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Newsline 19 September 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.

Teachers shouldn’t be the victims of religious discrimination

Teachers shouldn’t be the victims of religious discrimination

Opinion | Tue, 16 Sep 2014

The degree to which we tolerate discrimination against teachers in state-funded faith schools would be totally unacceptable in almost all other areas of public life, argues Stephen Evans.

Parents with children at a primary school in East Sussex expressed outrage this week, when it became clear that the school's popular headteacher, who was drafted in to save the failing primary, could not stay on permanently because he isn't Roman Catholic.

The school of course, is a faith school.

Being a voluntary aided Catholic school, all the staff are employed by the governing body which can apply a religious test in appointing, remunerating and promoting all teachers.

Jon Reynard was called in to improve standards at the school after it was placed in special measures by Ofsted. Parents, who described the head as "fantastic", now want him to stay in post permanently. But the Diocese, which has control over the school's governing body, is keen to replace him with a Catholic.

Defending its position, the Diocese said:

"To maintain the clear Catholic character of Catholic schools the Bishops of England and Wales have stated that the posts of headteacher, deputy headteacher and head of religious education are to be filled by baptised and practising Catholics. The Diocese expects all Catholics schools in the diocese to follow this policy."

As the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton correctly point out, such a policy is recognised in law.

By any 21st Century standard of equality, the degree of discrimination legally permitted on the grounds of religion and belief against teachers is unreasonable and unacceptable.

These are publicly funded schools we're talking about. Only in the field of education, where religion has somehow managed to maintain its stranglehold over society, would such discrimination still be tolerated.

Surely children's best interests are served by schools recruiting the most suitably qualified teachers and headteachers. It's easy to see how putting religious ethos before the academic success of the school might serve the Church, but it's harder to see how it benefits the pupils – who I would argue, should always be the number one priority.

Of course, some will argue that a distinctive religious ethos is key to academic success. This argument ignores the growing body of evidence that suggests that what success some faith schools achieve has less to do with "ethos" and more to do with the way in which they can select pupils on the basis of faith – which inadvertently acts as a form of socio-economic selection.

Before the arrival of Mr Reynard, the undersubscribed Catholic Primary School in question was judged to be "inadequate" in virtually all areas. So much for the magical Catholic ethos, then.

I'm not arguing that a school's ethos isn't important. I think it is. But in our publicly funded schools, shouldn't that ethos be built around shared values, equality, inclusiveness and a commitment to excellence?

The school at the centre of this story says its "ultimate concern is to assist all those involved with it in their Journey to God."

Such a self-serving ethos based around the promotion of a religious faith or a religious institution should have no place in a modern public education system.

The extent to which such discrimination is permitted in faith schools in order to maintain this "ethos" is the subject of an ongoing European Commission investigation, with the National Secular Society arguing it breaches European employment laws in relation to discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.

But it shouldn't take the European Commission to tell us that such discrimination is unjust and ethically wrong and that it shouldn't be allowed to continue.

It's time the law was changed to protect teachers from a form of discrimination that has thankfully been eradicated from almost all other areas of public life.

Law Society under growing pressure over sharia wills guidance

Law Society under growing pressure over sharia wills guidance

News | Fri, 19 Sep 2014

Secularists and human rights campaigners have stepped up their calls for the Law Society to withdraw its controversial practice note on sharia succession rules.

Rowan Williams and his ilk are not the people to decide where religion sits in public life

Rowan Williams and his ilk are not the people to decide where religion sits in public life

Opinion | Sat, 13 Sep 2014

The Woolf Institute has convened a commission to consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain, and to "make recommendations for public life and policy." David Voas questions whether this review can reach a conclusion that reflects the priorities of the general public, rather than just people of faith.

A high-level commission has been convened to consider the place of religion in British public life. But the way this commission has been put together makes it part of the problem rather than promising real solutions.

Its four patrons are drawn from the great and the good, though it is hard not to smile at the earnestness with which all religious bases have been covered. We have philosopher Bhikhu Parekh; Iqbal Sacranie, the former secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain; Rowan Williams, until recently Archbishop of Canterbury; and Harry Woolf, formerly Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

When they gather, do they tell jokes that start "A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar …"?

The issue is whether this review can reach a conclusion that reflects the priorities of the general public, rather than just people of faith.

Religion is never out of the news and most of the stories out there do nothing to enhance its reputation in Britain, where an overwhelming majority of respondents to the British Social Attitudes Survey agree that religion is more likely to produce conflict than peace.

Most British people see religion as a private matter and oppose religious influence on public policy. Many have beliefs that could be described as religious, but those beliefs have little influence on their lives. Although a large number of people – particularly from ethnic minority groups – do see religion as important, the majority of the population is profoundly indifferent to the claims of traditional faith.

There is a common view that religion has made the world a more troubled place. And the highly religious are frequently depicted as ridiculous, creepy, moralising, intolerant, potentially dangerous and generally weird.

For their part, religious groups increasingly come together to make common cause against outside disdain. The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life gives every appearance of being one such effort by an inter-faith organisation. It has 20 members: only great-ish and good-ish, but distinguished and serious people. Once again, though, the inter-faith theologians have created the world in their own image.

Nearly half of the members are religious professionals and nearly all of them have strong religious identities, if not beliefs. The chief executive of the British Humanist Association plays his customary part as the token free thinker, but it's hard to shake the dispiriting sense that we are dealing with an assembly of, by and for the religiously committed.

It is completely appropriate for people whose business is faith to prepare a report on the role of religion and belief in British public life, just as it is appropriate for people who work in the pub trade to write about the role of alcohol in British life. What they cannot expect, though, is for their findings to be treated as anything other than the product of a special interest group. The commission is condemned from its conception to producing a minority report.

One of the questions posed for the commission's public consultation is "Does Britain show equal respect for religious and non-religious beliefs and identities?" The answer is that Britain might, but the conveners of the commission clearly do not.

The composition of the panel makes it plain that they have minimal respect for indifference to religion – which is precisely what characterises a majority of the population. There is as much chance of the commission proposing to reduce the role of religion in public life as there is of the National Secular Society proposing to increase it.

Where's the science?

Apart from its built-in partisanship, the commission also suffers from the hubris of the humanities. Practically everyone on it comes from theology, philosophy, religious studies, history or law. Expertise in the empirical social scientific study of British society is conspicuous by its near-absence.

The causes and consequences of prejudice, discrimination, inequality and injustice are critical issues that are constantly being investigated by secular scholars in sociology, politics and economics. So why is the panel so weak in these fields? The recommendations made are likely to suffer from this absence.

The commission was born in a bubble: the encapsulated community of people involved in religion. Its instigators will grumble if their report is ignored, but when that happens, they are going to have to accept a large share of the blame.

David Voas is a professor of Population Studies at the University of Essex. He is the national programme director in Great Britain for the European Values Study and co-director of British Religion in Numbers. This article originally appeared on The Conversation and is reproduced here with the author's kind permission under a Creative Commons licence.

The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

Secularism, today, now

Secularism, today, now

Opinion | Thu, 04 Sep 2014

Ahead of an historic conference on the Religious-Right, Secularism and Civil Rights in London this October, Algerian secularist, Marieme Helie Lucas calls on secularists everywhere to mobilise to counter the rise of the Religious-Right – and to urge the elements of the left that support them to reconsider their stance.

Secularism is probably the one big issue for our century.

This century is not, as many still think, marked by a religious or spiritual revival.

What we are actually witnessing is the rise of extreme-Right political movements, working under the cover of religion. Everywhere. No one is spared, neither Buddhism or Hinduism which still enjoy outside their boundaries an undue reputation of being peaceful, nor the notorious Christian-Right, or Muslim, Sikh or Jewish fundamentalisms.

All of them, when given a chance, behave like any extreme-Right movement: they suppress dissent through brute force and they physically eliminate those deemed infra-humans. In the name of their gods.

Secularists are being attacked in many places in the world today: they are jailed, killed, tortured, their very existence is considered an offense to believers in many non-secular states.

The terrible crimes committed right now by ISIS in Iraq, against dissenters, religious minorities and women in general, are far from exceptional: all areas of countries that were momentarily under the boot of armed Muslim fundamentalists experienced similar ferocious repression, be it Algeria in the nineties, Mali, Afghanistan, etc…

Fundamentalist extreme-Right forces manage to get more and more countries to 'accommodate' parallel religiously-inspired legal systems that are a denial of democracy; supposedly divine rules, as interpreted by old reactionary male clerics are given equal status - and sometimes prominence over - hard-won democratically-voted laws.

They are supported at UN and international levels by powerful coalitions (from the Vatican to the Organization of the Islamic Conference and even by the Non-Aligned – alas! - in the name of anti-imperialism) that assert so-called religious rights over and above any other fundamental human rights.

Europe, which has seen parallel legal systems sanctioned by state authorities in the name of multiculturalism, i.e. the promotion of unequal rights for different categories of citizens, has not been spared.

There is a need for secularists around the world to come together and examine their situations, to exchange information, to strategize and to join hands.

This is the purpose of the upcoming International Conference on the Religious Right, Secularism and Civil Rights, which is to take place in London during October 11-12, 2014.

Speakers from countries or the Diaspora as diverse as Algeria, Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Poland, Senegal, Sudan, Switzerland, Syria, Tunisia, UK, USA and Yemen will reflect on the struggle for secularism in both regional and thematic ways and will discuss how to counter the specific forms that attacks on secularism take in various parts of the world, and how to more efficiently mobilize in the defence of threatened secularists.

A number of victims of state repression for having declared their atheism will be present and will testify.

Participants will also discuss how to counter the rise of the religious-Right in countries of emigration such as Europe and North America, and how to help both the Left and human rights organisations, which have been blindly supporting fundamentalist demands – assuming they were the true and legitimate voice of minorities, re-evaluate the politics behind those demands, reconsider their support for extreme-Right political forces and shift their concern to endangered secularists.

To find out more about this historic conference, go to www.secularconference.com

Marieme Helie Lucas is an Algerian sociologist, founder and former International Coordinator of the 'Women Living Under Muslim Laws' international solidarity network and founder of 'Secularism Is A Women's Issue' (siawi.org). She is a member of the Conference Organising Committee.

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

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