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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

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.

Turkey: What would Ataturk think?

Turkey: What would Ataturk think?

Opinion | Wed, 05 Jun 2013

Middle East commentator Octavia Nasr on why the 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.

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

Private Eye's coverage on Aaqil Ahmed's latest headache at the BBC.

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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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