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Newsline 6 June 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.

The choice of when to die should be that of the individual – not religious leaders

The choice of when to die should be that of the individual – not religious leaders

Opinion | Thu, 05 Jun 2014

Speaking from personal experience, Terry Sanderson argues that religious opposition to a new law on assisted dying causes needless suffering to the terminally ill and their families.

The campaigning group Dignity in Dying has launched a campaign aimed at the three main party leaders asking them to support a change in the law on assisted dying. You can sign a petition here.

Surveys repeatedly show that 80% or more of the population would support such a change and yet, whenever the matter comes to parliament it is stymied by religious interests. There is now even an instruction booklet telling Christians how to campaign against any reforms.

The bishops and their friends in the churches, mosques and temples rise up as one and tell us that what they believe is more important than what the rest of us believe and that their opinion will prevail.

Up until now, it has. But that must change.

Politicians must listen to what their constituents are saying. Many have stories of horrendous suffering endured by loved ones at the end of their lives, suffering that cannot always be alleviated by palliative care.

My own experience is still raw. Last week my mother died – she was 98 so it was not a tragedy in the sense that she had been robbed of life too soon. But when she developed pneumonia and it was clear that there was no prospect of recovery, her final days could have been foreshortened and it would have relieved her and us – her family – of much distress.

Instead, she endured three days of gasping and thrashing about as treatment was withdrawn and food and drink denied. We had agreed to this course of action, hoping it would end things quickly. But it could have been finished days earlier had the law permitted it.

Almost everyone I've spoken to about this has a similar story of terminally ill people suffering to the very end. Palliative treatment is wonderful, but it can still leave relatives keeping bedside vigils that exhaust and traumatise them.

The BBC's religion and ethics department has just posted an article about religious attitudes to end-of-life care and for the most part it seems sensible. But in some cases, as with Rabbi Yehuda Pink, who is quoted in it, there is a dilemma. "If the administration of the pain relief would have such severe effect, like to almost certainly kill the person, that would clearly be forbidden. For example, euthanasia is certainly not allowed in Jewish terms."

Rabbi Pink, like so many other religious leaders, claims to be a man of compassion. But to deny pain relief to the dying on the basis that it might shorten their life is little short of monstrous.

To deny people who are terminally ill and do not share your beliefs the right to choose when they die is simply unjust.

Many laws that were dictated by religious dogmas have been dispensed with over the last century. The laws forbidding abortion, divorce, contraception, suicide, homosexuality, cremation, Sunday shopping and so on have all been done away with because society wanted it.

Well, society wants well-regulated laws on assisted dying for the terminally ill, too.

And it is time parliamentarians told the religious objectors: you are not obliged to take advantage of any new law permitting a dignified death, you can permit your loved ones to suffer if you want to.

But you must no longer have the right to deny this choice to others.

This should be in every political party's manifesto, but none seem to have the courage to confront the issue.

In the meantime, every day of the week, the experience I had with my mother is being repeated up and down the country. It cannot go on.

See also: Millions denied end of life drugs

NSS calls for statutory sex and relationship education in all schools, including those with faith-based ethos

NSS calls for statutory sex and relationship education in all schools, including those with faith-based ethos

News | Fri, 06 Jun 2014

The National Secular Society has called for age appropriate sex and relationship education (SRE) to be made a statutory part of the national curriculum amid concerns that children and young people are not being guaranteed good quality SRE.

The NSS has submitted evidence to an Education Select Committee inquiry investigating whether Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) ought to be statutory, arguing that it would like to see SRE made statutory with no permitted opt-outs or exemptions for any free schools or academies, including those with a faith-based ethos.

The Christian Institute, Campaign for Real Education, Family Education Trust and other predominantly religious groups have been producing reports intended to alarm parents and orchestrate an antipathy to SRE. The NSS, however, agree with Ofsted's warning that young people denied SRE of a sufficiently good quality are left vulnerable to inappropriate sexual behaviours and exploitation.

Research has shown that comprehensive SRE can help increase condom and contraceptive use, reduce the number of sexual partners people have, delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency with which people have it and the rates of teen pregnancy.

Within the context of a child's right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and education, the NSS has called on the Government to ensure all children and young people receive impartial, evidence-based education about sex and relationships. The submission also raises the problem of homophobic bullying in schools where religious ethos has been found to be contributing to prejudicial and discriminatory views about sexuality and life-style choices. Notably, faith schools have been found to be less likely than other schools to take the necessary steps to prevent and respond to homophobic bullying.

Meanwhile, SRE campaigners have launched a new national campaign calling for statutory sex and relationships education amid concerns of inadequate teacher training.

The Sex Education Forum (SEF), of which the National Secular Society is a member, has launched the 'It's my Right' campaign calling for every pupil, in every school, to be guaranteed high quality SRE, as part of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education.

The campaign, which is supported by over 30 organisations and CEOs, shows how providing SRE as part of an entitlement to statutory PSHE would transform the subject. The SEF argues that statutory status would allow teachers to get the training they need to teach SRE most effectively. It would also mean that sufficient time is allocated in the timetable for the subject, in which real life issues, including respectful relationships, domestic violence and consent, are addressed.

Chair of the SEF, Jane Lees, commented: "For too long young people have been telling us about what they wish they had learnt in school about consent and relationships and how better knowledge of their body and sexual health facts could have kept them safer and healthier".

She called on all political parties to make a commitment to make SRE statutory; "standing up for statutory SRE is a move that political leaders can be proud of, and we know that young people, parents and teachers support it".

School chaplains: the Church of England's latest plan to evangelise in schools

School chaplains: the Church of England's latest plan to evangelise in schools

Opinion | Tue, 03 Jun 2014

With the majority church schools now employing Christian chaplains, Stephen Evans questions whether public money intended for education should be used to fund the Church of England's missionary work.

A new study on school chaplaincy, published last week by the Church of England, has revealed that the majority of Church controlled secondary state schools and academies now employ a Christian chaplain, or team of chaplains, as a permanent presence on site. The majority are ordained ministers. Almost all are directly funded by public money through the school's own budget.

Given the absence of young people from the pews (church attendance in Britain by the under-19 year-olds has dropped by two thirds in the last twenty years and is predicted to fall by a further two thirds in the next fifteen years), the Church of England has targeted school chaplaincy as a vital part of ministering the Gospel to young people - with the taxpayer picking up the bill.

We're told the primary role of a chaplain is to provide pastoral support to pupils. But the striking thing about the Church's report, The Public Face of God, is that young people hardly get a look in. The emphasis is almost entirely on how chaplains serve the mission of the Church.

Surely pastoral support should exist to create a nurturing and supportive setting for students during their time at school. The focus should be care and concern for young people and their needs; not the needs of the Church.

Those providing pastoral work in schools need the necessary knowledge and skills to offer effective learning-support and the knowhow to develop pupils' ability to become good citizens. It goes without saying that those carrying out pastoral roles can be motivated by their religious faith, but it shouldn't be a requirement of the job.

But according to the Church, the Christian ethos of a school means placing all its activity into a spiritual context - including pastoral care, counselling and mentoring.

But that doesn't sound particularly child centred, does it? Publicly funded schools, including Church run schools, are attended by pupils from diverse religious backgrounds, including of course, non-religious backgrounds. Why should they be disadvantaged by the imposition of Christian chaplains?

Of course, the reason is because it's not really about meeting their needs. It's all about the Church, and how it can increase its influence on schools - and the young people that attend them.

I don't doubt for one second that many within the Church, including chaplains, care passionately about the welfare of young people and their educational outcomes. They may well be able to provide excellent pastoral care, but should do so in a secular context, and not use the position to carry out their Church's missionary work.

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."

The Church of England is no doubt encouraged by developments in Australia, where the Federal Government's Christian chaplaincy drive, known as the National School Chaplaincy Program, has removed the option for schools to employ secular welfare workers, and will now only provide funding for chaplains - most of which represent a Christian faith.

In 2012, Revd. Janina Ainsworth, the General Secretary of the National Society (the educational wing of the CofE) let it be known it was interested in the Australian model - particularly where the funding came from the state.

Just last year, John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford and Chair of the Church of England's Board of Education, made it clear that schools were regarded by the Church as the primary method of recruiting the next generation of Anglicans. "We don't need to attract [young people] to church" he declared, "they're already there, if we embrace our church schools fully."

And that's what the Church of England's new national initiative to increase the number of chaplains in schools and academies is all about.

The state currently provides full funding for 220 Church of England secondary schools and 80 sponsored academies. As the Church's chaplaincy report points out, school chaplains are ministering to considerable numbers of young people. "Tens of thousands of young people are hearing the Gospel; being led in worship and reflection", it rejoices.

For too long the Church of England's assumption that publicly funded schools are appropriate places to minister the Gospel has gone unchallenged.

Because they can't reach young people in church, many within the Church like to consider church schools as churches. But a distinction needs to be drawn. Faith schools are state-funded educational establishments, and the public money religious organisations receive to run them is intended for education, not proselytization.

Pastoral support is an important part of school life. Those providing it shouldn't have an agenda to evangelise. "Holy loitering" shouldn't be acceptable behaviour in schools, and the Church of England's missionary work certainly shouldn't be coming out of school budgets.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

NSS Speaks Out

Terry Sanderson was on BBC Radio WM and BBC Coventry and Warwickshire talking about the Pope's comment that couples who choose not to have children are asking for a lonely and bitter old age. He was also interviewed for a BBC programme centred on a poll that appears to show that religious people give more to charity than non-religious.

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