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Newsline 20 March 2015

Last chance to buy tickets! We've received a record number of nominations for this year's Secularist of the Year prize. We've had recommendations from all over the world for all kinds of people – activists, writers, broadcasters and journalists. All of them are worthy of the prize, but only one can win it. Join us at the awards ceremony in London on Saturday 28 March to find out who the winner is. Tickets include a three course meal and cocktail and cost just £40 for NSS members, and £50 for non-members. Book your tickets today!

Je suis Michael Overd: this obnoxious street preacher is a canary in the coal mine for free speech

Je suis Michael Overd: this obnoxious street preacher is a canary in the coal mine for free speech

Opinion | Fri, 20 Mar 2015

A street preacher has been charged for giving a "religiously aggravated" sermon, and was told by a police officer that he wasn't allowed to offend anyone. Benjamin Jones warns of the danger posed to civil liberties if the state continues to police free expression.

Council prayers: none so deaf as those that will not hear

Council prayers: none so deaf as those that will not hear

Opinion | Tue, 17 Mar 2015

Those who regard the imposition of religious values and practices in secular spaces as benign should be more aware of their privilege, argues Alastair Lichten.

You may regret clicking this link. If you did you may well have heard 10 seconds of silence. The recording is of the notorious Mosquito device. It sends a high pitched sound which can be painful to young people but is so high pitched that most aged over 25 can't even hear it. Some people (mostly over 25) like these devices because they deter young people from loitering in town centres. But really they, like deliberately uncomfortable benches, are an imposition of one group's values – that town centres are for shopping, not a public space for people to 'loiter'.

Secularism defends pluralism in the public sphere but resists the imposition of any particular set of values except those which are necessary to preserve the public space itself: human rights, equality, the rule of law. Secularism defends the right of street preachers and religious salesman to set out their stall in the public space, but not to monopolise it, to colonise it or to brand it as their own. Such an imposition is always implicitly or explicitly exclusionary and always undermines pluralism and ultimately the public space itself.

Sometimes when the message of exclusion is subtle enough those in a privileged position don't or can't notice it. On its lowest setting the Mosquito device can be so subtle that young people are not consciously aware of it. They may perceive it as a slight headache or feeling of vague unease. But its message is still the same, from the privileged to the marginalised: "don't feel comfortable, don't loiter, you are not welcome here."

A similar message is currently being sent out by a small group of religious enthusiasts in Parliament behind the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill – with the full support of the Department of Communities and Local Government.

The Bill, which is on course to soon receive Royal Assent, will allow a range of local authorities in England (from town councils to waste management authorities) to make religious observance (or observance connected with a philosophical belief) part of the official business of their meetings.

I bring up the Mosquito device as an illustration because saying that some people are negatively affected by its sound, that some are not and that some may even like it is not to pass any subjective or moral judgment on the sound itself. Describing the effect of a Mosquito device to those who can't hear is difficult. In such cases analogies can be useful: if people find one situation involving privilege/discrimination acceptable would they find a similar situation involving a different form of privilege/discrimination equally acceptable. If not why not?

Imagine you worked in an office with a bizarre ritual. Your working day is nine to five. But every Monday starts with a staff meeting beginning with five minutes of sexist jokes led by a friend of the boss. Would we find this acceptable?

Imagine that after years of putting up with this and attempting to persuade your colleagues to abandon the practice, you object and secure a court ruling that the practice must stop – only to find that a petulant group of sexist joke enthusiasts are unhappy with what they see as a challenge to their male privilege. They try everything they can to change the rules to allow the practice to continue.

You're told it's always been this way. You're told no one has complained before, which of course means no one has ever felt comfortable complaining. You're told by your boss that no one really minds – of course it's best to ask a man if anyone really minds, they're so much better able to judge these sorts of things. Or you're told that the only people who really mind just don't have a sense of humour, that they're intolerant and not the sort we want here anyway. You're told that this harmless tradition can't be the reason women and young people are so under-represented in this work place. If they are so intolerant that they can't put up with five minutes of sexist jokes once a week then maybe they're not the sort of person who's suited to the office.

You're told that the joke session is voluntary and that if you don't like it you can always just switch off for five minutes and if you have to be marked out as 'awkward' by excusing yourself… well that's just something you have to put up with to work here.

You point out that stopping the practice wouldn't restrict anyone's freedom; that staff can still get together before or after work to have as many sexist jokes as they want but that it's inappropriate to impose it in the workplace. You point out that many men and women find these jokes inappropriate in the work place – only to find that the staff newsletter is accusing you of leading an intolerant attack on men.

Would you feel that your work place treated you equally? Would you feel respected? Would you feel that your company was representative of society or its customers? Would you feel this imposition was fair or professional? Would you think it's just something harmless you should have to put up with?

Of course you wouldn't.

And yet with council prayers we find ourselves in an analogous situation, imposed not in the work place but in the chambers of local government. The issue is not gender privilege but religious privilege.

Communities Secretary and Minister for Faith Eric Pickles was upset by a 2012 High Court ruling that local councils had no statutory powers to summon councillors to prayer. He has given strong backing to the Bill, the latest legislative attempt to resurrect the practice. It's worth reflecting on these comments from the ruling:

"I do not think that the 1972 Act, dealing with the organisation, management and decision-making of local Councils, should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of Councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude or, even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected Councillors."

There's nothing anti-religious in this soaring municipal rhetoric. It conveys something about the values which underpin local democracy that the proponents of 'religious observances' seem to have missed.

We can point out how absurd it is to start council meetings with religious worship, or atheistic observances, when we don't start meetings like this in any other area of life. We could question the utility in joint waste authorities invoking Jehovah, or how much confidence a fire authority inspires when it needs to call on the guidance of the almighty before business.

But the Bill isn't really about that. It is about a religiously privileged out of touch minority wishing to assert their dominance. Secularist peers did well to ensure the provisions in this Bill were scrutinised and debated – but even after the Bill becomes law, it will remain our secular civic duty to resist the imposition of worship where it doesn't belong. In the public sphere, in local government, in civic life, adherence to particular religions or beliefs is not and cannot be the price of admission.

Should taxpayers be paying for the Church’s leaking roofs?

Should taxpayers be paying for the Church’s leaking roofs?

Opinion | Fri, 20 Mar 2015

Keith Porteous Wood argues that with the Church Commissioners sitting on a £4bn surplus, the Church of England should not be receiving additional public funds for fixing church roofs, and it should concede changes to the law on Chancel Repair Liability without compensation.

In this week's budget the Government allocated a further £40 million funding to support "vital" roof repairs in Listed Places of Worship over the next two years.

The lion's share of this money will go to the Church of England as it is responsible for maintaining 45% of the grade I listed buildings in the country and the majority of all parish churches are grade II or higher.

Few would feel that our finest architectural heritage should fall into terminal disrepair. An inevitable consequence of the continuing decline in church attendance is that there are far fewer in the congregations to shoulder the repair burden. When they are unable to do so, who else should pay and under what circumstances?

The stated purpose of the Church Commissioners is "to produce money to support the Church of England's work across the country", which surely should include such repairs.

The Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury has written to the Chancellor to make sure he is aware that the Commissioners' investments stand at over £6bn, around £4bn in excess of the amount required to meet the future obligations on clergy pensions", which is their other principal obligation.

He has also noted the state already contributes hugely to the upkeep of churches through gift aid worth some £84 million; the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme worth £42 million; the National Heritage Memorial Fund, currently funding repairs to Winchester Cathedral costing £14 million and of York Minster at £18.3 million; further grants to cathedrals recently announced worth £8 million; Heritage Lottery Fund grants to churches of £300 million in the 10 years to 2004, the lion's share to the Church of England; and the £15 million already announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for repairs to church roofs and rainwater pipes under the Listed Places of Worship Roof Repair Fund.

By making these payments, the Chancellor adds to the hardship caused by the huge cuts to public services already made and being contemplated, which is inexcusable given the Church has a surplus of £4bn in the kitty.

Meanwhile, the Church has expressed its unwillingness to concede any changes in the law on Chancel Repair Liability (CRL), under which landowners can still become liable to pay for repairs to an ancient Anglican church, even though this is not mentioned in the deeds.

The Church says it will only contemplate changes in return for Government compensation which neither Lord Avebury nor the National Secular Society believe is justifiable.

In his letter, Lord Avebury asked that any payments such as the £40 million allocated in the Budget, should be regarded as counting towards any future compensation, without conceding that any would be due.

This seems fair enough. Since the infamous Aston Cantlow case the Church has not been seeking to enforce the recovery of CRL through the courts, so that abolition would not diminish their likely future income, but they continue to insist that they would only agree to it if they are paid unspecified compensation.

It is surely incongruous for them to hold a financial Sword of Damocles over the heads of private householders when they are already receiving such large sums from the taxpayer.

The Children's Society's chief executive, Matthew Reed, said: "With extra money available to the Chancellor, it is hugely disappointing that the Government has yet again failed to make extra funding available to protect children from sexual abuse, and to create a register of missing children".

There is no widespread discrimination against Christians in the workplace

There is no widespread discrimination against Christians in the workplace

Opinion | Fri, 13 Mar 2015

NSS president Terry Sanderson challenges the notion that Christians are widely discriminated against in the workplace, and calls for fairness, justice and common sense.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published the results of its research into the way religion is treated at work.

The report appears to proceed from the assumption that there is some kind of major problem in workplaces up and down the country, with conflict over personal beliefs a major issue for workers.

They seem to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the propaganda promoted by The Christian Legal Centre and the Christian Institute with their endless failed legal attacks on the equality law.

The EHRC has given undeserved traction to the claims that there is a widespread ban on wearing religious symbols, or that poor, put-upon Christians are being tormented and mocked all day long by their colleagues because they go to church. But these kinds of incidents are very rare and when they do occur, the Christian Legal Centre makes sure they are writ large in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

The ultimate aim of the evangelicals in creating this mythology is to either have the equality legislation abolished completely or have it rewritten so that Christians are exempted from observing it, but still receive the full benefits of the protection it offers.

They want carte blanche in the workplace for the pious. They want the right to demand time off to observe their holy days, whatever the consequences for the business they work for. After all, as far as they're concerned, a person's "faith" trumps all other business considerations.

They want to refuse services to people of whom they don't approve (let's be honest, lesbian and gay people). They want to be free to proselytise and use the workplace as an extension of their church or mosque. They want prayer rooms and halal only canteen facilities. They want diversity policies rewritten so as to exclude gay people.

By giving credence to these ambitions through the publication of this report, the EHRC is endangering the whole concept of equality legislation. It has given the Mail and the Telegraph another opportunity to reinforce the idea that discrimination against Christians is widespread.

So, what is the real story of religion in the workplace? I can only tell of my own experience.

I worked for almost thirty years for a London borough which is one of the most diverse and multicultural in the country. As part of its policy of inclusion, the council drew its workforce from all sections of the community. This meant that in my decades working in a day centre for adults with profound learning disabilities, I met and worked with people from all over the world.

I loved it. I made good friends with people from Nicaragua, China, Russia, France, Italy, Germany, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Fiji and many more. Because I was working in the "caring sector" the sorts of people who were attracted to the job were generally kind, compassionate and concerned. They were also often very religious.

I worked with many black evangelical Christians who felt it was part of their religious calling to work in such a difficult and challenging environment, taking care of people who would otherwise be rejected by society. I found their religious enthusiasm quite perplexing – incomprehensible even – and they were equally totally flummoxed by my atheism. They had been, until then, totally enclosed in their happy-clappy community where the possibility of non-belief didn't seem to exist.

I didn't mind their constant discussion of the finer points of the Bible. I even helped one man write a sermon for his church, the first he had ever delivered.

Despite the occasional robust exchange of opinion, we got on with our work together in mutual respect. Humorous banter was never interpreted as "disrespect".

Then there was the Church of England vicar who came to work with us. He had decided to resign from his parish over the Church's liberalising approach to women. He was working at the centre from an agency, just as a social worker not as a clergyperson, needing to make some cash before he joined the Catholic "ordinariate".

I couldn't have disagreed with him more over his opinions, but strangely I quite liked him personally and we got on very well. Again, our discussions were frank, sometimes mocking, but both took it on the chin.

It would never have occurred to either of us to go complaining to the manager that our religious or non-religious approach to life was not being properly respected.

The only real problem I experienced over religion came from a cook, who was a devout Muslim, complete with moustacheless beard and traditional Pakistani clothing. It was his habit to play tapes of recitations from the Koran during meals – very LOUDLY.

I don't understand Arabic, so what was being recited meant nothing to me, but I had to complain because of the noise. Some of the people we were caring for were very sensitive to loud noise and trying to eat in a dining room where over-amplified chanting was being broadcast was becoming problematic.

I suppose he could have accused me of religious intolerance in making that complaint, but it was nothing to do with the man's religion, it was about the anti-social volume of his tape player.

I had another Pakistani colleague, someone I worked with for 20 years, who I liked very much, a woman who had become almost entirely westernised. One very hot summer's day she came to work wearing a short-sleeved blouse, like all the other women. But when the Muslim cook saw her he said that she was a disgrace to Islam for showing her arms in that way when there were men around.

She immediately put on a heavy cardigan, guilt-tripped into it by the po-faced Islamist in the kitchen. That annoyed me, but I realised it was her decision and said nothing.

This man was eventually fired from his job – not because he inappropriately intruded his religion into the workplace, but because he had been using the centre's telephone to call premium-rate pornographic phone lines. When the phone bill arrived, he had racked up hundreds of pounds at council tax-payers expense.

The workforce of our day centre was so diverse that the potential for religious conflict was enormous, but apart from these few small incidents there was general peace and harmony.

The workplace is a wonderful place to have your prejudices challenged, an opportunity to meet a wealth of different people and to learn to get along with those who have very different lives to your own.

I am not claiming here that workplace bullying, harassment and intimidation doesn't exist. I have seen enough of it in a long working career and I know that not all working environments are free from crude racism and prejudice.

But that is what the equality legislation is there for. It is to protect individuals from such nastiness, and if that nastiness is because of their religion (or their sexuality) then it needs to be challenged.

But protecting people from victimisation is not the same as protecting them from discussion and from their workmates challenges to opinions that they may find disagreeable (so long as it is reasonably expressed). It is not about giving one group of people special rights and privileges.

The evangelical Christians who have created this myth of widespread religious conflict in the workplace have done a good job in misleading us.

They have convinced a lot of people that if an employer insists that everyone in their workplace observes health and safety regulations (maybe involving the removal of jewellery) then Christians have been "persecuted".

Or that by asking them to do their job in its entirety – even if that means serving gay people or handling alcohol or pork products – they have subjected them to discrimination.

We will wait for the new guidance from the EHRC, but we hope that it will be based on fairness, justice and common sense – not on the dissembling demands of the Christian Legal Centre.

Why did the CPS abandon investigation into Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor?

Why did the CPS abandon investigation into Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor?

Opinion | Thu, 19 Mar 2015

As the full scale of the British Establishment's cover-up of child sex abuse becomes apparent, Alistair McBay argues it is time for the Crown Prosecution Service to make public its reasons for dropping the investigation into Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor 12 years ago.

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