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Newsline 25 October 2013

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The RE Report – A missed opportunity

The RE Report – A missed opportunity

Opinion | Fri, 25 Oct 2013

The RE Council's report has been well received. However, with the decline in church attendance and increasing evangelism in schools, Keith Porteous Wood argues vital opportunities to reform RE have been missed.

The Religious Education Council Report is a missed opportunity because it fails to acknowledge how RE should be reformed to accommodate the decades of plummeting church attendances – now only 4% of pupils and their parents attend church on an average Sunday.

Presumably this, and RE being the least popular subject, is why the Report refers to the "RE community" feeling a "sense of crisis". Could the hand wringing and failure to grasp the nation's scepticism over religion be because the RE Council consists of 60 "faith groups", and deeply religious academics ­– many of whom have vested interest in promulgating their ideas in schools?

The Church of England's religious supremo, told the General Synod: "The clergy ought to have a camp bed in [schools] for heaven's sake! We don't have to bemoan the fact that our Sunday school has collapsed if there are 200 children at the local church school. The first big challenge is truly owning the centrality of our church schools in our mission..."

The Chair of the Catholic Education Service similarly says: "The Catholic ethos...should be incarnate in all aspects of school life, so that they may be effective instruments of the New Evangelisation."

Extreme evangelical groups are also targeting schools, even community schools. Parents are horrified when they discover that these groups are giving their children highly contestable messages on topics such as premarital sex and homosexuality. Our mailbag shows this proselytising is often done without parental permission.

It is no surprise that the Report failed to acknowledge this rise in school evangelism, or call — as it should have done — for publicly funded schools to be banned from evangelising and faith schools (that non-believing families are increasingly forced to attend) from claiming their denomination or religion is the only true one.

The RE settlement with the Government has not changed since 1944, England and Wales are the only countries on the world where daily (mainly) Christian worship remains mandatory in every school. The National Secular Society maintains it should not be the business of the state to try to revive these religions through pumping scarce time and public funds into raising knowledge about them. It should be the basics only, and on an objective basis. Any more, if desired, should be for the home or place of worship.

The whole subject should be completely rethought. A good start would be to abandon the implicit assumption that it is better to be religious than not, and call the subject Philosophy and Ethics. Yet the RE Council predictably dismisses this, it seems because it diminishes pupils' "understanding of the nature of religion in general". And the new subject should incorporate citizenship, a far better way of encouraging community cohesion than dwelling on the religious minutiae the divide us.

Chaos in the workplace will follow if this case succeeds

Chaos in the workplace will follow if this case succeeds

Opinion | Mon, 21 Oct 2013

If an employer can reasonably accommodate religious requests without disrupting their business or disadvantaging their other staff, we have no objection. But if they can't, then employers should have the right to say "no" argues Terry Sanderson.

Just when you thought we had seen the end of foolish legal challenges by the Christian Legal Centre along comes another attempt to gain religious privilege in the workplace.

Now they are backing a Baptist woman who wants every Sunday off from her work as a children's care worker on religious grounds.

Celestina Mba will try to overturn a previous Employment Appeals Tribunal ruling against her, arguing that an employer has a duty to "reasonably accommodate" the beliefs of a Christian employee.

She brought a case for constructive dismissal against the council she worked for, the London Borough of Merton, but it failed on the grounds that observing the Sabbath was not a "core component" of the Christian faith because some believers were prepared to work on a Sunday. The case also turned partly on whether the employer could justify Sunday working as a "legitimate business need".

The case is backed by the ever-litigious Andrea Williams of the Christian Legal Centre whose track record in trying to establish new "rights" (that is to say, privileges) for Christians in the workplace has, up until now, failed almost totally.

This one looks doomed, too, mainly because it is far from reasonable to permit Christians to have every Sunday off work as of right.

Not only would this potentially disadvantage these Christians' co-workers — who also might want to have Sunday off to spend with their children and family — but it isn't really very fair on their employers who might have difficulty covering Sundays…

In a business like a care home, you can't just leave the residents to their own devices on Sunday. They can't just be put in a cupboard and forgotten about until Monday morning.

And this is true of all essential services. If Christians are permitted to demand every Sunday off, then why shouldn't Muslims be permitted to have every Friday off and Jews every Saturday? Indeed, as the law stands, if the Christian Legal Centre succeeds in the case, it will have to extend to all religions.

If you are working in a job that requires 24/7 coverage every day of the week (e.g. police officer, firefighter, or nurse) people can't just be excused duties because they claim to be religious.

If an employer can reasonably accommodate these religious requests without disrupting their business or disadvantaging their other staff, then we have no objection. But if they can't, then employers should have the right to say "no".

Christians know the deal when they apply for a job. If the working hours don't suit their religious preferences, and their religious preferences are more important to them than making a living, then they should look elsewhere for a job.

Mrs Mba now has a job where her employer has no problem letting her have Sundays off, so it can be done.

But to try to make it a legally enforceable right is selfish, and has the potential to cause absolute nightmares for employers and their workplaces all over the country.

No new options on religious observance in Scottish schools

No new options on religious observance in Scottish schools

Opinion | Thu, 24 Oct 2013

The Scottish Government has responded to the petition lodged recently by the Scottish Secular Society to change the current parental opt-out option on Religious Observance to an opt-in.

The SSS had called for an amendment to the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 by making religious observance (RO) in public schools an "opt-in" activity rather than an "opt-out" one. Perhaps predictably, the Scottish Government, a strong advocate of religion in general and Christianity in particular, is not minded to change anything. In its Learning Directorate's response, all it does is repeat its current policy:

"Scottish Ministers are clear about the value that RO can have for young people in schools. It can offer opportunities for young people to reflect meaningfully on different points of view and values, including their own. It creates chances to think about the nature and possible meaning of life and humans' place in the world. It can promote critical thinking, supporting the development of an awareness that not all people think the same or share the same ideas and experiences about life. In this way, RO can contribute to development of the four capacities: successful learner, confident individual, effective contributor and responsible citizen."

Note here that this is not religious and moral education (RME) being discussed, where pupils might be expected to reflect on life's big questions through critical thinking. No, this is in the context of forced worship, without participating in which Scotland's future adult citizens will, apparently, be somehow deficient both as citizens and as human beings. The Scottish Government makes the claim that RO can contribute to the four capacities listed above, but nowhere is any attempt made to explain how or why this miracle of osmosis occurs, or on what basis its success or failure is to be measured.

The rest of the Scottish Government's response simply regurgitates its already known policy on forced worship in schools. It has however, clarified the policy on informing parents of their opt-out rights as they currently stand. In terms of parents' awareness and involvement, the Education (School and Placing Information) (Scotland) Regulations 2012 make provision about what a school's handbook should say about how the school plans and provides its curriculum, including RO. That includes how parents will be consulted about what pupils learn at the school, how parents will be informed of any sensitive aspects of learning, and how a parent can arrange for a pupil to be withdrawn from RO.

The response states: "Parents have the right to question what arrangements are in place, and schools should be well aware that some parents and carers will decide to opt children out of RO. Schools should be prepared and willing to engage with parents who wish to have more information about what is planned or indeed wish to discuss any concerns and possible courses of action."

What this doesn't say is that current Scottish Government guidance to school heads encourages them to dissuade parents from exercising their right to opt out, because RO "should also have a role in promoting the ethos of a school by bringing pupils together and creating a sense of community." The so-called encouragement to schools 'to inform parents of this without applying pressure to change their minds' is clearly intended to play a guilt-trip on parents that in withdrawing their children from RO they will be undermining the very ethos of the school.

What parent would want to be accused of that? And is it not possible for a school to develop an ethos and community spirit without forcing children to worship a god they don't believe in? Evidently not.

The response goes on to state that "The Scottish Government would fully expect schools to engage with parents in a spirit of openness and collaboration in all areas" which is disingenuous since its own guidelines on RO clearly infer that effort must be made by the school in the collaboration process to dissuade parents from exercising their rights. The guidelines on RO are hypocritical in the extreme: parents are to be encouraged to compromise their beliefs in the interests of the school ethos, but the instructions to heads also states regarding the beliefs of school chaplains "their own religious beliefs should be respected and they should not be asked, or expected, to compromise them."

Perhaps most bizarre is this passage in the response that "Children and young people, and indeed parents, have the right to be treated fairly and without discrimination." As some of you may have noticed, the Scottish education system is a model of discrimination in practice, with its Catholic faith schools permitted to discriminate in admissions and teacher employment and promotions. You really couldn't make this up!

As even the most casual of political observers will know, governments when in power rarely, if ever, admit that they might — just might — have got something wrong. What rankles most in the Scottish Government's response is that it says it is "not persuaded based on the evidence given that a move to an opt-in system would be helpful to young learners." In other words, it is conveniently ignoring the mountain of evidence given by the Scottish Secular Society and the NSS (via Education Scotland) of the widespread incursion of evangelicals into schools where they not only lead RO but also take RME classes, and of the widespread failure of schools to make the opt-out known to parents or to make the full extent and nature of RO known to them.

Alistair McBay is the NSS's spokesperson in Scotland. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Religious and conservative MEPs block vote on reproductive health and rights

Religious and conservative MEPs block vote on reproductive health and rights

News | Thu, 24 Oct 2013

Members of the European Parliament have blocked a vote on a progressive report that sought to promote the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) of EU citizens and beyond.

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NSS Speaks Out

NSS Scottish spokesperson Alistair McBay was on Radio 5 Live talking about claims by the BBC's head of religion that Britain is now religiously illiterate.

The case of the Christian woman who is suing her employer for the right to have every Sunday off for religious reasons resulted in quotes in the Daily Mirror from Campaigns Manager Stephen Evans and an opinion piece by Terry Sanderson to accompany it. Terry Sanderson was also interviewed about this on BBC Three Counties. Keith Porteous Wood gave interviews on BBC Tees and BBC Radio London on the same topic.

The RE Council's new report on religious education saw the NSS quoted in the Daily Telegraph. Terry Sanderson was interviewed about it on Radio Gloucester and LBC radio

Keith Porteous Wood was quoted in the Cambridge News on the topic of the christening of the royal baby.

Terry Sanderson recorded a debate on the topic of religion in schools for Premier Christian Radio (to be broadcast on Saturday in the "Unbelievable" slot).

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