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Newsline 24 March 2016

Another terror attack has struck at the heart of our secular ideals – freedom of speech, democracy, equality, freedom of and from religion. Now is the time for us all to unite as citizens in standing up for these principles, to prevent terrorism from threatening our cherished way of life.

Last Saturday we announced our Secularist of the Year – Educate Together, who show what our schools can look like when secularist principles are put into action. You can read more about Educate Together's work opening inclusive, equality-based schools below.

All of our work depends on you, our supporters, and we need your support more than ever. If you're not already a member, please join the Society today and put your principles into action.

There will not be an issue of Newsline next week but it will return as normal on Friday 8 April.

Christian country? Politicians should be careful what they wish for

Christian country? Politicians should be careful what they wish for

Opinion | Wed, 23 Mar 2016

The demise of Anglican Christianity won't herald a uniformly secularised society, but a fractured country where the vast, non-religious majority contend with vocal religious minorities. Secularism must mediate this, argues Benjamin Jones.

A steady stream of regular headlines announce the near-total collapse of Christianity in the UK. But as the BBC's "The Battle for Christianity" documentary shows – that is not the whole picture.

Christianity in the UK is undergoing a radical transformation – away from the village churches of the fading Church of England, towards a form of religiosity once totally alien to Britain.

As the writer Ben Judah puts it, London in particular is experiencing a "religious awakening".

That is taking place against a backdrop of growing religious indifference and secularisation in wider society, but it is hugely significant nonetheless. Christianity in the UK is rapidly becoming unrecognisable.

Judah wrote in the Catholic Herald: "The villages and the small towns in the provinces, not inner London, are where the godless are." Inner cities, fuelled by mass immigration, have seen for many years the infusion of forms of Christianity that are deeply dissimilar to mainstream Anglicanism.

Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC's Head of Religion & Ethics, in a piece published before the documentary's broadcast, asked, "if among this growth is a more assertive Christianity with conflicting views with society on homosexuality, for example, then how do we deal with this?"

If society was becoming uniformly less religious, a secular state would remove anachronisms and be more representative of the population.

If society was becoming uniformly more religious, a secular state would protect the non-religious minority while ensuring religious freedom of the many did not coerce the few.

In fact, society is becoming less religious generally, but some types of radical Christianity characterised by biblical literalism are getting louder and larger (the fastest growing Christian denomination in the UK is a Pentecostal church), while the Christianity still practised by modest numbers of originally British people is liberalising, and more liberal than its leadership. On top of all that, the religious segment of the population (including all minority faiths) is becoming more splintered.

Bishop Alan Wilson warned in the programme of Christianity's fractious future: "I think it is possible that Christianity will become more sectarianized" and split into small, incompatible groups. He said it would be a "very sad future for Christianity".

How to deal with this? At the moment we have a state that accords faith a special role. That obviously causes problems already – but if that position were to be usurped by a much more "assertive" form of Christianity, there would be chaos. Unfortunately, given the precedent Establishment sets, this is a possible outcome.

Religious privileges might be expanded to encompass other faiths – perhaps one day by allowing non-Anglican religious leaders ex officio seats in the House of Lords. There have already been calls for this type of disastrous multi-faithist policy.

Christian Research projects, by 2050, that the Anglican Church will command less than 10% of church-attendance (which is still rapidly declining as a percentage of the overall population) and that "all other" denominations, excluding the Catholic and Anglican churches, will hold over 45% of the total church attendance.

If, as seems certain, Christianity is reduced to a proportionally small rump of the population which is split internally, and minority religions (principally Islam) are rapidly rising thanks to high birth rates and immigration, how can religion and wider society fit together? How can they even cope?

The only way to mediate between these competing religious groups – as the young United States understood – is a Government disinterested in each of them, which grants no special favours, nor places any undue burden on their freedoms. How any kind of common citizenship can exist in such a society is another question, one which may have no answer.

When the politicians of today defend a 'Christian country' they should be careful what they wish for. The mild Anglicanism they defend today may not exist forever, it certainly won't be dominant or even normative for long, and its privileges can easily be taken by other religious groups.

Ahmed also asks in his promotion for the documentary, "If there are more diverse forms of Christianity growing alongside other faiths, can we continue with our blind ignorance and relegation of faith and believers?"

An "ignorance" of faith is not necessarily blind, and it is certainly not a "relegation" of faith and believers to be religiously disinterested as so many in our society are.

He says also that there is a "chronic lack of religious literacy in society" that must be rectified. Of course children should be educated at school about religion (rather than in religion) and prima facie it's a reasonable enough claim. But religious literacy is also a Trojan Horse for those trying to get more religion into schools and elevating the public role of religion generally.

Experts or enthusiasts for any field or subject will think the public is badly informed – often with very good reason.

YouGov found that 34% didn't know when WW1 began. 44% didn't know when it ended. One-in-ten young adults thought the Battle of Britain might have been a Viking attack. 15% of 18-24 year olds think Cromwell led the British fleet at Trafalgar. Little over 10% of university students in one lecturer's poll could name a single 19th century British Prime Minister.

Historical 'illiteracy' blends into religious illiteracy. Many of the students in that same poll had never heard of the Reformation and some didn't even know what Protestant meant.

So given this, where should religion be prioritised against science, history, PSHE? The school timetable is bursting at the seams from campaigns to include many, many worthy subjects in the curriculum.

Though religious leaders won't like to admit it – it is entirely possible for somebody born in Britain today to live their entire lives without any real contact with different religions. In part this is because of the balkanised society we are building – fuelled, incidentally, by faith schools. So the advocates of more and more religion in our education system have something to answer for in that regard.

It should be acknowledged that indifference to religion is a perfectly reasonable position to hold and not always the result of "illiteracy". Far from it.

In the meantime, given these immense changes, should our politicians really be defending privileges for organised religion of any kind? Would they be willing to do so for these more "assertive" forms of immigrant Christianity, or for the most mild form of Islam? I hope not.

It is short-sighted to frame our national identity in terms of our being a Christian country. By 2050 that will mean something very different.

Benjamin Jones is the communications officer of the National Secular Society. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS. Follow him on Twitter: @BenJones1707.

"The Battle for Christianity" was broadcast on BBC1 on 22 Mar and is now available on iPlayer.

Gender segregation: breaking the law to appease Islamism

Gender segregation: breaking the law to appease Islamism

Opinion | Mon, 21 Mar 2016

The LSE and their Students' Union need to stop breaking equality legislation that is designed to protect students, and start listening to the Muslim women challenging gender segregation, argues Chris Moos.

Students and staff at the London School of Economics (LSE) are accustomed to being in the limelight. Whether it is taking money from North-African dictators, promoting anti-Muslim and homophobic charities or harassing atheist students for their 'blasphemous' t-shirts – LSE is often at the centre of controversy.

Now, another facet has been added to the picture. The London School of Economics Students' Union Islamic Society recently held a gender segregated dinner.

The legal situation is clear. In their guidance on 'Gender segregation at Events and Meetings: guidance for Universities and Students' Unions', the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) states that:

Gender segregation is not permitted in any academic meetings or at events, lectures or meetings provided for students, or at events attended by members of the public or employees of the university or the students' union (EHRC, 2014: 2).

And yet, an alliance of university administrators, Students' Unions representatives in the person of the LSESU General Secretary Nona Buckley-Irvine, and Islamist apologists have been defending, condoning and justifying the gender segregation, or their lack of action against it. As I will show, their arguments are in direct contravention to the guidance of the EHRC and the existing equality legislation.

1. "This was a private event outside the university premises – hence equality legislation does not apply"

The first claim is that the event was organised by the Students' Union outside of LSE premises. Hence, a "private" event would not be covered by equality legislation.

An employer cannot evade responsibility for events held outside its premises, for example in the case of sexual harassment at office parties. In the same vein, simply moving an event down the road to the next best facility to circumvent equality legislation does not lead to the creation of a space devoid of equality law. Universities have a duty of care for students, whether or not the events organised through the university or students' union take place on the premises of the university.

This is confirmed by the EHRC, which states that:

"Equality law applies to meetings or events on the premises of the university, or in premises used by the students' union (including outside the university's premises)" (EHRC, 2014: 4)."

Equality legislation thus applies to this event.

2. "The event was an act of worship – hence equality legislation does not apply"

Acts of worship are excluded from equality legislation. Exemptions apply, and gender segregation is permissible in communal accommodations, toilets or changing facilities, or for the purpose of sport or welfare provision. However, as the evidence shows, the event was a dinner featuring guest speakers, including non-Muslim guests in the form the General Secretary of the Students' Union – not an act of worship.

Knowing this, some have now started to claim the event did include a prayer, and therefore as a whole would fall under the exemption from the equality law. The inclusion of a prayer does however not make a social event an act of worship.

The EHRC has accounted for that possibility, and states that:

"Where religious worship is followed by a guest speaker, or a meeting to which others are invited, it is recommended that information is requested [by the university] about the purpose of the meeting and about the seating arrangements (as segregation is not permissible unless an exception [see above] applies)(EHRC, 2014: 9)."

As the advertised purpose of the event was not worship, but dinner, even if it may have included a prayer, the segregation was thus not permissible.

3. "The gender segregation was voluntary – hence equality legislation does not apply"

Genuinely voluntary segregation is legal, in the same sense as people choosing freely where to sit in a public space is legal. Some have however claimed that the segregation at the event was "entirely voluntary", or that there was "no evidence" that attendees were forced to comply with segregation. This is untrue, as students have been reported to have found the segregation "intimidating".

Whether or not this is accurate, the related claim is that those critical of the segregation would need to prove that attendees were involuntarily segregated, and that those uncomfortable with segregation would have needed to air their disapproval for it to become involuntary. This places the burden of proof on the victim of segregation, not the organiser or facilitator.

Victims of discrimination do not lose their rights when, understandably, they do not speak up. Neither is failure to air disapproval of discrimination evidence for the absence of discrimination. Equality legislation applies whether or not victims of discrimination feel comfortable to publicly speak up against a discriminatory provision or not.

Importantly, this claim also ignores that gender segregation is taking place in a religious setting where challenging alleged religious rules is depicted as "un-islamic" in order to portray non-compliant women or men as deviant or traitors to their community. Given the hypersexualised environment of some Islamic groupings, Muslim women who challenge gender segregation are viciously abused by Islamists, while men are smeared as getting gratification out of sitting next to Muslim women.

Thus, the burden of proof that gender segregation is entirely voluntary lies with the organiser and the university, not the victim, as the EHRC explicitly states:

"In order to protect themselves from liability in relation to a claim for discrimination, universities and students' unions would need to satisfy themselves thoroughly that any gender segregation was wholly and demonstrably voluntary, both at the booking stage and during the event, and should be mindful of the impracticability of attaining in this regard a level of certainty which would be likely to satisfy a court (EHRC, 2014: 5)."

Therefore:

"To be voluntary, all attendees would need to be at liberty freely to choose where they wished to sit without any direction, whether explicit or merely an implicit expectation (EHRC, 2014: 6)."

Separate tickets and phone numbers for contacting the organisers for "brothers" and "sisters", and a seven foot screen to segregate genders clearly demonstrate that at the very least there was some degree of direction and expectation as to the seating arrangements.

The EHRC considers this a clear case of violation of the equality laws, as:

"Segregation is not voluntary where any one individual feels that their choice is constrained due to a pressure to conform to separate seating arrangements of any form in the venue, regardless of whether they have been explicitly directed or instructed as to where they can sit (EHRC, 2014: 6)."

As neither the Students' Union nor LSE can prove that the gender segregation was entirely voluntary, without direction, instruction or expectation, this constitutes a clear violation of equality legislation.

4. "LSE did not know that the LSESU Islamic Society was gender segregating their events, so did not have the duty to prevent it from happening"

As the press statements show, LSE is trying to suggest that it had no knowledge about the gender segregation, or could not have known that gender segregation has been a regular feature of LSE events in the past.

When I was a student at LSE, I have myself reported a total of nine occasions that I had come across where the LSESU Islamic Society organised gender segregated social events, similar to the dinner of last week. In several emails to LSE Pro-Director Paul Kelly and Director Craig Calhoun between December 2014 and February 2015, I pointed out that the LSE was in clear violation of equality legislation. My concerns were dismissed, and no precautions were taken to ensure that gender segregation did not reoccur.

Yet, the guidance of the EHRC states that: "If the university only learnt of the compulsory gender segregation after the event, then it would need to take steps to ensure that it did not re-occur in the future, in order to avoid infringement of the [Equality] Act (EHRC, 2014:10)."

The fact that LSE Students' Union has condoned the discriminatory nature of this event, and that the LSE has been fully aware that gender segregation has been regularly occurring at their events aggravates this matter. Both the Students' Union and the University have not only shown disregard for the rights and welfare of their students, but also for the Equality Act 2010.

It thus does not take a lot of legal expertise to see LSE is in clear breach of equality legislation.

As I have argued before, this is not a surprise. Universities around the country are breaking the law, sacrificing gender equality in order to appease the demands of increasingly extreme and sexist religious student groups. Will it take homosexuals or the non-religious to disappear behind seven foot separation walls for universities to understand that as much as racial equality, gender equality is a basic human right?

Tehmina Kazi, Director of British Muslims for a Secular Democracy and LSE alumni, is worried about this development:

"I am saddened and appalled that our successors at the LSE seem to have prioritised cultural relativism above equality and human rights. Whether they realise it or not, they are doing a tremendous disservice to dissenters within minority religious communities.

"We must be very clear: when it comes to university events that fall outside the (narrow) Equality Act exemptions, separate is never equal."

When will the LSE and their Students' Union stop breaking equality legislation designed to protect students, and start listening to women like Tehmina?

Chris Moos (@ChrisMoos_) is a secularist activist. He has successfully campaigned for the right to free expression and against gender segregation at universities, as well as the accommodation of religious codes in the British legal system.

The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

This blog was originally posted by The Freethinker, and is republished here by permission of the author.

Should the Church of England be disestablished?

Should the Church of England be disestablished?

The marriage of church and state has lasted five centuries, but is it now time for a divorce? Do Anglican bishops sitting in the House of Lords retain any political relevance in our national life? Might a split be better for both? Linda Woodhead and Reverend Lucy Winkett offer interesting perspectives on this debate in Prospect Magazine.

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