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Newsline 4 July 2014

Newsline is a weekly round-up of news and opinion from the NSS website. If you're not already a member, becoming one is the most tangible way of supporting our work. Our campaigning is wholly supported by our members, people like you who share our belief that secularism is an essential element in promoting equality between all citizens. Please join today.

European Court of Human Rights upholds French ban on full-face veil

European Court of Human Rights upholds French ban on full-face veil

News | Tue, 01 Jul 2014

The European Court of Human Rights has upheld a French law banning the wearing of the full-face veil in public, ruling that the law does not breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

Will the Equality Act be battered into submitting to religious exemptions?

Will the Equality Act be battered into submitting to religious exemptions?

Opinion | Mon, 30 Jun 2014

Misleading reporting of individual cases and calls for "conscience clauses" feed into a false narrative of Christian persecution aimed at undermining the Equality Act, argues Terry Sanderson.

Recently the vice president of the UK Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, threw out a crumb of hope to the evangelical Christians who are trying, through repeated legal challenges, to undermine the Equality Act so that they can have a special, privileged position in British law.

Lady Hale, having considered many of these cases from the bench (and not upheld any of them), now concludes that perhaps Parliament, or indeed, the courts, should consider introducing a "conscience clause" that would relieve religious people of the pesky duty of living by the same rules as everyone else.

This was music to the ears of the Christian Institute and the Christian Legal Centre which have been behind most of the challenges.

Despite the fact that hardly any of these cases have survived scrutiny by any court (including the European Court of Human Rights), the myth persists that Christians are being persecuted in Britain.

And now, it seems, even the vice chair of the Supreme Court has fallen for it.

How did this come about? How has the idea that Christians are being denied some kind of human right because they aren't exempt from the law, gain such a strong hold on the nation's collective consciousness?

It is because of the propaganda skills of the evangelical Christians who have created this narrative, aided and abetted by newspapers with their own right-wing agenda.

There is now a very simple formula for increasing this conviction that Christians are under attack in Britain from dark forces ("militant secularists" the "politically correct gone mad" etc).

And we saw a classic example in the Daily Telegraph on Sunday.

This story – as all the others before it - begins with the assertion that a Christian has been fired from their job simply because they wanted to practice their religion.

Because I don't want to be accused of misrepresenting this story, and because it is behind a paywall, I am going to quote extensively from it:

A Christian health worker has begun a legal challenge after being disciplined by the NHS for praying with a Muslim colleague.

Victoria Wasteney, a senior occupational therapist in one of the country's most racially diverse areas, was also accused of bullying the colleague after giving her a book about a Muslim woman who converts to Christianity.

In addition, senior managers told Miss Wasteney that it was inappropriate to invite the woman to a community sports day organised by her church.

The complaints led to Miss Wasteney being suspended on full pay for nine months.

Three charges were upheld against the 37-year-old Christian at an internal disciplinary hearing in February and five charges were found to be unsubstantiated. She had to accept a final written warning at work which will remain on her records for 12 months, as well as accept a range of other requirements designed to stop her discussing her faith and beliefs with colleagues.

Miss Wasteney said she was challenging her employers in court because political correctness in the NHS was stifling ordinary conversations about faith.

"I believe in tolerance for everyone and that is why I am challenging what has happened to me," she added.

The young Muslim woman was appointed as a newly qualified occupational therapist in a team of 30 managed by Miss Wasteney at East London NHS Foundation Trust.

"One of the earliest conversations I can recall was one in which she said she had just moved to London. She felt that God had a real plan and a purpose for her," said Miss Wasteney, from Essex. Miss Wasteney told her colleague that she went to church, but was "very cautious because our environment is such that these things can be misconstrued and, with her being from a different faith background, I was mindful of being respectful of that".

Miss Wasteney said the woman was interested in the anti-human trafficking community work being done by her church.

Over a period of time, Miss Wasteney said she invited her colleague to several church-organised events and thought no more about it. Later, when the woman was due to go off work for hospital treatment, Miss Wasteney gave her a book to read during her recuperation.

"A friend had recommended it to me, a book called I Dared to Call Him Father. I hadn't read it. I still haven't. But it is a story about a Muslim woman who converts to Christianity.

"Because we had had these conversations it did not seem abnormal. It certainly was not an attempt to convert her to Christianity, as it was put to me later."

On another occasion the woman came to Miss Wasteney's office in tears, upset about her health and problems at home.

"I said to her that she had strong faith and she should draw on that faith," said Miss Wasteney. "I said 'Pray!' She told me she could not pray, so I replied 'Maybe I can pray for you?' And she said 'OK'.

"I asked if I could put my hand on her knee, and she said yes. I don't know if I said 'Lord' or 'God' but I said what I thought was the most neutral. Then I said 'I trust that You will bring peace and You will bring healing'."

In June last year, Miss Wasteney was told that complaints had been made about bullying and harassment.

A disciplinary hearing at her work in February found her guilty of three charges of misconduct – praying with the colleague, giving her the book and inviting her to church events.

We are then told that the case is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, which has instructed Paul Diamond, a leading human rights barrister (who is himself a rather extreme evangelical Christian).

The story goes on to quote Andrea Williams, the chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, as saying that the case demonstrated that "the NHS is increasingly dominated by a suffocating liberal agenda that chooses to bend over backwards to accommodate certain beliefs but punishes the Christian".

But the most important part of the story comes right at the end:

"A spokesman for East London NHS Foundation Trust said it did not comment on individual cases."

And this is Andrea Williams' trump card. She has a free hand to tell the story exactly as she wants it to be heard. And the Telegraph and the Mail are willing to let her do it in their pages.

But reading the story with at least one critical eye open, doesn't it sound a tad unconvincing? Doesn't it seem that there's something that we haven't been told? Like why this woman's work colleague felt so bullied and harassed that she was forced to turn to her employer for protection? Was it really all as good natured as recorded here?

The accused party, in this case the NHS, will not contradict Ms Williams, its hands are tied by concerns for the privacy of the other person involved.

Whatever Ms Williams has decided to exaggerate or, more likely, omit from the story will not be revealed until the matter comes to court.

And by then it will have become part of the mythology, the narrative of Christian persecution that has been so assiduously created by Ms Williams and her ilk.

The Christian soldiers have been given new heart by Baroness Hale and her suggestion of a more sympathetic hearing for these cases in future. We can look forward to a plethora of new challenges as the war on equality escalates.

It may be good news for the privilege-seeking Christians, but it's bad news for the rest of us.

Commission to investigate religion’s role in society

Commission to investigate religion’s role in society

Opinion | Thu, 03 Jul 2014

A commission has set itself up to "take the temperature of Britain's relationship with religion". But with so many vested interests on board, Terry Sanderson questions how objective its findings will be.

It’s not only Islamists who have Trojan Horses

It’s not only Islamists who have Trojan Horses

Opinion | Fri, 27 Jun 2014

Those with a vested interest in the continuation of 'faith schools' have started their fight back against the growing number of critics, says Terry Sanderson.

After the furore of the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair, a lot of commentators reached the conclusion that the problems lay not just with Islamist extremism but with the general over-emphasis on religion in schools - and in single-faith schools particularly.

Now, the apologists for 'faith schools' are coming back at them with a vengeance.

You will notice that the Archbishop of Canterbury has started to refer to "church schools" rather than "faith schools" in an attempt to distance the schools run by his brand of Christianity from those run by other religions that are in trouble.

Enthusiasts repeat endlessly that the Birmingham schools at the centre of this scandal were not "faith schools".

That is true technically, but in reality they were completely dominated by religious teaching and practice. They had been hijacked by people determined to inculcate a rather strict and conservative form of Islam into the children who were obliged to go there by law.

And the taxpayer was paying for them to do it.

Then came an Observer poll showing that two thirds of those asked thought "faith schools" should not be funded by the taxpayer.

Has this made the political establishment rethink its unswerving support for these schools?

Well, we know that Mr Gove and the Conservative party remain determined to hand more and more of the education system over to religious interests. The academy and free school systems have given religious groups almost carte blanche to pump whatever nonsense they like into children's heads (creationism must be reserved for RE classes, the DfE has ruled, but many schools under religious domination will take absolutely no notice of this until they are caught out and challenged).

The education secretary knows that many of the free schools and academies are being opportunistically used for evangelising, but seems unconcerned. He appears to think it is an appropriate – even desirable - way to educate children in state schools.

Now, according to a report in the Catholic magazine the Tablet, the Labour Party, too, has reiterated its total commitment to pushing more religion into schools and down pupils' throats.

A Labour spokesperson told the Tablet:

"The Labour Party believes faith schools make a hugely valuable contribution to our schools system. England benefits from many outstanding faith schools which offer high quality education and ensure their students take on values of respect and understanding for other faiths and communities. A future Labour government would support them to continue to play this important role in the future."

The spokesperson is unnamed, but the quote comes after the recent notorious "prayer breakfast" held in Parliament and attended by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour Party and self-identified atheist Ed Miliband.

Mr Miliband seems to have bought into the idea that Church of England schools are neutral in their approach to religion and give a balanced view of it in its schools.

But the 'Trojan Horse' approach to education – so rightly decried in Birmingham - is not restricted to Islamists. The Church of England has its own agenda of indoctrination which it is quite public about. When you look at this document:

"PROMOTING THE VISION

8. The diocesan bishop has responsibility for setting and leading the diocesan vision for ministry and mission. The strategy will be specific to each diocese, but the importance of the place of education and schools in that vision might be described under the following areas:

a. ... b. Church of England schools provide appropriate nurture for children of the faith whilst engaging with those of different faiths or no faith; they are a resource for mission.

c. Church of England schools offer a distinctive education rooted in the Christian narrative.

d. The purpose of education is to fulfil human potential, meet the needs of society and transmit knowledge and culture. Fulfilling human potential rightly requires a focus on progress and achievement, excellence and high quality of educational experience, but also through offering a life enhancing encounter with the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ. How this is done will be determined by local context but this offer should run through the life of a school like words through a stick of rock."

Doesn't this have echoes of the Trojan Horse letter that cause so much controversy in Birmingham? It may be cloaked in CofE language, but surely the aim is the same – to promote one particular view of religion over all others.

And not only that, the Church of England is now spending huge amounts of its school budgets on employing chaplains to reinforce its religious message.

As, NSS campaigns manager, Stephen Evans wrote in a recent blog:

"In the report, chaplains describe their role as "holy loitering" and say 'hanging around' is an important feature of the chaplain's role.

"When they're not "holy loitering", chaplains say they spend their time "commending the Christian faith", "maintaining relationships with the local Church", organising and leading school worship and teaching religious education (if you thought RE was objective and balanced these days, think again).

Chaplains are also there to police the school's "religious ethos". As the report states:

"The chaplain represents the Church and reminds the school that it is part of the ministry of the Church. This function brings the authority of the Bishop and also a commitment to the distinctive Anglican identity, in all its rich variety, of the worship and life of the school."

So, while Islamist extremists are rooted out of schools in Birmingham, equally determined proselytisers in the Church of England are invited in to take over more schools.

And both of the main political parties (and probably the Lib Dems, too) intend to make the job easier and easier for them.

Terry Sanderson’s speech to the Religious Freedom Conference, Chatham

Terry Sanderson’s speech to the Religious Freedom Conference, Chatham

Opinion | Tue, 24 Jun 2014

On 21 June 2014, NSS President Terry Sanderson spoke at the Chatham Unitarian Church, about the importance of equalities protections and secularism to religious freedom. This is a transcript of his speech.

The first problem I have is with a definition of "religious freedom".

What does it actually mean and what does it entail?

In human rights terms it means being free to hold your beliefs and practice them in communion with others. You should be free to change your religion or abandon it.

Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which covers Freedom of thought, conscience and religion puts it this way:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

I repeat that the freedom to manifest one's religion is limited for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. In other words, it is not absolute. This right extends only so far as it impinges on other people's rights. This is where the difficulties begin. And this is where the problems of definition arise.

If, for instance, a registrar does not want to perform civil partnership ceremonies - which is part of her job – because she says it is against her deeply held religious beliefs, should she be free to simply refuse to do it?

If a Christian hotelier objects to renting a double bedded room to a gay couple because to do so would compromise his Christian values should they be free to do so, even though it is against the law for every other hotel to behave in such a way?

Some Christians assert that cases such as these are an affront to religious freedom, but are they? Has the meaning of religious freedom been extended to the point that it means the freedom to discriminate against those of whom you don't approve – even though they are protected by the law?

The UK's Equality Act protects certain categories of people from discrimination in employment and in the receipt of goods and services.

It is the most advanced equality legislation in the world, which, as far as I am concerned, is something to be proud of. The Equality Act already includes greater protection for religion than is required by the EU's employment directive.

Nevertheless there have been continual arguments about whose rights are more important – those of gay people, who are one of the protected groups, or religious believers, who receive the same protection?

It was clear from the beginning that attempting to put religion and gay rights under one umbrella would pose problems. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to give the same rights to homosexuals and religious believers because these two groups seem to have been in constant conflict for decades. Eventually someone would have to decide whose rights should prevail when they came into conflict.

A series of court cases tried to solve the dilemma. They went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights and the answer seemed clear: gay people's right to equality and fair treatment could not be sacrificed on the basis of claims that they interfered with religious freedom.

I am proud that the NSS was given leave to intervene in these cases and our intervention is thought by some lawyers to have played a significant role in that victory.

However, the pressure from evangelical Christians to have the law reviewed and changed so that they will be permitted - through the introduction of "conscience clauses" - to legally discriminate against those who fall short of their ideals is relentless.

I say again, religious freedom is not absolute. But being gay, according to scientific opinion, is an innate characteristic, in the same way that a person's race is. Gay people cannot change their orientation and that means that it is no more acceptable to discriminate against a person's sexual orientation than it is against their race.

The other thing is that most Christian hoteliers would have no problem observing the law and accommodating gay couples. Most Christian registrars are happy to carry out civil partnerships – and don't consider it an affront to their faith. The few who do raise objections and refuse to do these things are therefore asking for special privileges that result in humiliating other people because of a characteristic over which they have no control.

If the same arguments were made by Christians about black people we would be outraged. If a registrar said that her religion meant that she could not perform a marriage for a black man and a white woman, there would rightly be uproar.

We shouldn't forget that in some Southern States of America within living memory that was the law. We have moved on, I hope, and we are not going to let the same situation arise in this country that renders gay people second class citizens, as black people were in Mississippi and Alabama.

In the United States, the Supreme Court is about to rule on a very important issue of a supposed challenge to "religious freedom" – and most think it is going to rule the wrong way.

It concerns President Obama's flagship Affordable Care Act.

The Catholic Church claims that it forces it to supply its employees with contraception, which we all know is against Catholic doctrine. The President made an exemption that permitted the Church to opt out of this provision of the act, but that was not enough.

The Church's aim is to make it impossible for any employer to supply – as part of its health insurance package – contraception.

It does this on the basis of a claim that its freedom of religion is being abused by the Affordable Care Act.

A parallel case on the same matter is being brought by a chain of shops called Hobby Lobby. This is even more interesting, and more frightening, because if the case is won, the personal religious beliefs of the owner of this nation-wide chain will be imposed on the whole of his sizeable workforce.

The executives of Hobby Lobby, and several other companies with religious executives, have complained that the requirement unduly and unlawfully burdens their religious beliefs by forcing them to endorse certain practices — like contraception — which they oppose.

But in human rights terms religious freedom belongs to the individual, not to churches or mosques – or, come to that, hobby shops.

If the Hobby Lobby wins its claim – meaning that a corporation is, in effect, a person - then human rights will have been redefined to apply not only to individual humans, but to corporate bodies. The religious freedom claims on which these cases are based will then be able to be claimed by any corporation or group that wants to impose a particular religious doctrine on its staff or its members.

Religious freedom so easily turns into religious tyranny.

And so I return to the definition of religious freedom as it stands now.

The National Secular Society has a secular charter on which we base all our campaigning. It states specifically that religious people's right to worship and believe as they will, must be protected in law.

But it does not support any religious organisation's right to take action that results in its doctrines being enacted into law in a way that impinges on the rights of people who do not share those doctrines.

We have a legal definition of religious freedom. It has been tested in court and its limits set.

It is time for those evangelical Christians who are not happy that they do not receive special privilege under the law to think again. They should be happy to live in a nation that respects and protects their religion and everybody else's religion equally.

It not only respects religious belief, but any belief that is deeply held. Court cases have made environmentalists and animal rights defenders into the equals of religious believers. And that is as it should be.

Last week, the British Social Attitudes Survey was published and it showed for the first time in any survey or poll that I've seen that there are more people in this country defining themselves as not having a religion than having one.

In the face of this it is ever more important that religion is not given a disproportionate role that can be detrimental to the rights of others. This does not mean curtailing religious freedom, because religious freedom does not include the freedom to disadvantage those of who you disapprove.

The definition of religious freedom as contained in the Human Rights Act should be sufficient. There should be no more attempts –as there are in America - to extend it to mean something else.

My speech today is less upbeat than it was to have been because of comments made in a speech in Ireland this week by Baroness Hale, the deputy president of the UK Supreme Court. These comments have been seized upon by those who believe religion should have a privileged status in our society. They have interpreted them as indicating that future legal judgments will be more pro-religious by recognising religious conscience more than hitherto.

Baroness Hale asked:

"So should we be developing, in both human rights and EU law, an explicit requirement upon the providers of employment, goods and services to make reasonable accommodation for the manifestation of religious and other beliefs?"

I was relieved that Lady Hale balanced this with:

"But the law now protects all religions equally, without discriminating between them and without attempting to determine which are forces for good and which are not. Not only that, it also protects other belief systems, such as humanism and pacifism, and we have dropped any requirement that these be "similar" to religion. It also protects the lack of a religion or belief. In other words, while it protects freedom of thought, it does not give any special protection to religion as such…"

She concluded

"So the moral of all this is that if the law is going to protect freedom of religion and belief it has to accept that all religions and beliefs and none are equal.

It cannot realistically inquire into the validity or importance of those beliefs, or any particular manifestation of them, as long as they are genuinely held. It then has to work out how far it should go in making special provisions or exceptions for particular beliefs, how far it should require the providers of employments, goods and services to accommodate them, and how far it should allow for a "conscience clause.

I am not sure that our law has yet found a reasonable accommodation of all these different strands. The story has just begun."

I believe the law already has it right. Those who want to exercise their religious freedom by excluding gay people from their private homes or places of worship are at complete liberty to do so.

But they cannot do so as providers of employment or goods or [commercial] services.

If we permitted "conscience objections" in these areas who knows where it might lead. We could find ourselves once more with the equivalent of the notorious 1960s signs that were seen outside boarding houses, "no dogs, no Irish, no blacks."

Conscience exemptions could lead to signs saying "no gays". But given that other people have conscientious objections to other things, that they could claim spring from sincerely and deeply held beliefs, who knows where it might lead.

I will continue to fight to protect freedom of religion – but the freedom of religion defined by the Human Rights Act. I will fight equally hard to prevent any further privileges and special treatment for religion – for every time we grant such a privilege or exemption there will be a commensurate diminution of rights for other people.

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