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Newsline 28 October 2016

It's deeply concerning that Theresa May's plan to open a new wave of fully religiously selective 'faith' schools will not require new legislation or even the approval of Parliament. As our campaigns director states below, academisation has created an alarming democratic deficit at the heart of our schools system, and the fact that these regressive changes could be being made at the whim of the Prime Minister should concern us all. That's why it's so important that you respond to the Government's consultation on the issue. Lifting the 50% cap on faith-based admissions will undoubtedly lead to a proliferation of fully religiously selective faith schools. The consultation may be our only opportunity to oppose these dreadful plans. Please read our briefing on the proposed changes and respond to the Government consultation here.

Also in this week's Newsline we explain why the Ashers verdict, far from being the 'threat to free speech' that some have portrayed it as, was in fact a clear and logical judgment – and one we fully endorse.

Ashers Bakery loses appeal over cake with “Support Gay Marriage” slogan

Ashers Bakery loses appeal over cake with “Support Gay Marriage” slogan

News | Mon, 24 Oct 2016

A bakery firm which cancelled an order for a cake with the slogan "Support Gay Marriage" has lost its appeal against the ruling that they had unlawfully discriminated.

Had the Ashers ‘gay cake’ ruling gone the other way it would have seriously undermined equality law

Had the Ashers ‘gay cake’ ruling gone the other way it would have seriously undermined equality law

Opinion | Fri, 28 Oct 2016

Despite the outcry following this week's Ashers 'gay cake' ruling, Northern Ireland's Court of Appeal delivered a clear and logical judgment.

There was an outcry this week when the Christian bakers found to have discriminated against a gay man by refusing to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan lost their appeal against the ruling.

A number of commentators, some of whom normally take the same position on such matters as us, expressed concerns about its implications on freedom of expression and conscience.

The National Secular Society takes freedom of conscience and expression issues very seriously and so reserved judgment on the ruling until we'd had chance to consider it carefully. On reflection we fully endorse the decision and hope that this piece gives some of its detractors pause for thought.

We very much concur with the respected former BBC legal correspondent, Joshua Rozenburg, who described the judgment as "surprisingly straightforward". As he paraphrased the ruling, "the correct comparison was not with a straight man who wanted a 'gay' cake, which Ashers would have refused. It was with a gay or straight person who ordered a cake celebrating traditional marriage -- which the company would have supplied."

Ashers are perfectly at liberty to refuse to fulfil an order for the cake with the pro-same sex marriage message provided it would also refuse one with a pro opposite sex marriage too. They are now, understandably, going to limit themselves in future to birthday cakes, avoiding religious and political messages; arguably the cake message in question was both. This way, Ashers' proprietors can lawfully avoid having to produce any cake with a message which their proprietors' oppose, just refusing just pro-gay cake messages –is offensive and discriminatory.

The proprietors remain entirely able to express whatever lawful opinions, however harsh, about homosexuality and same sex marriage in their personal lives.

And as the court noted "It was not suggested that there was any approbation of the message on the face of the cake and the trial judge concluded that what the respondent wanted did not require them to promote or support gay marriage. … The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either."

Those critical of this ruling have argued that, following it, a Muslim baker refusing to bake a cake with an image of Prophet Mohammed, could be breaching equality law.

A careful reading of the ruling reveals that this simply isn't the case.

In our opinion therefore, the freedom of conscience and freedom of expression arguments are beyond baseless, they are wrong and mask something deeply unpleasant. The logical – but carefully unspoken result of allowing them, as they would have been had the decision gone the other way, was that Ashers could have put up a sign reading "no pro-gay messages on our cakes". And in the Court's words "If businesses were free to choose what services to provide to the gay community on the basis of religious belief the potential for arbitrary abuse would be substantial."

And this needs to be put in the particular political and religious context of Northern Ireland, the most religious part of the UK, where gay people have been victimised and denied the rights enjoyed by others by both the majority population and the province's institutions. The cake slogan was the most benign reference to the ugly reality; the province is the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage remains unavailable, despite a religiously-motived veto of a majority decision in the NI Assembly to introduce it. And religious forces in Northern Ireland have consistently opposed civil rights for gay people that were enjoyed elsewhere in the UK. Forty years ago it took a brave man applying to the European Court of Human Rights to secure the decriminalisation of homosexual acts.

The message of the court, echoing Hall v. Bull, the Cornish private hotel same sex couple and double room case, was that businesses cannot discriminate on protected grounds whatever the proprietors' personal views. And as the Supreme Court noted, had it been the same sex couple who ran the hotel, they would have been in breach of equality law were they to have refused beds to the Bulls because they were religious.

For the same reasons as shown above, we do not think this judgment violates freedom of expression, and we take freedom of expression very seriously. It is beyond irony that the NSS and the Christian Institute, who are supporting the Ashers' legal case, have collaborated with much success in defending freedom of expression for many years and we hope will continue to do so.

We therefore urge those who have rushed to judgment on a freedom of expression and conscience bandwagon to consider the implications of a reversal of this decision which they would appear to be welcoming.

As NSS Council member Dorothy Smith wrote in the Guardianechoing the Court's warning above, thata reversal "would put us back to a time when landlords had signs in their windows saying 'no blacks, no Irish, no dogs'".

And there is an even more insidious element that troubles us, as the Court put it that Ashers was a "business for profit and was not a religious organisation". We will set aside that it was also a limited company, a separate legal persona from the proprietors. Were the decision to be reversed it would, as its detractors well know and the Court strongly implies above, open the door for non-religious organisations to discriminate based on the (usually religious) consciences of their proprietors.

This has already happened in the United States where a court case (involving a commercial organisation called Hobby Lobby owned by religious conservatives) "permitted religious objectors to refuse to comply with a rule requiring employers to include birth control in their employer-provided health plans. The dissenting justice explained that the decision effectively overruled longstanding doctrines establishing that "accommodations to religious beliefs or observances . . . must not significantly impinge on the interests of third parties." Under Hobby Lobby a religious objector may now wield their faith to diminish the rights of others.

And we have got uncomfortably close to that situation in Scotland in 2014. St Margaret's Children and Family Care Society appealed against a ruling by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator that it should not unlawfully discriminate against adoptive parents on grounds of religion or belief and sexual orientation, and won. Albeit the Society had Catholic connections and wording in its objects, it was not a religious organisation in the legal sense, which would have allowed it to benefit from religious exemptions. It did have some Catholic funding, but was largely funded from the public purse. As a result of a plethora of legal cases, scores of other British Catholic adoption societies have been forced to close down or abandon discriminatory policies, something St Margaret's has it appears not been forced to abandon. The decision was made by a non-judicial appeals panel, so fortunately no legal precedent was set.

Key to the decision was that the panel accepted the argument of counsel for St Margaret's that it "is capable of possessing and exercising its Article 9 rights on its own behalf". This seems uncomfortably close to the Hobby Lobby situation which we think could lead to the situation the Court rightly guarded against "If businesses were free to choose what services to provide … on the basis of religious belief the potential for arbitrary abuse would be substantial".

Curiously, lead counsel for St Margaret's was Aidan O'Neill QC, who is also advising the Christian Institute and Ashers. He was also counsel for the hotel proprietors in Hall v. Bull (the Cornish private hotel proprietors who lost their case).

Four years ago the NSS intervened, largely successfully, at the ECtHR over several cases of evangelical Christians challenging equality laws because we thought adverse decision would undermine the equality law edifice. We think a reversal of Ashers decision would, for all the reasons given above, be similarly dire.

We remind those contemplating an appeal to the Supreme Court, including the NI Attorney General who supported Ashers, that the NI decision was unanimous and closely followed Hall v. Bull, which the Supreme Court unanimously – albeit for different reasons – found against the hotel proprietors.

Review: The Battle for British Islam, by Sara Khan with Tony McMahon

Review: The Battle for British Islam, by Sara Khan with Tony McMahon

Opinion | Thu, 27 Oct 2016

There are three million Muslims in the UK. The evidence shows they are becoming more religiously conservative, thousands are thought to have joined Islamic State; vast majorities would criminalise blasphemy and homosexuality. What hope is there?

'The Battle for British Islam' begins with a fascinating tour through recent history, charting the rise of Salafism from the fringes of Islamic thought to its position today as what author Sara Khan describes as a "major influence within British Islam" today.

Khan has spent much of her life campaigning for equality and human rights within Muslim communities in the UK, and through her organisation Inspire, she works alongside the Prevent strategy, challenging Islamic extremism and helping to save some very young teenagers from a short, brutal life in Syria and the rest of us from their quite literal self-destruction.

She espouses a liberal religiosity in the book that puts human rights above scripture, and she laments the rise of the "austere" and extreme Islamism that the west now grapples with.

The book rejects a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, and describes the real ideological dispute of the modern world as a "furious" intra-Islamic struggle to "claim or reclaim what Islam stands for in the twenty-first century".

But the battle within British (and global) Islam between the 'moderates' and the Islamists is a competition fought on losing ground. As long as scripture and, importantly, the sayings of Mohammed, are the deciding factor that overrides everything else, the moderates will lose.

Khan favours interpretations of religion which can be reconciled to human rights, pluralism and citizenship. But the polling doesn't give much hope that many Muslims agree with her. Thank goodness then, that there are at least dissenting voices like hers.

From the outset 'The Battle for British Islam' presents a chilling account of the Islamist 'utopia', alongside accounts of this nightmarish vision in practice from the now-shrinking dominion of the Islamic State.

In Dar al-Islam (the world which is under Islamic law), the state is ruled by a caliph, all male Muslims over fifteen train for jihad, women are mothers and wives only, and education is centred entirely upon "the forming of the Islamic personality and nothing else."

There are schools in the United Kingdom today which are bent on such an end, yet many local authorities have shamefully failed to aid efforts to prosecute them, instead abandoning countless children.

In the book, written with Tony McMahon, Khan recounts some of the cases of would-be ISIS recruits she has come across during her career. The examples of female recruits are the often most appalling and, from a secular mind-set, the hardest to comprehend.

Khan writes that "up to seventy British women may be members of al-Khanssaa", a sort of Islamic SS which inflicts sometimes random, always brutal punishments on civilians under the group's control. In one case a woman was reportedly executed by al-Khanssaa for breastfeeding (under a burqa).

Targets of ISIS propaganda "hear that the kuffar hate you, that Britain is a kuffar country, you cannot live there as a Muslim as God has warned that if you die in such a land you will die as a disbeliever. The kuffar hate your religion and they want to eradicate Islam."

This is the artful trap Islamic State set to destroy the 'grey zone' in which Muslims and non-Muslims coexist: the worse the atrocities they commit the more hostile the British people feel towards Islam. The more Muslims feel alienated. The more join Islamic State. The more hostile the British people feel towards Islam.

It is through this grim cycle that ISIS hopes to "force Muslims into a binary choice between leaving to live in the territory held by ISIS or residing in the West and becoming apostates to their faith."

The book considers anti-Muslim bigotry, rising intra-Islamic sectarianism and carefully articulates a criticism of the term 'Islamophobia' – which Khan says has come to include "a prohibition on criticising Islamist ideology" and "shutting down discussion on theological matters within Islam".

Khan says that this "trepidation among non-Muslims about Islam and Muslims" is inevitable, and adds her voice to warnings over the way in which Islamic extremism and far-right responses feed-off each other

The root cause of this cycle is Islamic extremism, and without this there would be no far-right backlash. So countering jihadism at the source is essential.

This makes the conspiratorial effort to undermine counter-extremism efforts, described in great detail in the book, a very serious practical threat. Khan and McMahon write extensively about the pushback against Prevent by groups like CAGE, aided and abetted by left-wing papers that seem to imagine open theocrats as the representative (and desirable) voice of British Muslims. The book gives an informative account of the anti-Prevent hysteria.

The bizarre alliance of the far-left and the Islamists is one of the strangest features of our politics. The authors describe it as more than a pact however, calling it (quite rightly) a "de facto merger".

"Traditional socialist ideology" has been replaced by cultural relativism and multiculturalism and this inevitably marginalises "secular voices within Islam."

Millions of Muslims now live in the west and they aren't going anywhere and neither are their religious beliefs. Indeed, the theory of secularisation (that in wealthy, modern societies younger generations are less religious than their elders) cannot be said to apply to Muslims at all, in fact the reverse is true.

Pragmatic approaches, both secular and religious, to the myriad problems Islam and Islamism pose are therefore essential. This is what Khan provides.

Whether or not you agree with their defence of what the fundamentals of Islam 'really' are, liberal Muslims are an essential part of this coalition.

Extremism cannot be defeated by "diktats from Whitehall"; a united society is needed to defeat it. They make this case convincingly.

Though hard-headed about the challenges we all face, Khan and McMahon write that the "overwhelming majority of British Muslims remain patriotic, attached to Britain and hostile to the radicalisation activities of ISIS."

This is all to be welcomed, but poll after poll also finds appalling attitudes to be prevalent, as Khan notes: "A BBC survey in 2015 found 20 per cent of British Muslims believed western liberal society could never be compatible with Islam."

She mentions as well the poll which found that one-in-ten British Muslims "thought that organisations printing images of the Prophet deserved to be attacked."

These cultural divisions may be impossible to resolve; or it may take decades to do so, but at least people like Sara Khan are trying to do bridge these vast divides.

If there ever is an Islamic enlightenment, it may be generations away. Until then some path to coexistence must be found, Khan presents a hopeful but realistic look at what some of this might look like.

'The Battle for British Islam' is available from Amazon UK.

Forced cutting of young boys’ genitals violates the most fundamental medical ethics

Forced cutting of young boys’ genitals violates the most fundamental medical ethics

Opinion | Mon, 24 Oct 2016

Too often those who carry out forced cutting of young boys' genitals escape with gentle admonishment, rather than punishment commensurate with the severity of their actions, writes Dr Antony Lempert of the Secular Medical Forum.

In 2013, Dr Hassan Abdulla, a psychiatrist, was convicted of performing illegal surgery on children. Ordinarily this would set major alarm bells ringing but the devil is in the detail. The reason this surgery was illegal was that he had failed to register with the Care Quality Commission, the (CQC), in doing so. The CQC was therefore unable to regulate the conditions under which he operated on children. Once alerted to his practice, the CQC inspected Dr Abdulla's private surgical premises and found that the facilities were substandard and potentially dangerous. In particular, infection control practices were inadequate, equipment was out of date and support staff were not appropriately trained.

In 2014, the Medical Practitioners' Tribunal Service (MPTS) imposed restrictions on his practice. In September this year, already two years later, it was felt that Dr Abdulla had not fully reflected on his misconduct and had not demonstrated sufficient insight; subject to his appeal he has now been suspended from the medical register for 9 months.

Yet this tells only half the story. For years, Dr Abdulla not only admitted but advertised that he operated on the normal genitals of dozens of healthy children. It is common knowledge that the children's parents paid Dr Abdulla to perform the irreversible, surgical assignation of their children's healthy genitals with the parents' own religious or cultural values and beliefs. The right of each of those children to an open future unrestricted by forced genital cutting at an early life was not apparently considered as part of the verdict in this case either by the magistrates court or by the MPTS.

The irony is that if Dr Abdulla should wish to continue to perform unregulated genital surgery on children without any interference from regulatory bodies as he states he does, he might consider de-registering as a medical practitioner. Non-medics are not required to register either with the CQC or with anyone else before they take a knife, scissors or specially-designed surgical instruments for clamping, tearing and removing the highly functional, sensitive foreskin from young boys and babies. It is only after the event, when some babies have died or have been seriously injured that action is occasionally taken. Contrast the response to the deaths four years ago of 28 day old Goodluck Caubergs in Oldham with the death under similar circumstances of 28 day old Joseph Ofori-Mintah in London. Both babies died of haemorrhage from their cut penises within 48 hours of unnecessary surgery performed in the community at the request of their parents. The Nigerian midwife who cut Goodluck was convicted of manslaughter whilst the rabbi who cut Joseph was told by the coroner that it was "a tragic unforeseen accident".

The fact that so many otherwise reasonable people consider it hardly a problem that (male) children's healthy genitals are fair game to any person with a knife, qualified or not, stands testament to the fallacy of common practice. Because something such as non-therapeutic circumcision, has been practised for generations, perhaps with the weight of biblical endorsement, does not mean that it is safe or reasonable to continue to do so. Non-therapeutic forced male genital cutting results in serious physical, sexual and emotional harm to many people. As babies their future views, beliefs and wishes cannot be known, however much their parents may wish them to conform to their own beliefs. Some of these babies don't make it to adulthood, others do so but with significant and enduring harm.

Dr Abdulla might have done better to stick to the branch of medicine in which he is trained: as a psychiatrist. Instead, he has demonstrated an inability to understand the most fundamental medical ethic of 'First do no harm'. In these circumstances, a short-term suspension from the medical register seems like a gentle admonishment rather than punishment commensurate with the severity of his actions.

Dr Antony Lempert is chair of the Secular Medical Forum. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

NSS Speaks Out

The Society's response to IPSO's ruling over the complaint about The Sun's article on Fatima Manji was quoted in The Herald.

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