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Newsline 2 August 2013

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Prayer Spaces in Schools

Prayer Spaces in Schools

Opinion | Thu, 01 Aug 2013

A worrying development in Britain's schools in the last two years, and not just in its faith schools, is Prayer Spaces in Schools (PSIS).

PSIS is an organisation that says of itself:

"Prayer Spaces in Schools enable children and young people to explore faith and spirituality from a broadly Christian perspective in a safe, creative and interactive way. A range of flexible resources can be adapted to work for participants aged 5 to 18 bringing an experiential dimension to a variety of subject areas and to pastoral aspects of school life."

It is clear from this that the aim of this initiative is to get the Christian faith into all schools, faith-based or otherwise. The use of the expression 'broadly Christian perspective' flatters to deceive — it is a Christian perspective, period.

It is the initiative of an organisation called 24/7 Prayer International, a registered charity which has links to the highly controversial Alpha Course programme which has its critics as well as its supporters. Of most concern is that a video on the 24/7 Prayer International website, and available on YouTube, proclaiming that healings have taken place in prayer spaces — which can be anything from dedicated classrooms or areas of classrooms to areas in school recreation and communal spaces such as cafeterias. An extract from the transcript of the video shows the presenter stating:

"We have seen organic healings take place in prayer spaces. We have seen an 8-year old girl healed of eczema, we've seen a guy get healed of a stomach condition, we've seen someone else get healed of Crohn's disease."

Crohn's Disease is a chronic inflammatory disorder, in which the body's immune system attacks the gastrointestinal tract and has traditionally been described as an auto-immune disease, but recent investigators have described it as an immune deficiency state. These dangerous claims that children can be cured of diseases through prayer should be sufficient evidence to ensure that this organisation finds no place in any school, not just denominational, yet PSIS states on its web site to have several hundred prayer spaces in schools around the UK.

This initiative is now furthering its increasingly widespread take-up and upping its game. It is bold and brazen with it too — take yourself over to YouTube and search for "Prayer Spaces in Schools" and you will find a large number of videos, some posted by individual schools, and some containing complimentary contributions from teachers and heads about the Prayer Spaces initiative.

In Scotland, for example, PSIS is exploiting the appalling Scottish Government guidance on Religious Observance which actively promotes a Christian ethos both in denominational schools (where one wouldn't think it was necessary) and the increasingly mis-named non-denominational schools where as many different events and types of school events are to be classified as RO. As an example, here is a quote from the chaplaincy team at Linwood High School in Renfrewshire:

"At Linwood High School we have been looking at how we tackle the task of religious observance. All schools in Scotland are required to provide at least six opportunities for the school community to look at spiritual development. Much of the thinking behind this is about creating opportunities for experiential exploration rather than as an academic activity. Historically this has taken the format of assemblies. We, however, have felt that assemblies aren't the best place for authentic spiritual development to be fostered.

We've looked at taking these religious observance opportunities (known within the school as Soul Space Experiences) outside of the assembly. We've used video projects, art installations, film clubs, and café based activities as vehicles to explore life's big questions. So, when we heard about the concept of Prayer Spaces in Schools we jumped at the chance to put one together for Linwood High School."

Prayer Spaces in Schools holds regular development conferences across the UK, and is now enjoying the patronage of the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. The above comments from Linwood School show just how the school chaplaincy system is being exploited by evangelical groups to maximise indoctrination, although of course you won't see it called indoctrination now — the modern euphemism for indoctrination is 'spiritual development', as used above by Linwood High School. And while we all want our children to 'explore life's big questions', this initiative delivers one answer to these and one answer only — the Christian God. Note also the shift in emphasis going on here, away from 'academic activity' into 'experiential exploration' and the choice of language such 'authentic spiritual development', replacing 'worship' and 'prayer'.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from all of this is that 'authentic spiritual development' means an end result of fully fledged believers in Jesus, all captured and converted in the 'Soul Space Experiences' education system.

A range of mainstream and evangelical Christian organisations, leveraging their chaplaincy positions in schools, have decided that formal RO requirements and assemblies can be conveniently leveraged (they would say enhanced, I would say exploited) and more direct and aggressive approaches to targeting children in schools with Christian belief is an achievable result.

In the case of Scotland at least, it is positively encouraged by the Scottish Government. It is also worth noting that the comment from Linwood High School is taken from the website of Prayer Spaces in Schools, and not from the school's own website, which contains no details of this whatsoever.

As usual, parents are being kept in the dark about the degree to which their schools, and their children, are being targeted by evangelical groups, many of which hold and express questionable views on sexuality, sexual orientation, women's rights and evolution.

So as church attendance continues to plummet along with the numbers of Britons professing religious belief, the Prayer Spaces in Schools initiative is turning schools into churches, and turning teaching increasingly into preaching. If people won't come to the church, the church must come to the people, and where better to target the intellectually vulnerable than in schools.

It will take significant efforts by secularists around the country to claw this back. Any help you can give the NSS in researching what is happening in your local schools will be most welcome.

Alistair McBay is the NSS spokesperson in Scotland.

It may be a new velvet glove, but it’s the same old iron fist at the Vatican

It may be a new velvet glove, but it’s the same old iron fist at the Vatican

Opinion | Tue, 30 Jul 2013

You've got to give the Vatican credit for having installed a Pope who appears to be nice and cuddly and says all the right things. But as with everything pertaining to the Vatican, one needs to keep a sceptical antenna waving. Nothing is as it seems in that kingdom of lies and deception.

The propaganda coup that they have pulled off by getting rid of the disastrous Ratzinger (retired through ill-health? Give me a break! It's clear, to me at least, that he was disposed of) and replacing him with the apparently cuddlier, kindlier and more modest South American, is brilliant.

So far.

But for those who are prepared to look beyond the carefully constructed image, it is clear that Senor Bergoglio is, in fact, as hard and unyielding as his cold-hearted predecessor.

Bergoglio has just scored a big hit in Brazil where his inflated spectaculars rallied great crowds on Copacabana beach. On the plane back to Rome he answered questions from journalists who wanted to press him on the same "hot button" issues that so tormented Herr Ratzinger — and from which they gleaned so many column inches.

It was very revealing. Take away the apparently emollient words and Bergoglio says exactly the same as Ratzinger. He thinks homosexuals should be treated with respect ("Who am I to judge? You can't marginalise these people," he says patronisingly). But then he goes on to say that the Church still condemns homosexual relationships and always will. So, it's business as usual and his implacable opposition to gay marriage remains unshakable.

On the question of the involvement of women — yes, they should play a "full part" in Church life, he says. Except that they will never, ever be permitted into the priesthood and they will never, ever have any real power or influence.

Put the kettle on, sister — and my apartment needs cleaning.

He says that God "forgives and forgets" sins if there is repentance (but he, quickly adds, God doesn't forget crimes, such as the rape of children).

So the Vatican's despicable history of persecution and corruption is all OK now because it repented and God has forgiven and forgotten. Handy, isn't it? And I'm sure all those heretics it burned at the stake and those women it used as slaves in the Magdalene Laundries will take great comfort from the fact that the Vatican is truly sorry. So just shut up about it and let it drop, will you?

Bergoglio makes big noises about being the pope of the people, the pontiff of the poverty-stricken and the weak and disenfranchised. He makes very public gestures about living in modest accommodation and not wanting to wear fancy costumes all embroidered with jewels. What's not to like?

Well, if he is as orthodox and dogmatic as this talk to journalists suggests, then his heart is as hard as any tyrant's. He will do nothing about the ban on condoms in countries afflicted by AIDS, he will do nothing to force the hands of the religious orders who refuse to pay for their past cruelties in Ireland and leave it for the taxpayer to pick up the tab. And we have yet to see any move to address the issue of child rape and exploitation by priests. (He made it illegal in Vatican City, but how many children live there?).

The Vatican's untold wealth remains untouched, while millions starve. He makes patronising gestures like washing the feet of prisoners. But his past shows that he is conservative to the core and will change nothing except, perhaps, the window dressing of the papacy.

Bergoglio is going to have to do more than smile and speak in a kindly voice to convince this cynic that he is one iota different to the two horrors who sat on the throne of St Peter immediately before him.

He is no reformer. If he had been, the powers-that-be in the Holy See wouldn't have let him anywhere near the papacy.

A right for one is a right for all

A right for one is a right for all

Opinion | Tue, 30 Jul 2013

Charles C. Haynes argues that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution must be vigorously defended from religious attacks.

Government in America must be neutral among religions and neutral between religion and non-religion — at least that's how the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

But escalating conflicts involving government treatment of the non-religious — atheists and humanists — reveal that far too many government officials are confused and conflicted about the meaning of "neutrality."

In recent months alone, an atheist monument stirred controversy in Florida, an atheist applicant for citizenship was instructed to join a church, and a congressional committee nixed atheist chaplains.

Let's start with the first-ever atheist monument, a 1,500-pound bench erected alongside a Ten Commandments monument in front of the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke, Florida.

After a local Christian group installed the Ten Commandments monument last year, American Atheists sued to have it removed.

When county officials refused, the atheist group decided to put up a counter-monument featuring quotations from various American founders about church-state separation and passages from the Bible describing punishments for violating the Ten Commandments.

Bradford County set the stage for this confrontation in 2011 when it designated the space a "free speech forum" in order to allow a local Christian group to put up a Ten Commandments display.

But county officials soon realized that once the courthouse courtyard is open to one, it must be open to all.

American Atheists, of course, would rather have no monuments on government property. But if you can't beat them, join them.

The tactic of putting an atheist message next to a religious message puts governments on notice that any attempt to promote religion on public property will be answered by demands for equal treatment from the non-religious.

The push-back from atheists in places like Bradford County is triggered by the fact that equal treatment for the non-religious is difficult to come by in a society where religion is often privileged.

Consider the cruel choice faced by Margaret Doughty, a British-born atheist who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services informed Doughty earlier this month that unless she joined a church her application for naturalized citizenship would be denied.

Doughty ran into this roadblock because she can't in good conscience swear that she is willing "to take up arms to defend the United States."

The government, it turns out, routinely grants conscientious objectors exemption from this oath — but only if they belong to a religion that opposes the bearing of arms.

This policy puts atheists and humanists seeking citizenship — but who have moral objections to war — in the unfair and unjust position of either joining a church or being denied American citizenship.

What makes this particularly galling is that the Supreme Court made clear years ago that draftees with moral and philosophical beliefs that impose a duty not to participate in war must be granted conscientious objector status on the same basis as those with traditional religious convictions (Welsh v. United States, 1970).

After letters of protest from the American Humanist Association and other groups representing atheists and humanists, the immigration service backed down — and Margaret Doughty is now an American citizen.

Immigration officials may finally understand the meaning of equal treatment for the non-religious. But many members of Congress have yet to learn this First Amendment lesson.

Recently, the House Armed Services Committee voted down an amendment to the defence bill that would have authorized atheist and humanist chaplains in the military.

Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist chaplains serve in all branches of the military. But a majority of the members of the Armed Services Committee apparently believe that the non-religious don't have the same needs as the religious for counselling, support and community.

These and many other clashes involving atheists fighting for equal treatment could be avoided if government officials understood that religious liberty isn't just for the religious.

As guaranteed by the First Amendment, religious liberty is built on a simple, but profound, principle:

A right for one is a right for all.

Charles C. Haynes is Director of the Religious Freedom Project. This article used with permission. Newseum Institute. 2013.

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NSS Speaks Out

Keith Porteous Wood was on LBC Radio talking about the Archbishop of Canterbury and Wonga.

Keith was also on BBC Radio Scotland's popular Call Kaye programme about the latest revelations of child abuse at Fort Augusta Catholic school.

NSS Scottish spokesperson Alistair McBay had this letter in the Scotsman.

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