked with implementing the safeguards proposed by McLellan. The membership of the review group has yet to be announced, and it is unclear whether it will include survivor representatives. Can Liddell can bring the independent scrutiny and cultural challenge the role requires? The fact that Liddell is a Catholic should not disqualify her: there are many lay Catholics who are appalled at clerical sex abuse, and have challenged the culture that sustains it. That said, concerns have been expressed that Liddell is too much of an establishment figure, and too close to the Church hierarchy. We shall see.

What is very clear is that more tinkering with procedures is not enough. The Church in Scotland, like the Catholic Church worldwide, needs to confront the clericalism which begets and sustains abuse. This is the mentality that clergy are an exclusive club with a monopoly of wisdom and that the role of the laity is to "pray, pay and obey", and that leads to dissidents like Despard being persecuted whilst the abusers of children go unchallenged.

Unfortunately, in Scotland there are additional factors which protect the Catholic hierarchy from proper scrutiny. As in England, the public inquiry into child abuse in Scotland has been beset by internal problems. Aspects of the Scottish legal system help to protect powerful institutions from accountability: for example the time bar which prevents many survivors of abuse from bringing civil claims against institutions which have failed them and covered up scandal. The Scottish Parliament is currently examining a Bill to abolish the time bar; if that happens the Church will almost certainly face a degree of challenge in the courts it has not experienced previously.

As Professor Linda Woodhead, the sociologist of religion, observed recently, the Catholic Church claims to call into being a brave new world of 'safeguarding' but "without showing any appetite for serious reappraisal of the culture which led to the crisis. It is easy for an institution to take refuge in procedural rather than fundamental reform, when what is called for is a reform not only of structures but of hearts, minds, and ideas". As yet there is no real evidence that the Scottish Catholic Church has any serious intention to reform itself, and it seems likely that the pressure for it to properly address the clerical sex abuse crisis will have to come from outside.

Richard Scorer is a lawyer and NSS council member. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

Anglican stance on women and gays could trigger disestablishment

Anglican stance on women and gays could trigger disestablishment

Opinion | Sun, 14 May 2017

Keith Porteous Wood argues that, with the CofE's hierarchy so at odds with the values on equality held by the country at large, an Anglican vicar is right to question its status as the 'national church'.

Andrew Foreshew-Cain, the first Anglican vicar to have married a same sex partner, has left his job because of hostility from the Church. He reportedly feels that the Church is "so at odds with the country and its lay members that it risks becoming a 'sect'" and that it is "an institutionally homophobic organisation that blindly denies its policies and practices are deliberately and harmfully discriminatory and wrong".

For me, Groucho Mark's best one-liner was "I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members." I am starting to reconsider the classic secularist reaction to complaints such as AF-C's: "if you don't like the rules, leave the club", or perhaps "don't join it in the first place". But what if, for example, the rules were not always thus – as I suggest below?

It is not difficult to verify that the CofE is an "institutionally homophobic organisation". Even the Archbishop of Canterbury generously admitted to an audience (as reported) "I am constantly consumed with horror at the way the Church has treated gay people".

How else could its bishops have unanimously voted in the Lords against civil same sex marriage for the population as a whole, a vote which was absolutely not about religious marriages? And this was not just a polite expression of doctrinal dissent by the so-called Lords Spiritual. They used their privileged power in the Lords in 2013 to introduce what even the Church Times described as wrecking amendment.

And I think Justin Welby belatedly realised the reputational price the Church paid for that institutional homophobia. He was clearly shaken by what he described as the "noticeable hostility to the view of the churches" and that their "opposition to the Bill … was utterly overwhelmed".

In February 2017 the bishops issued a report on sexuality to the Church's Synod that was essentially "no change". One of his bishops made a last ditch plea to avoid the report being voted down reading: "I honour the anger and, indeed, fury, of the LGBTI community who see in this report hard stones when they looked for bread." But it was too little, too late. Synod rejected the bishops' homophobic report.

Back in 2003, Canon Jeffrey John, who lives – he says celibately – with a same-sex partner was required to withdraw from almost certain appointment as Bishop of Reading by Rowan Williams, caving in to pressure from evangelicals here and abroad, some reportedly encouraged by monetary incentives. John's repeated attempts since to land a bishopric, the latest this year, have all failed and provide telling evidence of the evangelical supremacy and its human consequences.

It is not of course a secular issue, but liberals are frustrated by why biblical injunctions on same-sex relationships are enforced now with so much more gusto than others that call for the capital punishment.

Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead argue in That was the Church That Was thatopposition tohomosexuality is a recruiting sergeant for their churches in Africa and favoured by the American evangelicals who fund them. This is not a trivial matter for the for the UK: I am convinced it is the largest single reason why Anglican schools have become ever-more religious and where prayer spaces and Eucharist have become routine, and publicly-funded chaplains increasingly common. Nor is it trivial for many in the churches, given that the proportion of gay clergy is massively greater than in the population. An American study suggests "from 23 percent to 58 percent, with even higher percentages for younger priests". I am even told by a reliable source of Anglican bishops living with other bishops of the same sex. Your palace or mine?

A vicar's live-in same sex partner remarked to me casually at a party that he couldn't take the dog out. I was shocked and saddened when, after a moment, the penny dropped. If he did, parishioners would realise the intimacy of their relationship. It almost seemed if the partner was being relegated to a lesser importance than the dog. I am starting to see what Forshew-Cain is complaining of.

Bizarrely, twenty or thirty years ago when the country was pretty homophobic, the Church was relatively liberal on homosexuality even (or perhaps particularly!) in the clergy. And this complete reversal in opposition to the attitudes of country has been engineered by the hierarchy of the Church that still likes to kid us it speaks for the Nation.

Why? Brown explains it in 200 pages with brilliantly perceptive analysis, albeit it is clear he "doesn't get" secularism. This secret revolution, or episcopal punch up (as you prefer) comes down to The Rout of Liberal Anglicans by the Evangelicals in Less than a Generation. Successive Archbishops of Canterbury seem determined that the Anglican Communion, of which their primacy becomes ever more nominal, will not fall apart on their watch. I first remarked on it citing George Carey. Andrew Brown puts it with characteristic acerbity: "The Anglican Communion turned out to exist, organizationally, only in the mind of the Archbishop of Canterbury".

In an increasingly futile effort to avoid disunity, successive archbishops for decades have been quietly ensuring that all the promotions go to the evangelicals: I've heard the frustrations of those passed over since the 1990s. So it was no surprise when Justin Welby bragged to his fellow primates at a private meeting at the 2016 Lambeth conference that "the Bench of Bishops is described by the longer standing members as the most orthodox since WWII". However this almost state secret was clearly for their ears only, so he must have been rather miffed when one of the African primates shopped him by telling the press.

Welby himself is a product of the ultra-evangelical for the rich Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). Brown recalls that Welby was steered to his wife by the pastor at HTB, with which she has remained closely connected.

It is no coincidence that HTB nestles in the most expensive residential real estate in the country just around the corner from Harrods. HTB should not be underestimated, also being behind the Alpha course, "The slickest, richest, fastest-growing division of the Church of England". It is well ensconced in every prison and astonishingly taken up with enthusiasm by churches of all denominations. It will be no surprise though that HTB thinks gays should remain celibate and that this has been an issue over the Alpha course.

As Brown recounts: the head of PR for HTB watched on as Welby was installed as Archbishop of Canterbury: "The long march through the Church of England had finally ended for them. Their man was in post."

I agree, but quibble that the march wasn't long at all for the Eton and Oxford-educated Welby HTB protegé, it was Archbishop of Canterbury from dean in around five years and from bishop in one, less than twenty years after being ordained as a priest. The most blatant demonstration yet, if any were needed, of the almost nuclear propulsive force of the evangelicals and HTB.

So all that is left for Mr Foreshew-Cain and the liberals is to lick their wounds at each further loss.

The conventional wisdom is that the question of women bishops is resolved in the Church, but recent events cast doubt on this. Parliament got very close to forcing the Church to accept women bishops. The Church has now done so itself, but only got this through by creating a parallel system for dissenters, most of whom refuse even to accept the legitimacy of those ordained by women. But this sticking plaster compromise proposed by the hierarchy is manifestly proving to be unworkable. One such bishop recently appointed to be bishop of Sheffield was ousted by indignant parishioners, and it is not the first appointment he has failed to land.

Both women and gays are hot button equality issues, not just arcane theological details. I suspect that in less than a decade the opposition from the pews or Parliament to this contempt for equality will force a volte face, and/or result in schism particularly as the rejection is out of step with the majority of Anglicans in the pews.

Such disunity and plunging attendance also demonstrate how hollow are the Church's claims to unite or speak for the country.

Fuelled by American-funding and animated by the severe prejudices of African Christianity, an ultra-conservative Anglican Church would face incredible public pressure to cut its links with the state.

If the ever-more evangelical church is so determined to become increasingly out of step with the country for its own doctrinal reasons, it may have to choose to forego establishment to retain its own religious freedom. Justin Welby has acknowledged disestablishment would "not be a disaster" for the Church and would "just be another event in a very long history". He has said as well that, "[I]f we're going to abuse establishment as we have done in the past, then absolutely [the Church should be disestablished]".

He seems nearer contemplating it than any other Archbishop of Canterbury I know of. Could the antidisestablishmentarianists be heading for a disappointment?

Four religious representatives appointed to Hebrides education committee

Four religious representatives appointed to Hebrides education committee

News | Thu, 18 May 2017

The Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the local authority for the Hebrides, has appointed four religious figures to its education committee, as it is required to do by law.

Media round-up and Local Newspaper Week

Media round-up and Local Newspaper Week

Like many civil society organisations, local media are extremely important to our work. Local media play a vital role in bringing issues to our attention and in holding schools and public services to account.

Check out some of the local media stories in our daily media round-up.

Isis: The Origins of Violence

Isis: The Origins of Violence

Historian Tom Holland traces the origins of Isis's extreme violence, which it claims is justified by the tenets and scriptures of Islam: a claim contrary to most Muslims' interpretation of their faith

NSS Speaks Out

This week we've spoken to BBC Radio Stoke and LBC on religion and belief demographics. We've signed this petition calling on Denmark to abolish its blasphemy law, and we appeared on 3FM to talk about abstinence-based sex education on the Isle of Man.

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