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Newsline 25 July 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.

Equality and Human Rights Commission: gender segregation at campus events “unlawful”

Equality and Human Rights Commission: gender segregation at campus events “unlawful”

News | Mon, 21 Jul 2014

The National Secular Society has welcomed new legal guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission clarifying that gender segregation of university and campus events is unlawful.

A parent’s perspective: a review of the ‘collective worship’ requirement is long overdue

A parent’s perspective: a review of the ‘collective worship’ requirement is long overdue

Opinion | Fri, 25 Jul 2014

As a parent of a 6 year old daughter, Alison Fenwick argues that the obligation on schools to 'worship' impinges on her parental right to raise her child in accordance with her own beliefs.

I first became concerned about the status of the Christian religion in English schools when I attended my daughter's primary school assembly and saw several tapestries on the walls depicting scenes from the Bible, and when our daughter told us that sometimes in assemblies, pupils 'pray' to 'God'. As our daughter attends a community school and not a 'faith school', this came as quite a surprise.

As we have recently moved to the UK from Australia, it has been troubling to see the more overt role religion plays in the state schools here. By comparison, in Australia students have a timetabled 'scripture' class, where the parents can choose for their child to attend a range of different classes depending on their faith, or, crucially, to attend 'non-scripture' (which the majority chose in my experience). Australia has been experimenting with introducing 'Ethics' from Year 4 as an alternative to Religion in primary schools, and those trials have been very positively received. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the churches in Sydney have objected loudly to this move.

Religions know all too well that the best way to enrol new followers is to get them young. Not only are they more impressionable, but also far less likely to question an adult's authority, or have any capacity to distinguish the difference between a teacher who tells them that 2+2=4 and one who tells them that God created the world and everything in it. At a young age, most children want to conform and belong. Religions are well aware that if they make an inroad into cultural habit by making their faith an integral part of that, then they may just have snagged a believer for life.

As a result of our concerns I met with my daughter's head teacher. She assured me that the curriculum demanded that a 'multi-faith programme of study' be in place, and that children are taught about many faiths and the role that faith plays in different people's lives. She did however admit that there was sometimes praying in assembly, and assured me that she would in future remind her staff that if they were to deliver a Christian assembly, then they would preface any act of prayer with the words 'if you would like to, then you can bow your heads to pray'. She expressed a personal preference to invite the children to have 'quiet reflection time', which is easily done and far more palatable.

I also stressed the need to preface explanations in RE lessons and assemblies with a phrase such as 'Christians believe that…..' or 'Sikhs believe that…', etc. I don't think one can be over-sensitive about how crucial that distinction is for young children. They need to be able to distinguish intellectually and semantically between 'fact' and 'belief'.

My concern is that apathy and a lack of imagination have been the driving force behind many schools' compliance with the anachronistic edict to have "collective worship" in schools. For many, it's simply a box ticking exercise for Ofsted.

But we as parents have the right to ensure that schools do not impede our right to raise our children in accordance with our beliefs. It's entirely reasonable to want to protect children from being compelled to worship anything. We shouldn't need to withdraw our children from any part of the school day in order to have this right respected.

It's hard to see how 'collective worship' can be reconciled with 21st century thinking and cultural and religious diversity. Reviewing the very use of such an overtly religious word as 'worship' would be a good start.

An ideological clash is inevitable as soon as one 'side' or other wants to dig its heels in – but a review of the 'collective worship' requirement is well overdue. Organised religions – predominantly Christian ones – have had an open door to recruitment in our state schools for far too long, and have been allowed to have a disproportionate influence in a modern world which is at odds with the thinking of the 1940s, when this requirement became statutory. As a parent, I strongly support a push for a review of the role of religion in schools, and an end to the legal obligation on schools to worship.

Alison Fenwick is a secondary school teacher and mother to a 6 year old daughter. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

The world must respond to the cry of Iraq’s Christians

The world must respond to the cry of Iraq’s Christians

Opinion | Thu, 24 Jul 2014

Religious cleansing in Iraq is making a "hateful mockery" of international law which should protect people and uphold their freedom to follow our own beliefs, argues Lord Alton

The last Christian has now been expelled from Mosul. The light of religious freedom, along with the entire Christian presence, has been extinguished in the Bible's "great city of Nineveh" — the centre of Christianity in Iraq for two millennia. This follows the uncompromising ultimatum by the jihadists of Isis to convert or die.

On Sunday Pope Francis expressed his profound anguish: "Our brothers are persecuted, they are cast out, they are forced to leave their homes without having the chance to take anything with them." The UN Security Council has denounced these crimes but we desperately need to do more.

Before pitilessly exiling the Christians on foot, Isis stole everything they had — homes, businesses, cars, money and even wedding rings, sometimes with the ring fingers attached. Churches have all been destroyed, shuttered or turned into mosques.

Isis has taken a sledgehammer to the tomb of Jonah, replaced the cross with the black Islamic flag on top of Mosul's St Ephrem's cathedral, and beheaded or crucified any Muslim who dared to dissent.

Even before the arrival of Isis, targeted persecution of Iraq's Christians, who still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was ignored. The numbers in Mosul have gone from 30,000 to zero.

Iraq is now a disintegrating failed state. The only people who have successfully withstood Isis are the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. To their credit, the Kurdish leadership has been generously offering safe haven to Mosul's fleeing Christians and has asked for international aid to help it do so. This crisis justifies huge humanitarian and resettlement aid that could include micro and business loans to help people to help themselves. The West must also press the Gulf to end the funding of Isis.

Overall the world must wake up urgently to the plight of the ancient churches throughout the region who are faced with the threat of mass murder and mass displacement. The UN claims it has "a duty to protect", while Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, born in the embers of the Holocaust, insists that each of us must be free to follow our own beliefs.

The religious cleansing and unspeakable bigotry at work in Mosul makes hateful mockery of both.

Lord Alton of Liverpool is a crossbench peer and this week lead a House of Lords debate on Article 18.This article first appeared in The Times and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

Essays of the Week

Celebrating diversity means imposing misogyny
(Nick Cohen, the Spectator)

Gender segregation: why the latest EHRC guidance for universities is a Secular victory
(Chris Malburn, Huffington Post)

British Muslims must confront the truth of the 'Trojan Horse' schools
(Douglas Murray, the Spectator)

NSS Speaks Out

Our executive director Keith Porteous Wood discussed the role of religion in schools on a number of BBC local radio stations, and NSS President Terry Sanderson appeared on LBC arguing against a proposal to Make Eid and Diwali Public Holidays.

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