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Newsline 26 April 2013

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Catholic midwives succeed in attempt to extend “conscience” exemption

Catholic midwives succeed in attempt to extend “conscience” exemption

News | Wed, 24 Apr 2013

Two Catholic midwives have won a legal battle for the right to conscientious exemption from all involvement with abortions. Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood argued that being required to supervise staff taking part in abortions violated their human rights.

Why are children being forced into faith schools?

Why are children being forced into faith schools?

Opinion | Thu, 25 Apr 2013

By Stephen Evans, Campaigns Manager, National Secular Society

When primary school places were allocated in England last week, around sixty thousand families missed out on their first choice of school. For some parents, this meant their children being placed in a 'faith' school – often against their wishes.

In one of the more farcical cases, non-religious parents were unsuccessful at securing a place in any of the five community schools they listed as preferences – and have instead been allocated a place for their son at an Orthodox Jewish School that aims to 'promote religious beliefs and practices fostering a pride in their Jewish identity'.

Naturally, this isn't the kind of education they had in mind for their son.

Then consider that the local authority also allocated a child from a Muslim family at this same Jewish school (again against the family's wishes) and you have the makings of a sitcom. But for the parents involved, it really isn't that funny.

The Government argue that the existence of 'faith' schools creates a diversity of provision that offers greater opportunity for parental choice. But for the non-religious, and those not of the dominant Christian faith, the exact opposite is often true.

In many areas, particularly rural locations, schooling with a 'religious' ethos is the only game in town, and parents are left with little choice but to hand their children over to the Church to be educated.

How on earth did we get into the position where a state education system in one of the most secularised nations in the world isn't able to provide parents with a secular education for their children?

Of course, one reason is that in terms of a national system of education, the Church got there first. Its dominance in our schools is a product of historical circumstances – but circumstances have changed radically in the past 50 years. The Church's past role no longer justifies its enormous influence over our education system today.

Around a third of our state funded schools now have a religious ethos – the vast majority Christian. This is juxtaposed against a background of rapidly diminishing religious belief in the UK, which highlights not only how unsustainable and inefficient this is, but importantly, just how inappropriate it all is.

Religiosity in the UK is not only in decline, it is also becoming increasingly diverse. Northern Ireland is a living example of why the least appropriate response to this situation is to create a state education system where religious groups are encouraged and funded to open schools for parents that wish to segregate their children by their religious beliefs. But this is precisely the road successive Governments have gone down.

Conscious of the inherent unfairness of the dominance of Christian church schools within our school system (but unwilling to challenge it), part of the appeal to the Government of the free schools initiative is that it enables religious minorities to open schools that cater specifically to their religious and cultural beliefs.

Minority faith groups are now starting to see the appeal. We've recently seen a flurry of new free schools with a Sikh ethos being proposed. This is unfortunate, because in many ways, Sikhs have been the most successful at fully integrating themselves into British society. The fear is that with a proliferation of single faith schools, this could now be put at risk.

However 'inclusive' these schools claim to be, you can't escape the fact that the intention is to segregate children into religious groups and inculcate them. Even when minority-faith free schools only select 50% of their pupils on faith grounds, the majority of the remaining places are filled with children from that same faith background because only families from that particular faith background find them appealing.

That leaves a mono-religious, and often mono-ethnic school environment that denies children the opportunity to meet and make friends with a mix of people in a secular setting – which is, I would argue, the best preparation for life in modern Britain.

But as Professor Ted Cantle, Chair of the Interculturalism Community Cohesion (iCoCo) Foundation, has pointed out (pdf), this is an issue nobody seems willing to tackle. Partly because it's in the 'too difficult' box, but mostly because of a lack of will and imagination of political leaders to work towards a shared society.

It's already unacceptable that young people's rights are being violated by the law requiring a daily act of (broadly Christian) worship in all state schools. But it is intolerable that as the shortage of primary school places becomes more acute, an increasing number of families are finding the only state education available to them comes with a 'religious ethos' attached.

A report from the National Audit Office last month said an estimated 250,000 new places (mainly primary) will be needed by autumn 2014 to meet rising demand caused by the rising birth rate. Meanwhile, the body that represents London's 33 local authorities says at least 118,000 more state-funded school places will be needed in London alone within the next three years.

These places need to be created in non-selective and inclusive community schools that provide education without feeling the need to push religion on pupils at every possible opportunity – because the fact that we're forcing children into 'faith' schools against the wishes of their parents is nothing short of a national disgrace.

See also: Shared schools report is an opportunity lost

Christian activists just won’t let it go

Christian activists just won’t let it go

Opinion | Mon, 22 Apr 2013

By Terry Sanderson

You've got to give them full marks for sheer bloody-mindedness.

I'm talking about the paranoid Christian activists obsessed with the idea that they are being persecuted in the workplace. They have brought numerous cases to British courts to try to prove this, and all of them have failed. They have been to tribunals, Crown Courts, High Courts, Appeal Courts, the Supreme Court and then the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). They failed to convince any of them that there was any of the discrimination they claimed.

Instead of just accepting that they were wrong, they are now making a final attempt by applying for a hearing at the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights – which has the power to overturn ECtHR judgments. But the Grand Chamber hears only very few cases, so the odds are stacked against them getting a hearing.

The papers they have submitted to the court concern the cases of Shirley Chaplin, the nurse who was made to remove a dangling necklace (that happened to have a cross on it) because of health and safety concerns; Gary McFarlane, the Relate counsellor who refused to treat gay couples equally; and Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who refused to provide civil partnerships for same-sex couples.

All these cases were rejected by the ECtHR in Strasbourg earlier this year, although in the case of Lillian Ladele, two judges issued a dissenting judgment claiming that "conscience is being sacrificed on the altar of obsessive political correctness".

This time Ms Ladele's lawyers will argue that her case could have "huge implications" regarding whether other workers, such as teachers or social workers, will be forced to "promote" gay marriage after it becomes law.

According to newspaper reports, the trio's representatives will up the already inflated rhetoric, arguing that "British courts are applying double standards towards Christians for 'political' reasons," and that human rights laws have been used to "effectively outlaw beliefs which have been held for millennia while affording special recognition to minority opinions on anything from fox hunting to climate change."

The Daily Telegraph, which has seen the papers that have been submitted, reports that they claim:

"Self-evidently absurd" health and safety rules are being used as a "ruse" to prevent Christians wearing crosses while outward expressions of other faiths are welcomed, they say. An overzealous and one-sided interpretation of rules has brought human rights law itself into disrepute and exposed the British judiciary itself to "ridicule".

In January, the lower chamber of the Strasbourg court ruled in favour of Nadia Eweida, a BA check-in clerk who was told the cross she wore contravened the airline's uniform policy – which has since been changed.

Ms Eweida, and her supporters at the Christian Legal Centre, have since trumpeted this as a "major victory" – but, in fact, nothing has changed. The court ruled in her favour because, in the light of much adverse publicity, BA rapidly changed its policy to accommodate her. The court reasoned that if the airline could change its policy so quickly and easily, it could not have been essential in the first place.

However, crosses can still be banned in the workplace if there is a good reason to do it, one that could be justified in court. That is what happened in the case of Shirley Chaplin. The hospital she worked for ruled that her jewellery posed a health and safety risk, and the court accepted that it was a reasonable justification for asking her to remove it.

In the case of Gary McFarlane, barrister (and master of hyperbole) Paul Diamond argues: "He was dismissed for his 'thoughts' and 'religious beliefs' on a wholly theoretical basis. The case directly raises the question of conscience and 'thought crime'."

The lawyers say in their papers:

"The United Kingdom has an overall good record on human rights; in recent years this has come into sharp contrast due a number of decisions made against Christians.

"Christian views on the upbringing of children by two parents have not been recognised as a religious view at all; whilst views on global warming, fox hunting, and even the BBC as a public broadcaster have been recognised."

Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting Mr McFarlane and Mrs Chaplin, also increased the volume by saying:

"We are throwing down the gauntlet to David Cameron to decide once and for all whether he is in favour of religious freedom or not. These are cases where the only victims were the Christians trying to live out their faith in the workplace but who were driven out for doing so. As the pleadings in Gary McFarlane's case make clear, Christians are now being punished for 'thought crimes'."

Although it's unlikely that these cases will get a further hearing, we can't be complacent. We have only to look at what happened in the Lautsi case to see that when religion gets into gear it can throw justice off course. But the Lautsi decision was reversed mainly because the Vatican wanted it reversed. I don't think Andrea Minichiello Williams or Paul Diamond have quite the same clout.

Fitnah! Movement for women’s liberation founded

Fitnah! Movement for women’s liberation founded

News | Thu, 25 Apr 2013

A new women's liberation group called Fitnah! has been created as a protest movement demanding freedom, equality, and secularism.

Despite secular constitution, Fiji government won’t rule out prayer at official functions

Despite secular constitution, Fiji government won’t rule out prayer at official functions

News | Tue, 23 Apr 2013

With Fiji set to become a secular state when the new constitution comes into effect, it has been confirmed that "general prayers acceptable to all" will be said in government organised functions.

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NSS Speaks Out

Keith Porteous Wood had this blog on the website ahead of the vote on caste discrimination in parliament on Monday. After the Government backed down he was quoted by the BBC, in the Independent, MSN India, Solicitors Journal and Economic Times (India).

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