Trouble reading this email? View newsletter online.

Newsline 29 May 2015

If you believe that a secular Britain is our best chance to achieve true equality for all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, then please join us to support our work and campaigns. Together we can create a fairer and more equal society.

NSS calls for investigation of Orthodox Jewish schools after driving ban on mothers

NSS calls for investigation of Orthodox Jewish schools after driving ban on mothers

News | Fri, 29 May 2015

The NSS has called on the DfE to investigate two independent Orthodox Jewish schools following demands that pupils be barred if dropped off by mothers after a driving 'driving ban' was imposed on women.

The Catholic Church is now paying the price for its past in Ireland

The Catholic Church is now paying the price for its past in Ireland

Opinion | Tue, 26 May 2015

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood welcomes the Irish referendum result on marriage equality and argues that the Catholic Church's appalling recent history in Ireland shows it deserves to be discredited- as it now has been, by the overwhelming referendum "Yes" result.

Last week, Ireland's citizens voted in a landslide to legalise same-sex marriage. Unsurprisingly, the constituencies most in favour of "Yes" were within 50 miles of Dublin followed by the larger cities. Those least in favour tended to be nearest to the meandering border with Northern Ireland, probably with a higher proportion of protestant voters. Variations in the percentage of turnout did not impact on the overall result. More rural areas tend to be less in favour, but not always. While the very rural Mayo and Galway East were only just in favour, the even more remote Galway west was over 60% in favour.

The major lessons of the Irish referendum endorsement of same sex marriage by nearly 2:1 are religion-connected.

Primarily, it showed just how out of step the Catholic Church is with the Irish population. Even more striking is the speed with which this country, so recently completely in hock to that same Church, has changed diametrically. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, notably more realistic than many of his episcopal brethren, recognised that the Referendum signified a "social revolution" that did not happen in one day. Indeed.

In 1990 the Republic of Ireland had the highest proportion of weekly church attendance in Europe. At over 80%, it was in a class of its own; the next European contender was "only" 41%. An expert in religious statistics, Dr Peter Brierley, wrote just fifteen years ago that "the Irish Republic is the most religious country … in the world [I imagine he meant "Christian"] … with (in 1995) 98% professing an allegiance to a Christian church and 87% to the Catholic Church".

Yet it wasn't many years later that the Catholic commentator Mary Kenny first bemoaned that Ireland had become "post-Catholic"; she now regards it as sometimes "anti-Catholic". Crucially, her Post Christian comment was made before public awareness had been raised about clerical child abuse in Ireland.

But the Church's reputation had a lot further to fall with the constant drip feed of atrocities culminating and the dawning realisation that measured relative to its population, reported clerical child abuse is Ireland the highest in world. The referendum result is in part the Church paying the price for its shameless role in facilitating the continuation of that child-rape, sheltering clerical child-rapists from justice and denying justice to the victims. They were often punished for speaking out and told they were lying. To this day, the Church continues to fight tooth and nail every case and any compensation.

The Irish people were no less disgusted when the Papal Nuncio refused to give evidence to a Commission on child abuse, claiming diplomatic immunity. In 2011 Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kennedy famously reportedly "accused the Vatican of covering up for paedophile priests in Ireland only three years [earlier]" precipitating the Nuncio's recall to the Vatican, after a groundswell calling for his expulsion.

Until then the Church had got away with everything; religious influence on the Government had been total, the very antithesis of secularism.

But even this unprecedented, and indeed previously unthinkable, public castigation certainly didn't lead to humility, if anything the opposite.

In 2013 the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference, in an attempt to derail same sex marriage plans, threatened the Government. In a submission to the Constitutional Convention on same sex marriage it warned: "... if there were two totally different definitions of marriage the Church could no longer carry out the civil element".

As there are few civil registrars in Ireland, this would cause a major problem. Despite this, the Convention came out in support of same sex marriage which led to the Referendum. So the Church, shamelessly, tried again. The Tablet reported shortly before the Referendum that the "Church in Ireland threatened not to carry out the civil registration formalities customary at the end of Catholic marriage ceremonies". This was once again to no avail. Surely, having made the dire threat twice – is "blackmail" too strong a word? – and having been so completely ignored, has the Church not demonstrated its impotence more effectively than if it had not made the threats?

The Church presumably did however realise that bullying voters, perhaps declaring that to vote "yes" would be a mortal sin, would not work. Seemingly at least some in the Church realised how little influence clerical pleading would have, and accordingly largely subcontracted the campaigning to lay organisations such as the Iona Institute.

I accept that it was an uphill task arguing to denying equality to people in love who the Church still considers to be "intrinsically disordered" and has historically vilified, and worse. And the coming out stories precipitated by supporters of a 'Yes' vote would turn all but the most stone-hearted. But these lay organisations could hardly have made a worse mess of boosting the opponents. Their campaigns were not only negative, they were gratuitously insulting and economic with the truth to the point of parsimony. They even questioned whether prominent proponents "had rejected their faith". They scaremongered baselessly about the loss of religious freedom and attacked same sex adoption, despite it not being affected by the Referendum. And the disingenuousness simply drove voters all the harder to tick 'Yes' box, while turning the population even further from the Church.

The second, even more painful, lesson for the Church in the longer term is that it was the young who were so overwhelmingly supportive of a 'yes' vote. Some travelled huge distances to register their vote. Touchingly, they dubbed the last Republic-bound boat train from London's Euston before the vote as the "Equality Train" and sent selfies to their friends.

Memorably, Archbishop Martin was asking himself: "most of these young people who voted 'yes' are products of our Catholic school system for 12 years. I'm saying there's a big challenge there to see how we get across the message of the Church".

If twelve years indoctrination has turned the youth, Ireland's future, against the Church, the only way they could be brought back, if it is possible at all, is for the Church to change out of all recognition. And that is beyond the Archbishop of Dublin.

The final lesson is that this calls "time" on Northern Ireland's refusal to allow same sex marriages, the only part of the UK not to have them.

Spain and Portugal, France, Benelux and Scandinavian countries have them and the populations of Germany and Italy are in favour of them.

But it will be a hard battle; there was a clue in the Republic's constituencies near the Northern Ireland Border being least keen to vote 'yes'. And the politicians in the DUP, Northern Ireland's leading party, are even less keen than their supporters, and the Party has a veto. So this looks like having to be resolved in the courts, or even Strasbourg.

It is only 100 miles between Dublin and Belfast, and the enthusiastic Referendum result has made the likelihood of a positive outcome in Northern Ireland much more likely, and urgent. The pressure is already building up.

And maybe the ease with which this referendum passed suggests an attempt should be made to liberalise, or even humanise, the Irish Republic's absurdly restrictive abortion laws, where abortion is in practice means-tested - restricted to those who can afford to have this undertaken abroad. Every year thousands do make these lonely journeys, and others submit themselves to back street abortions.

Keith Porteous Wood is the executive director of the National Secular Society. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

The below table indicates how the vote broke down in descending order of % "Yes" vote in each constituency.

Time for Christians of goodwill to say “Not In My Name”

Time for Christians of goodwill to say “Not In My Name”

Opinion | Tue, 26 May 2015

Most Christians don't feel the need to be exempt from equality legislation in order to live their lives in accordance with their religious beliefs. Terry Sanderson says it's time they spoke out against those that do.

The efforts by some evangelical groups to secure special privileges for Christians in the workplace – mostly at the expense of the rights of other people – were in evidence again recently with another trumped up story of supposed discrimination on grounds of religion.

The Christian Legal Centre said that a hospital-worker had suffered "religious discrimination" after she was disciplined for trying to bully a Muslim colleague into embracing her own evangelical version of Christianity. It was widely reported in the right wing press as another case of Christians being "persecuted" for their beliefs.

When the matter came to court, a very different story emerged.

Even though just about all their legal challenges have failed, the zealots of the Christian Legal Centre and the Christian Institute have been wildly successful in creating the idea that "something must be done" to protect Christians from the supposedly hostile society in which they live. That something is a "conscience cause" in the Equality Act that would relieve them of the duty to obey the law in the same way that everyone else must.

In Northern Ireland just such an opt-out clause is high on the political agenda, and has been given new impetus by the "gay cake" row.

Many people have said that it was wrong for Ashers Bakery to have been found guilty of discrimination because it refused to make a cake with a message in support of same-sex marriage iced on to it. The court did not agree and found the bakers guilty.

It may seem like a trivial case, but it actually represents a very big principle. Can a commercial firm claim to have a religious identity? Can a bakery be "Christian"? By its own admission, many of its employees are not. The point is that this case was about whether gay people are truly equal members of society or whether Christians should have the "right" to render them second class.

The law says that firms operating for commercial gain must serve all-comers equally. The evangelicals who are leading this campaign think they should not have to observe such a law as their "conscience" is more important than anything else.

But not all Christians think this way. In fact, very few of them want to go down this route of intolerance, but the Christian Institute and the Christian Legal Centre purport to speak for them all when they talk about a "Christian conscience".

We often ask moderate Muslims to denounce the extremists in their midst. Now it is time for Christians of goodwill to disown the Christian Legal Centre and its ilk and say loud and clear: "Not in my name".

Christian leaders need to prioritise their targets

Christian leaders need to prioritise their targets

Opinion | Thu, 28 May 2015

It is tiresomely common to have some Christian leaders describing secularism as intolerant, bigoted, militant or aggressive. At a time when Christians are being met with genuine persecution around the world, Benjamin Jones argues that Christian leaders should prioritise their targets and drop their hysterical language.

Last week Douglas Murray wrote an article for the Spectator arguing that "secularists need to prioritise their targets." In it he made the reasonable point that secularism faces far larger threats than the arcane arrangement of the House of Lords, and that "one religion in particular" is the clear and greater danger to secularism today.

It's a point I agree with - but not one that is a fair criticism of the National Secular Society's work. Godless Spellchecker makes the counter-case here and writes: "It's true that far too many individuals and organisations are more than happy to take a swing at the 'lesser' evils of a Christian flavour – yet develop a mysterious case of chronic arm fatigue where the religion of peace is concerned. However, I just feel it's a tad unfair to make this point in the context of the National Secular Society and secularists in general."

In any case, there are some Christians who are in far greater need of refocusing their efforts and priorities than secularists.

Earlier in May, a Catholic former High Court judge said that secularism in the UK was on a par with religious repression under the Tudors- a hysterical claim, dutifully repeated by Catholic news outlets. Sir Michael Tugendhat said secularists have a view of "freedom of speech which is as restrictive of that of Elizabeth I".

It is – needless to say- an extremely offensive and wilfully ignorant argument to make, but we won't be issuing a fatwa against him. Perhaps if Sir Michael hadn't upset himself so much he could have remained calm enough to see that the National Secular Society these days spends a great deal of its time defending freedom of expression from religious extremists. Naturally, this includes the freedom of speech of religious people.

Tugendhat argued that secularists wanted to force religion into the "private sphere" and went on to say that "the terrible story of the Tudor-Stuart religious divisions should be a reminder that freedom which is confined entirely to the privacy of a person's home is a form of oppression."

Likewise, Cardinal Nichols has (again) compared secularism with religious fundamentalism, warning of both "religious fundamentalism" and "aggressive secularism" in the same breath.

What does the world look like to people like Sir Michael and Cardinal Nichols? Do they really look at the video propaganda of the Islamic State and see an equivalent evil in equality laws? Is secularism causing hundreds of British teenagers to leave their homes and families behind to join a brutal war? Are the writings of secularists being used as license to kill and murder?

The Vatican denounced the Irish referendum as a "disaster for humanity". Of all the things today that merit that label- is marriage equality really the one to pick?

While I have misgivings about the Ashers case, having to ask one of your employees to bake a cake topped with a slogan you disagree with is not the same as or even remotely comparable to being taken to the shores of a failed North African state and facing a brutal execution; yet some Christian leaders use almost the same language ('militant', 'aggressive', 'repressive') to describe both.

It leaves the impression that Sir Michael- if taken at his word- actually believes secularists are a greater threat to Christians than religious fundamentalism. This is the product of a heavily distorted worldview, and it is something that Douglas Murray has argued against before.

If only there was some sense of proportionality in the histrionic language these Christian leaders use. There isn't much difference between the language of Cardinal Nichols and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who last year described secularism in Europe as "apocalyptic."

Finally though, on the point about the House of Lords, removing institutional religious privilege now would set the helpful precedent that religion is not to be institutionally privileged by the state. I put it that this precedent will be a helpful one to have in 2050, when Muslims in the UK will certainly outnumber Anglicans. The number of Anglican churchgoers (1.7 million in 2008) was already vastly exceeded by the total number of Muslims (2.7 million in 2011) seven years ago. It would be very helpful to have a clear, established precedent that clerics are not granted seats in the legislature when other faiths start making demands about proportionality and demanding their own seats and votes (as happened in education with non-Christian faith schools). While I would not say the House of Lords is more important than our campaign work on education or free speech (for example), it is not an irrelevant issue either.

Benjamin Jones is the NSS communications officer. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

NSS Speaks Out

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood was quoted in the Express after an investigation into the Methodist Church uncovered reports of nearly 2,000 alleged abuse cases - including 914 allegations involving sexual abuse. Keith also appeared on BBC London to discuss the driving ban imposed on women by an Orthodox Jewish sect.

Both Keith and our campaigns manager, Stephen Evans, appeared on LBC this week to discuss the way in which religion is taught in schools.

Stephen also had a letter published in the Western Mail concerning the implications of a Catholic school's court victory against Swansea Council's transport to faith schools policy.

This email has been sent to you by National Secular Society in accordance with our Privacy Policy.
Address: 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL, United Kingdom.
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7404 3126

Please Note: Newsline provides links to external websites for information and in the interests of free exchange. We do not accept any responsibility for the content of those sites, nor does a link indicate approval or imply endorsement of those sites.

Please feel free to use the material in this Newsline with appropriate acknowledgement of source. Neither Newsline nor the NSS is responsible for the content of websites to which it provides links. Nor does the NSS or Newsline necessarily endorse quotes and comments by contributors, they are brought to you in the interests of the free exchange of information and open debate.