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Newsline 7 June 2013

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Woking: equal treatment vs. religious privilege

Woking: equal treatment vs. religious privilege

Opinion | Wed, 05 Jun 2013

This week, The National Secular Society launched legal action against Woking Borough Council over its policy of offering free parking to worshippers, while charging others.

Woking Borough Council, like Bideford Town Council before it, has come out fighting. Woking Council's chief executive, Ray Morgan, told BBC radio that this was because the council believes people should not have to "pay to pray". "We take a view that those people who worship... have a special role in our society", he said.

The council is naturally keen to encourage people who contribute to the community in some way. That's a laudable aim. The question is: why does Woking insist on bringing religious belief into it? Religion doesn't have a significant role to play in public life, people do. Of course people of faith contribute to society, but so do non-religious people. Treating all churchgoers with privileged status indicates that Woking values them and their activities above other members of society, and that's just not good enough.

If local authorities want to reward people who 'do good' in society, then fine, but why not target those that actually do good and provide some sort of public service? Where is the public service in worshipping?

Mr Morgan points out that Christians are out on Woking's streets on a Saturday night acting as 'street pastors', helping people who've had a few too many drinks to get home safely. If the council considered it an effective use of public money to give free parking to 'street pastors' so that they can hand out flip flops to revellers to help them on their merry way, I don't think the NSS would have an issue with that.

What we do have an issue with, is over £53,000 of public money (pdf) being spent annually on privileging one small section of society — religious worshippers — above others, for no legitimate reason.

Woking concedes its actions are discriminatory, but claim they are lawful because proving free parking to worshippers is a "proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim." However, even in their own legal advice (pdf), its counsel states: "What I have struggled with in this case is what the legitimate aim is?"

Woking insists worshipping promotes 'social inclusion'. But what it fails to recognise is that social inclusion is fostered through a range of activities; religious worship is just one of those. An Equality Impact Assessment (pdf) commissioned (and then largely ignored) by Woking, made clear that other activities in which people partake while parking on Sundays promote inclusion. It stated:

"The Town Centre is not seen by non-religious groups as solely offering a commercial and retail experience. As an illustration, carers balancing home, work and their caring responsibilities often find Sunday a convenient day to relax by visiting the Town Centre as other family members who work may be around to provide some respite. Moreover, lone parents balancing childcare, work, commuting, and the school run may find Sunday the best day to shop, and for disabled residents who want to visit the Town Centre, shop and have a meal with other family members or friends who may be working in the week, Sunday is often the most convenient day.

Thus Sunday for non-worshippers accommodates flexible working patterns and fits with the rhythms of family life. This is seen as being as important as religious observance to building and maintaining the social as well as the economic fabric of communities. It is seen as important to community cohesion in Woking, and to supporting diverse family values and family structures.

Therefore, in the same way as the church in Woking is seen as fulfilling an important community and social integration function, the discourse on parking charges it is argued, also needs to be expanded to take account of diverse lifestyles and secular activities that also enhance social integration. Along with church activities, those activities are also seen as contributing to the dynamism of the Town Centre, to its social milieu, and to its cohesion."

So there you have it. There is no legal defence for 'direct discrimination' which we believe Woking's policy amounts to, but even if the discrimination is indirect, Woking's defence looks a little shaky.

The public response to this campaign has been positive, even the Daily Mail article was balanced and the comments beneath it broadly supportive. But as with any campaign to remove religious privilege there are detractors. The Christian thinktank Theos suggested there was more important stuff to be getting on with. And there is, like removing self-serving Bishops from the House of Lords, advocating a secular approach to education, and exposing the human rights implications, particularly for women, of accommodating sharia law in our legal system. We are focusing on all of these issues, and many more, but that doesn't mean we have to turn a blind eye to other examples religious privilege where we find it – however much some would prefer us to.

But on this issue, some Christians are clearly with us. One local Christian has commented that she finds exemption from car parking charges to attend church "very un-Christian." She rightly points out that local authority funding is desperately needed to support the most vulnerable in society and suggests "the more ardent free car parking supporters might benefit from re-reading the Bible and thinking if this attitude is really compatible with their faith". "Are these churches now so feeble they have to take money from the poor to boost church attendance?" she asks.

We know this campaign won't change the world, but we do hope it will serve as another blow to the assumption that religion needs and deserves special privilege.

Ray Morgan has promised the NSS can get free parking too if we come to Woking and provide some public benefit. I think establishing the principle of equal treatment, regardless of religion or belief, actually does provide some public benefit – but we won't hold our breath for a free parking permit in the post.

The Same-Sex Marriage Bill delivers a blow to the bishops in the House of Lords

The Same-Sex Marriage Bill delivers a blow to the bishops in the House of Lords

Opinion | Wed, 05 Jun 2013

So, the prospect of gay marriage took a mighty leap forward in the House of Lords this week as the intended "wrecking amendment" was itself wrecked by a steamrolling 242 majority against.

During the two-day debate leading up to the vote, their Lordships kept complimenting themselves on how well-informed they were, how civilised. What a high quality of discussion this is, they kept saying.

But anyone who sat through the turgid, repetitive hours of self-indulgence and bigotry would be hard-pressed to agree. And then some of them had the nerve to claim that not enough time had been allocated!

As well as stupid, patronising remarks about how "artistic" and "lovely" gay people are, there were ridiculous claims about artificial insemination for the monarchy and how it would soon be impossible to designate a gender to anyone. Norman Tebbit, sitting there with a face sour enough to curdle milk, was accused of being an ace scaremonger for his barmy exaggerations.

One ghastly reactionary after another trotted out the justifications for their opposition. Most of them declared their Christianity as the motivation. Listening to the debate, you would have thought the whole country was suddenly living back in the 1950s. But it was these reactionaries who got the lion's share of the media coverage.

There were coming-out stories, too, with one Baroness announcing her lesbianism for the first time and several others revealing that they have gay children or relatives.

In the end, the peers voted for the liberal option (except the Minister for Faith and Communities, Baroness Warsi, who abstained, preferring once more to put faith before communities).

Given that the House of Commons had approved the Bill by such a large majority, if their Lordships and Ladyships hadn't done the right thing, it would once more have called into question their legitimacy.

There will be further attempts no doubt at committee and report stage to sabotage the Bill, but it all now looks hopeless for the opponents. Same-sex marriage is going to happen and there is nothing that the Christian Institute, the evangelical activists and the ancien regime can do to hold back progress.

One of the most telling elements of this was the presence of the bishops. One peer said he had never seen so many bishops in the House before – 16 by one count.

Yet only nine of them voted for the amendment to kill the bill. Did the other seven abstain? Did they go home for afternoon tea?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his muddled speech, issued an apology to the gay community for the centuries of cruelty and injustice that his church has heaped on them.

But his words rang hollow as he then voted against a bill that would have gone some way to putting right those wrongs.

It seems strange to apologise for kicking a person while continuing to put the boot in. So, apology not accepted, Mr Welby. If you're truly contrite about the way your religion has treated gay people, you'll stop the present campaign. Now.

And this defeat for the Church of England may yet have more serious ramifications. It has been speculated that gay marriage will bring the nation nearer to disestablishment. The Church of England has negotiated itself into an uncomfortable corner with its triple locks and refusal to permit gay marriage anywhere near its premises. It is supposed to be the national church that will marry anyone who asks. Except some people. Its position is untenable.

Let us hope that soon our constitution will be brought into the 21st century. And let us start by getting the pompous, self-important bishops out of our legislature and back into their churches where they belong.

Better the muddle you know: Disestablishment and gay marriage

Better the muddle you know: Disestablishment and gay marriage

Opinion | Mon, 03 Jun 2013

If, as looks very likely, gay marriage becomes law, the established Church will be opposed to the law of the land in a way that is surely unprecedented. The Church itself hinted at this last summer, hoping to dissuade the Government from moving ahead on the issue.

So might it really be that gay marriage leads to disestablishment? I doubt it, sadly. Establishment has, over the decades, become a vague and stretchy thing. Church and state are like two slices of pizza that have basically been pulled apart, but are still joined by the gooey stringy cheese on the top. It is hard to believe that anything is capable of effecting a clean break. A few conservatives will say that the Church should cut its links with a state that redefines marriage to include gay couples. But they won't really mean it: they know that the state has for decades been promoting secular liberalism over what they consider traditional Christian morality, and they accept this. And most liberals will be reluctant to advocate disestablishment. In their desire to push for reform of the Church on homosexuality, they will say that it must reform in order to move with the moral opinion of the nation and justify its established status. So the new situation will weaken establishment yet further, but the cheese on that pizza is very stretchy. (By the way, I admit I stole this analogy from one of Andrew Marr's historical documentaries a few years back.)

On the other hand, whenever the anomalous nature of establishment is exposed in a new way, Anglicans have cause to ponder the absurdity of their tradition. Most will shrug a pious shrug, but a few will say: 'There is too much muddle here! For Christ's sake let us rethink!' For me it was 9/11: I felt the need to affirm the liberal state, which affirms religious liberty without interference from a vague theocratic inheritance. In the same way, some younger Anglicans will now say: 'Enough muddle! If the state is guided by secular liberal principles, even to the point of redefining marriage in defiance of its established Church, then why on earth are we going on with the charade of having an established Church? It looks time for a bit of rethink.'

Of course professional church people have no appetite for such rethinking. What would they gain from casting doubt on the viability of the Church? The present situation might be a precarious muddle, but why invite its collapse? Better stick with the muddle you know. But some of us, though British Anglicans, cannot countenance this level of muddle. We must seek fresher air. We must seek the reinvention of Anglicanism, away from the old familiar lie of establishment.

Of course this is no magic bullet. A disestablished Church still has difficult issues to face, about how to relate itself to the liberal state, where to stand on homosexuality, and how to engage the world around it. But it is able to face the future with honesty.

Theo Hobson is an Anglican theologian living in New York whose next book, Reinventing Liberal Christianity, is out soon published by Eerdmans. This blog was originally published in The Tablet and is reproduced with the author's permission.

Turkey: What would Ataturk think?

Turkey: What would Ataturk think?

Opinion | Wed, 05 Jun 2013

The father of all Turks and founder of the modern secular Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, must be turning in his grave from the turn of events throughout Turkey and the political implications they usher in.

It all started when a few thousands of Ataturk's unarmed and peaceful sons and daughters took to Istanbul's Taksim Square to protest their government's greed and disregard for the environment as reflected in a lucrative plan to turn Gezi Park (one of Istanbul's last green spaces) into a shopping mall and commercial centre.

That the ambitious project is contracted by Prime Minister's Recep Tayyeb Erdogan's AK Party might be the only reason why the Turkish Police responded in a shocking and unwarranted heavy-handedness against the peaceful tree-huggers. That, coupled with a local media blackout on the peaceful protest and the ensuing violent police response, drove the situation to an all-out protest across the country with people demanding the resignation of Erdogan and his government and even calling him a "dictator."

The Prime Minister and his party have been acting as the masters of Turkey and its only rulers for quite some time. Riding their unquestioned popularity at the polls and pulling the numbers game any time they feel squeezed or pressured. Erdogan's famous quote about protests which he alluded to again over the weekend as he spoke about the latest protests, "you bring one hundred thousand, we bring one million!" This sounds very familiar to those at the receiving end of other Islamists that came to power thanks to the democratic process. Think Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and Hamas in Gaza.

What Mr Erdogan did not count on is that a small environmental protest, which he believed he could totally ignore and intimidate the media into ignoring as well, would end up being the one to expose his dictatorship-style democracy where his own opinions and beliefs are above reproach and where opposition is reduced to nothing and never given the chance to play its natural role. Mr. Erdogan never thought that a simple protest over a green patch would expose his party's inability and unwillingness to listen or negotiate. He never thought the word will get out of Istanbul, let alone to some twenty six cities in Turkey and through social media to the entire world.

A simple march on Taksim Square, which on a regular day would have been insignificant and ineffective, brought out the worst of Turkish Police and brought in the world's attention. When the protests widened and got violent naturally, Mr Erdogan spoke not once but three times on Sunday, trying to appear in control and dismissive of the reach of the loud critical voices. He called Twitter a "bunch of lies-carrying vehicle" and to people calling him a "dictator," he had "nothing to say." In essence doing the same thing his government and his party have done every time they were met with criticism: Playing down the charges, dismissing and discrediting the critics, blaming dissent on the opposition, and moving on with their plans as usual.

Many things should concern anyone looking at Erdogan, his AKP and the future of Turkey as a key player in the Middle East, Europe and on the international scene. Let's mention only some obvious red lights although there are many others: The very charismatic Mr Erdogan, with a large Islamist voter base, has been rallying to alter the constitution to allow him to become Turkey's first newly empowered president. His plans did not go through at the end of 2012 and earlier this year he seemed to put them on hold for a while. For someone who campaigned hard in 2007 to lift a ban on women wearing headscarves at state universities and made it a priority of his premiership until the ban was lifted, it is very obvious that his Islamist agenda is wrapped nicely into a moderate conservative one. Then the ban on alcohol sale earlier this year, which was introduced, written and approved in two short weeks despite a ferocious opposition and his comment, "those who want to drink can drink at home."

On the same subject, Erdogan has said that the original alcohol law which he overturned was "written by a couple of alcoholics!" One has to wonder if he was referring to Ataturk as an "alcoholic." If so, wouldn't this be considered an "insult" to the father of modern secular Turkey? Because if he meant Ataturk, that would be an offense punishable by law! With an unapologetic statement like this, which went unnoticed, Erdogan's one party rule is well on its way to rolling back Turkey's secularism right under everybody's nose.

For anyone in the free world who applauds Erdogan's Turkey and uses it as a "model" for Arab Spring countries and the Islamic rule within a democracy, let the latest events serve as lessons on how important it is to keep religion and state separate in secular societies and always beware of Islamist agendas disguised as democracies.

I really don't know what Ataturk would think of all this, but if he is rolling in his grave, it is certainly not the first time and, from the way things are going in Turkey, it certainly won't be the last.

Octavia Nasr is a journalist who covers Middle East affairs. Until 2010 she served as CNN's Senior Editor of Mideast affairs. You can follow her on Twitter @octavianasr

This article was first published in Lebanon-based An Nahar and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Questions raised about the running of the BBC’s religious affairs department

Questions raised about the running of the BBC’s religious affairs department

Opinion | Tue, 04 Jun 2013

The latest Private Eye carries the following piece:

These are trying times for Aaqil Ahmed, head of religion and ethics at the BBC.

As we revealed in the last Eye, some of his department's commissions for Songs of Praise are now being scrutinised by the Beeb's investigation unit, which has been told by Lord Patten that "if on investigation there is any suggestion that a criminal offence has been committed, the matter should be referred to the police." Ahmed's reaction to the story was to announce that he is launching a "witch hunt" (sic) to find our source.

Meanwhile, he has another hefty headache. The Ottomans, a three-part series in which Rageh Omar wanders through the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, is beset by problems and falling even further behind schedule. Although 18 weeks had been allotted for editing all three one-hour programmes, the first two have already taken 30 weeks, including delays for an expensive re-shoot in the Middle East. The main problem is Ahmed's ignorance arrogance, which have resulted in hours wasted trying to persuade the contributors to give interviews backing his eccentric interpretations of religious history. At the last count he even omitted reference to the Crimean War.

As is his custom, Ahmed assigned the production not to experts in his department but to an old freelance chum, Faris Kermani, who made many programmes about Islam for C4 when Ahmed was head of religion at the channel and later followed him to the BBC to make The Life of Muhammad. The justification for engaging Kermani was that he could gain exclusive access to middle-eastern locations and contacts that were somehow out of the reach of the BBC. In the end, however, this was handled by department staff using a local fixer in the usual way.

As costs spiral out of control, the job of rescuing the production has gone back in-house, too, with the department's main development executive – helped by a producer on attachment from BBC Bristol – striving to bring some order and intellectual rigour to the chaos.

Read this week's Newsline in full

NSS Speaks Out

Our legal challenge to Woking Council was covered in the Guardian Money AOL and The Times (subscription only). BBC, Daily Mail Get SurreyAlbany Tribune and Woking News and Mail.

Keith Porteous Wood was interviewed on, Radio Surrey, Premier Christian Radio, BBC Radio WM Terry Sanderson spoke on Radio 5 Live and the Voice of Russia

Scottish spokesman Alistair McBay had this letter in The Courier (Dundee) and drew these responses

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