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Newsline 31 May 2013

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Britain’s feeble religious right learns no lessons from its debacle at the European Court

Britain’s feeble religious right learns no lessons from its debacle at the European Court

Opinion | Wed, 29 May 2013

We sincerely hope that the rejection by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights of the supposed "religious discrimination" cases will finally draw a line under the matter.

Reacting to the decision, Michael Powner, head of employment at Charles Russell LLP, said:

"The boundaries have been tested and now firmly rejected. This sends a stark message that religious freedoms have very limited parameters when they potentially or actually infringe the rights of others. When different Convention rights compete in different factual scenarios, the line has to be drawn somewhere. What is now certain is that one set of rights, religious freedom for Christians, does not automatically trump the others."

It a stark message indeed for the proponents of these cases. Are they likely to listen? We think not.

The Christian Institute and Christian Concern (which is also the Christian Legal Centre) have been behind just about all of these cases. These groups are run by hard-line evangelical Christians who think their religious beliefs and their particular interpretation of the Bible must have a special place in society. Ultimately they would like Christianity – their kind of Christianity, of course - to run the country.

One of the main players in this push, and the woman who has almost single-handedly invented this narrative of persecution, is Andrea Minichielo Williams.

In 2008, Channel Four made a documentary about her and its director David Morrell revealed much about the rather scary Ms Williams and the way she operates.

I have debated often enough on radio and TV with Andrea Minichielo Williams to have seen the zealous glint in her eye. Given that she is a barrister, it has amazed me to see how resistant she is to reasonable argument based on fact. Whenever she feels she is losing a point she starts referring to "our Lord Jesus", as though that finalised any issue.

Most of these cases have been aimed at undermining the protection that gay people have won against discrimination. Ms Minichielo Williams decided that the protection provided by the Equality Act to gay people was "unbiblical" and so she began her campaign to bring it down.

She thought that if she could prove in court that Christians were disadvantaged by the protections offered to gay people, it would destroy the legislation. And so followed a long series of cases, each more unconvincing than the last, but given traction by the propaganda support of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. (Strangely, the Daily Mail did not report this ultimate failure.)

Although she seems to have convinced the editors of right-wing newspapers that she had a legitimate gripe, she was unable to convince any court. This week's European Court decision should have shattered her fantasy for good. But still she is peddling the same old myths. She told the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday that the success of the gay marriage bill in the House of Commons, could mean more discrimination for Christians. She said:

"This will be the start of many cases like this. Teachers who refuse to teach same sex marriage will lose their jobs or won't get them. I think there's a terrible chilling impact. People are scared to say what they think for fear of being branded bigoted and phobic. To believe in marriage between a man and a woman has become a view unacceptable in the public aspect."

So, we are on notice. Now that Ms Williams has decided that the Same-Sex Marriage Bill must be overturned, she will begin bringing to court more trumped up discrimination charges. If "Christian teachers" aren't allowed to tell children about the evils of homosexuality and to register their revulsion at the lives of gay people (even if those very gay people are sitting in the class silently fretting) then it is the Christian who is being persecuted.

Meanwhile, the Christian Institute – amid stiff competition from other evangelical groups and individuals – probably takes the prize as the most homophobic organisation in Britain. It has a long and discreditable record of opposing the rights of gay people to live in peace and safety.

It has a strange ability to create a rationale for these attacks on the rights of others.

In the Christian Institute's alternative universe, not permitting Christians to trample on the rights of others means that Christians are themselves being discriminated against. By not being able to refuse goods and services to gay people, Christians are at a disadvantage. In their minds, the persecutors become the persecuted. Their interpretation of "Religious liberty" seems to be that it gives them the freedom to make life intolerable for others.

They funded the case of Lillian Ladele, the registrar who wouldn't carry out civil partnerships. It was another of the cases that ran up against the buffers in Europe this week.

This handful of activists – whose philosophy has been rejected over and over by more sensible and compassionate Christians like Rowan Williams – are supported by a another small coterie of marginal religious figures beloved of the right-wing press. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury is one, Bishop Nazir-Ali is another. Both have made statements of profound stupidity, the likes of which would have ruined the reputations of other public figures.

Lord Carey, for instance, thinks that there should be separate juries of only Christians to sit in cases where Christians are claiming discrimination.

The utterances and outbursts of these people appall and dismay Christians who are trying to project an image of stability and inclusion for Christianity.

It would be good to think that this rejection by Europe's ultimate legal authority would give them pause for thought in their tactics.

In terms of finance alone, these cases must have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to haul through the many courts and tribunals that have rejected them.

When Barack Obama was re-elected in America, the religious right – which had poured its resources and reputation into opposing him – pragmatically began a review of its tactics and focus. They began to conclude that the "persecution" route was not fruitful for them.

But our own feeble and unpleasant version of the religious right shows no signs of learning lessons from this week's calamitous debacle. It continues to set its face against an unstoppable change in society, and for this alone it deserves all the failure it will get.

See also: Catholic Church joins the chorus of "Europe's intolerance against Christians"

NSS calls for Baroness Warsi - and her post of Minister for Faith - to go

NSS calls for Baroness Warsi - and her post of Minister for Faith - to go

News | Thu, 30 May 2013

The refusal of Baroness Warsi, the "Minister for Faith and Communities" to steer the flagship same-sex marriage bill through the House of Lords was condemned today by the National Secular Society.

Religious discrimination against teachers challenged in Northern Ireland

Religious discrimination against teachers challenged in Northern Ireland

News | Thu, 30 May 2013

Northern Ireland's biggest employer of teachers in Catholic schools has called for the scrapping of legislation that allows schools to legally discriminate on religious grounds.

Catholic magazine says Same Sex Marriage Bill will disestablish the Church of England

Catholic magazine says Same Sex Marriage Bill will disestablish the Church of England

Opinion | Wed, 29 May 2013

The Catholic weekly magazine The Tablet carried an editorial in its 25 May edition predicting that the legalisation of gay marriage will weaken, if not completely end, the establishment of the Church of England.

The paper says that:

"It is as if the nation is taking a significant step towards disestablishment in a fit of absent-mindedness. Perhaps not so absent-minded on the part of the more vociferous secularists, however, who have been aware all along of the potential for the gay-marriage issue to further their own agenda. They needed the Church to do its best to stop the legislation, and fail. Although the battle is not yet finished, events do appear to be going their way."

The editorial goes on to say:

The clergy of the Church of England solemnise about a quarter of all marriages in England, and so far the law of marriage they administer has been the law of the land.

This is unlike the case of the Catholic, Jewish or Muslim communities, who have their own marriage laws, customs and courts where their own doctrines of marriage take precedence. Thus the law of the land can say two people are married, but the internal regulations of each faith community can still maintain that they are not. They can ignore the civil recognition of gay marriages if they want to, in a way the Church of England cannot.

At least until the gay-marriage legislation becomes law, those that the common law of England says are married are those the Established Church says are married, and vice versa, with no distinction.

In a briefing note to MPs, the Church of England explained that "the assertion that 'religious marriage' will be unaffected by the proposals" was misleading, as "at present there is one single institution and legal definition of marriage, entered into via a civil or religious ceremony. Talk of 'civil' and 'religious' marriage is erroneous … "

Henceforth, if and when gay marriage becomes law, the Church of England will be like the Catholic, Muslim and most Jewish communities in having a definition of marriage that excludes same-sex couples. The Government has drafted legal protection for the Church of England that in effect bans it from marrying gay couples. But that will put in place the very distinction between "civil and religious marriage" which the briefing document rejected, the absence of which has until now been one of the defining characteristics of the Church of England's unique status.

So the Church is being forced to move towards becoming a private self-governing institution with its own internal rules, alongside other institutions in civil society – in other words, towards disestablishment. Some inside the Church of England will welcome that as good for the Church. But the larger question for the rest of society, including other faith communities, is whether that is good for everyone else.

Indeed, some outside will hail it as a further step towards the exclusion of religion from the public square, where faith becomes a purely private matter. That is precisely how the victory for gay marriage has been greeted in France.

Book Review: The Public Woman by Joan Smith

Book Review: The Public Woman by Joan Smith

Opinion | Thu, 30 May 2013

In her book The Public Woman (The Westbourne Press, 2013), published this month, Joan Smith catalogues the various forms and dimensions of control, coercion and misogynist abuse of women in the UK and beyond. Her book seeks a reconfiguration of the public space; it calls for a space in which women are protected and free of coercive and controlling forces. Arguing for women's rights to be understood as human rights, Smith makes an appeal to the state to act as the rightful guarantor of those rights.

Smith's starting point is the observation that despite the various kinds of political freedoms women have in the Western world, our culture and our public space is still imbued with, and permeated by misogyny. She defends her assertion by examining, in an effectively disinterested and unrelenting way, accounts of some of the prevalent and horrific forms of violence against women (such as 'familicide', honour killings, and the targeted killing of women within the domestic context), and by discussing other forms of coercive control of the female's body and her sexuality (such as through the veil, prostitution, and most gruesomely, female genital mutilation).

Smith also looks at a number of public women (e.g. Katie Price, the Duchess of Cambridge, Amy Winehouse, Amanda Knox), tracing how they have been portrayed by the media and how they have had to adapt so as to become a blank screen upon which the public can project its fantasy of what a woman should be. In a chapter on the Duchess of Cambridge, Smith describes the woman as a visibly shrunken, silent and bland vessel; never having had a career, appearing only in a supporting role to her husband, unambitious and uncontroversial, she is portrayed as the ultimate royal "wag".

What is effective about Smith's style is that she manages to communicate and establish, by articulating her narrative through a flowing and lucid polemic, the non-institutionalised forms of control of women by men. Her method of revealing misogyny through case studies, language and media analysis helps show how the effort to ensure the upholding and enforcement of women's rights is undermined not just by inadequate legislation but also persistently by cultural, social, linguistic and perceptual forces. She leaves the reader with an understanding of the cultural, pervasive and insipient forms of oppression and misogyny ever-present and ever-threatening to the woman within the public, and indeed private, realm.

In a particularly subtle and well-argued chapter on the veil, Smith highlights the close connection between the full veil and the sexualised naked female form; she notes that "the two states, naked and fully veiled, are not that far apart because each of them makes an issue out of sex", arguing that the full veil sexualises the entire body, with the only characteristic identifiable about the woman being that she is a woman.

In conjunction, Smith observes the link between the presence of the veil and increased sexual harassment - noting that the experience of women across the Middle East and North Africa has shown that veiled women are as likely, and sometimes more likely, to be assaulted than those in 'Western' dress, disproving the obnoxious claim that women who cover themselves are protected.

Smith's analysis does, however, suffer from an underlying idealisation and essentialising of the 'woman'. This comes in a number of forms throughout the book, but one more obvious is Smith's contention that the mere presence of women will go a significant way to furthering the rights of women. In one chapter, she asserts a link between democratic participation by women and the protection of women's rights, where "the lack of laws protecting women is a direct result of the low numbers taking part in political decision-making in the Middle East". Whilst instinctively this an appealing line, it should be noted that in terms of women's representation in Parliament, a country such as the UK is actually behind the likes of Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and on a par with Pakistan – none of which are the friendliest of countries to women. Despite the many problems in Britain and its relatively low number of women in Parliament, it is nonetheless decades ahead of these countries in terms of women's equality.

It is not just the sketchy empirical grounds that are problematic in terms of Smith's argument, but the fact that it rather assumes women as having homogenous needs which only women, as women, can understand and meet. This type of essentialist feminism is unhelpful in its inherent perpetuation, theoretically as well as practically, of the perceived segregation of women and men. Indeed, it rather goes against her emphasis on women's rights as human rights. Smith runs the risk of speaking only to female feminists and not all those feminist men who could help instigate change. What we need are feminists within the political sphere moulding legislative and cultural change, whether women or men. We need people serious about women's equality and their protection within the public arena. As Smith herself notes, the one female Prime Minister the UK has had, Margaret Thatcher, did little to further women's interests.

The tension that can exist between democratic choice and human rights is made evident here; there are a lot of people in the world, including women, who reject, at the ballot box, a women's right to equality. Women's rights should not be subject to, or decided by, democratic consensus.

It is also worth noting that in countries such as Somalia where the practice of female genital mutilation is at 97.9%, it is women who organise and enforce the practice. Of course, it can be argued that they do so as a result of male patriarchal pressure, but where the agency of a woman starts and where her false consciousness ends is a tricky thing to identify.

Smith seems a little reluctant to confront how tricky this central issue is; for whilst she assumes it is possible to identify whether a women wears a full-veil out of choice, she correlatively believes that no woman who prostitutes herself can ever do so autonomously. She argues that "men who pay for sex are in reality buying power over other human beings". But whilst sex is so often about power, it is not clear that it is inevitably always the way round Smith presents it as; she does not confront the possibility that a woman might use sex, and indeed take advantage of the male's sexual appetite, for financial gain if she is in an autonomous and safe enough environment to do so.

The Public Woman presents an engaging, thoughtful and comprehensive exposition on the nature of the female eunuch today. Smith makes a compelling case and whether you agree with all of her arguments or not, her book is timely; last year saw the imprisonment of the members of Pussy Riot, the rape and fatal torture of a medical student on a public Delhi bus, the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban, and the death of Savita Halappanavarin in Ireland following her being denied an abortion. Currently, there are 140 million girls and women living with the consequences of female genital mutilation globally (with 66,000 of those living in the UK) and 142 million girls predicted to be the victims of child marriage over the next decade. The Public Woman is a rousing piece, surveying the landscape of a war being fought over women's bodies and minds. Whilst reminding us of how much work there is to do in the area of women's rights and equality, The Public Woman also provides us with a compelling starting point in the fight…

'The Public Woman' is available to buy on Amazon

More Americans think religion is losing its influence

More Americans think religion is losing its influence

News | Thu, 30 May 2013

Over three-quarters of Americans (77%) say religion is losing its influence on American life, while 20% say religion's influence is increasing. These represent Americans' most negative evaluations of the impact of religion since 1970, although similar to the views measured in recent years.

Read this week's Newsline in full (PDF)

NSS Speaks Out

The rejection by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights of the three supposed "religious discrimination" cases (see story above) resulted in Keith Porteous Wood being quoted in the Guardian, Independent, Daily Star, York Press, Huffington Post, Press Association, London Evening Standard, Asian Image, Raw Story, Pink News, Solicitors Journal, Workplace Law and dozens of local newspapers

Terry Sanderson was on BBC WM talking about the separatism caused by religion. Keith Porteous Wood was on LBC Radio talking about free speech, the EDL and radical Islam.

Our Scottish spokesperson Alistair McBay, had this letter in the Herald this week

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