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Newsline 22 August 2014

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Principles of secularism and equality must be defended

Principles of secularism and equality must be defended

Opinion | Fri, 22 Aug 2014

Attempts to erode equality and undermine secularist principles must be challenged, argues Stephen Evans.

Those seeking to preserve or carve out additional privileges for Christianity in the UK appear buoyed by news that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has launched a call for evidence aimed at strengthening understanding of religion or belief in public life.

Writing in the Guardian this week, Andrew Brown suggested that the EHRC's latest initiative marks "a significant unease with the way in which equality law has dealt with Christians".

The central question, says Brown, is whether there is anything more to Christian discontent than whingeing about the progress of gay rights.

With a certain amount of glee, he heralds "the start of a swing of the pendulum away from 'hard secularism."

But hold on a minute. When did the pendulum really ever swing towards "hard secularism"?

An example of "hard secularism" as cited by Brown is "attempts to ban prayers before the start of council meetings".

But of course there never was an attempt to ban prayers before the start of council meetings.
The High Court ruling obtained by the National Secular Society, to which Brown is referring, simply made clear that prayers shouldn't form part of the official business of local authority meetings. Councillors that wish to do so are perfectly at liberty to meet and pray before the meeting begins; but once it has begun, councillors should concentrate on matters at hand, not carry out religious rituals, particularly as there is no guarantee that all the elected councillors share a particular faith, or indeed, have one at all.

This, the separation of religion from the business of the state, is the very essence of secularism. There nothing particularly 'hard' about it.

In passing judgement on prayers during council meetings, Justice Ouseley remarked:

" group of councillors, however sincere or large in number, should not be permitted 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."

Now, Andrew Brown may consider Justice Ousley to be a purveyor of "hard secularism", but to any objective mind his ruling probably seems eminently reasonable.

Without doubt, the place of Christianity in society is undergoing a certain degree of readjustment. Some Christians understandably feel sensitive about this and have at times mistaken this for being 'marginalised' or even 'persecuted'. For example, in a radio debate with Ann Widdecombe just this week, it was put to me that Travelodge's recent decision to no longer place bibles in their hotel rooms was tantamount to "bullying of Christians". Momentarily, this left me speechless.

Similarly, when Christians, or members of any other religion, are treated just the same as anyone else would be treated in court, it is perceived by some as somehow 'unfair'.

This leads us to another example of 'secularism gone mad'; the idea that gay people shouldn't be discriminated against when receiving goods and services.

Another person encouraged by the EHRC's call for evidence is Don Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance. Like Brown, he clearly believes Christians are being treated unfairly and warrant some kind of special protection in UK law.

But only by being disingenuous can Horrocks make his case that Christians are on the receiving end of rough justice. "Look at the B&B couple who just wanted the freedom to run their house on Christian principles", bemoans Horrocks.

Of course anyone can run their household on any principles they like. What he's referring to is the case of Peter and Hazelmary Bull, a Christian couple who denied a gay couple a double bed in their hotel, citing on the basis of their belief that any sex outside marriage was a ''sin''.

The courts found that the Christian couple acted unlawfully.

That's because those who campaigned for anti-discrimination laws (including many religious organisations) succeeded in establishing a new balance where individuals were entitled to believe what they wanted but were not allowed to refuse services or employment to people on the basis of discriminatory beliefs.

This came about because many people came to recognise that acts of discrimination, such as refusing to employ women or making black people sit at the back of the bus, violated the right of individuals to access goods, services and jobs as well as undermining their dignity.

The only difference is that now, sexual orientation has been included as a protected category and is regarded as no different than discrimination on the grounds of race or gender, or any other protected characteristic.

So, now equality legislation no longer suits them, some religious groups are trying to establish a hierarchy of rights, with religion at the top. To that end, it has been argued that what's needed is a specific 'conscience exemption' from equality law for 'religious businesses'.

This notion should be rejected out of hand, but worryingly, the idea appears to be gaining some traction.

In the US, the Supreme Court recently extended religious freedom rights to corporations (or at least those with a limited number of shareholders). Moreover, by granting exemptions to a federal law that requires them to offer health insurance plans to their employees that include no-cost birth control, it decided the religious rights of corporations are more important than women's health.

Even in the UK, Britain's most senior female judge Lady Hale recently suggested that our law may not yet have found a "reasonable accommodation" for the manifestation of religious and other beliefs, and pondered whether we would be better off with a "more nuanced approach".

But the kind of exemptions that are being sought cannot be granted without fundamentally undermining anti-discrimination laws and human rights more generally.

Essentially, secularism is a balancing act. It's about ensuring that everybody's rights and freedoms are given equal consideration.

This important principle is enshrined in Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, which ensures all individuals have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; but freedom to manifest one's beliefs can be subject to limitations where necessary to protect of the rights and freedoms of others.

The law has until now been very clear in this area and the courts have for the most part been successful in striking a fair balance. Attempts to tip the balance in favour of Christians, or any other religious group, must be resisted.

The Evangelical Alliance claim to represent 2 million people and they're encouraging all of them to summit evidence of their 'unfair treatment' to the Commission.

They may have strength in numbers, but they certainly don't have it in their arguments.

The right to manifest your belief is not absolute. Other people's rights and dignity matter too. Religious or otherwise, there is simply no reasonable defence for the kind of discrimination that undermines human dignity, particularly when providing goods and services.

I for one would to like to think that the days of signs proclaiming "no blacks, no Irish" are long behind us - but perhaps our detractors would be happy to see them return for gays? This is after all a logical consequence of their position.

I suspect that the vast majority of fair-minded British people, including sincere religious believers, will take a lot of convincing that this is the kind of society we want to return to.

No such thing as a ‘faith child’

No such thing as a ‘faith child’

Opinion | Tue, 19 Aug 2014

The state and society undermine children's rights, when they treat them as an extension of their parents' religious identity, argues John Sargeant.

Adults are extolled in the Christian tradition to be childlike in their acceptance of the faith. Jesus says: "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." In the first letter of Peter "Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation -"

That pure special diet is one some want their children to be exclusively fed. Proverbs reminds such parents, "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." Rather than a child free to explore the religions of this world, its cultures and philosophies so they can create their own identity, it is about a child continuing a parent's self identity.

Children are not given the vote or expected to do jury service for a simple reason; they are children. The complexities of the big questions in society, or determining innocence or guilt in a trial would make it absurd to argue they have the competence that an adult would. There is no such thing as a Muslim child, an atheist child, let alone a Capitalist child or Marxist child, for this reason.

However, some will try and argue that children have their own faith. That complex questions as to the route to salvation, the nature of God, which religion is the true religion for this, can be answered by a child. That it is them expressing their faith when it comes to dress at school.

John Lewis is offering the hijab as part of selling school uniforms. The usual bigots and hate mongers are in hysterics in ways they are not about other expressions of faith in school. Like mandated Christian prayer at assembly, as if the state should have any right to say how we should worship. Selective outrage at children being used as an extension of parent's beliefs so as to further the far right, need condemning.

[My article defending right to wear Niqab, let alone hijab, in public can be read here]

Parents have the household, and place of worship to teach and provide a spiritual diet for their child. A school is an academic establishment. It is not the place to be a surrogate parent in religious instruction. Ideas and values, which may challenge the religious views of parents, must not be hindered.

Children clapping, listening to music, singing happy birthday, dancing, mixed gender physical education, learning about other faiths – these are not something to exempt children from. No child would naturally do so without being told this is wrong, this is against our religion so you are forbidden.

There needs to be one place where children are free from prejudices masquerading as faith to distort their world view. Women are equal to men – there is no need to segregate them in class, or to cover your head when puberty and menstruation occurs (let alone before) as a sign of religious observance. In the classroom, you are not children of faith. Not owned by the culture or religion of your parents or a religious community, that demands you – or teachers – are adorned as such.

Adults are independent autonomous individuals. That can make their own choices. For example, in South Africa there is a drive to increase circumcision. Men are not lining the streets for the operation. The solution proposed is to mandate new born children who cannot object or consider that using condoms would be the effective way at reducing HIV transmission.

So unless you are going to argue that out of the mouth's of babes such permission would be forthcoming, that toddlers could vote in a referendum on Scottish independence, that a young adolescent is ready to hold high office as political views fully formed – stop claiming there is such a thing as a Muslim child, a Christian Child, or an atheist child.

Let children have a free space where they are not a proxy in culture wars, the pawns of orthodox religious views or bit players for racist propaganda. One area of their lives where they can learn in an environment that encourages them to think critically for themselves. Promoting an all round education. Schools must have that function or else children will not have their own space to develop on their own terms.

A school uniform is about identity, that they are students of an educational establishment. Not one that encourages them to be abstractions of a parent's faith to make their children different from others. Social cohesion matters, and in a childlike way school uniforms work:

Macy Vallance, a year-eight student, says: "I like uniforms because everyone is the same and no one can be left out by the way they are dressed. Our new uniform looks smarter, which is good."

My uniform might not be what I would wear in my own time, but it gives me a sense of belonging, takes away the pressure of what to wear and deters the bullies. School uniform isn't fashionable, but that's exactly why I think it should be here to stay.

[The Guardian]

A sense of belonging without anyone feeling left out or different. That is the ball game, which really encourages children to grow. Segregation, in all it's guises, must be resisted. It is the reason religious additions to school uniform must be challenged.

John Sargeant is a secular activist and commentator. He writes for Ask The Atheists, Left Foot Forward and the Huffington Post. This article was first published on the Homo Economicus blog and is reproduced here with kind permission. You can follow him on Twitter @JPSargeant78

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

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