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Newsline 7 October 2016

It's a familiar story – a new poll has (again) shown a steep rise in the non-religious in recent years, and a decline in those who identify as Christian.

Why then, do successive governments persist in behaving as though the UK is a 'Christian country'?

At the Conservative Party Conference this week Theresa May repeated her promise for "more good faith schools for parents and pupils who want them". What about those who don't want them, but find their choice of schools limited because of the prevalence of 'faith' schools in their local area? What about those, like us, who think the taxpayer shouldn't be funding religion but that every citizen, including young people, should have the freedom to choose their beliefs for themselves?

Society has changed. The NSS is working tirelessly to make the Government see that. More faith schools will be needlessly divisive – at a time when we should strain every sinew to build a more integrated society.

If you're not already a member please put your principles into action and join us today.

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Channel 4’s Dispatches reveals intimidating tactics of US-inspired anti-abortion campaigners

Channel 4’s Dispatches reveals intimidating tactics of US-inspired anti-abortion campaigners

Opinion | Thu, 06 Oct 2016

Dr Antony Lempert of the Secular Medical Forum reacts to Channel 4 Dispatches' programme that showed the shock tactics UK anti-abortion campaigners are importing from America.

This week's Channel 4's Dispatches, presented by Cathy Newman, went undercover among the anti-abortion activists in the UK who are taking inspiration from the American anti-abortion movement, and the documentary exposed the shocking intimidation that women are subjected to outside abortion clinics in Britain.

Sadly there are many threats to women's rights – across Europe. Just this week Poland was forced to backtrack after mass demonstrations against a punitive new law that would have punished women with prison terms for having an abortion, even in the case of rape. The proposed legislation was a particularly extreme example of the state, with backing from elements of the Catholic Church, attacking women's rights.

But there are many other threats to women's right to access healthcare and make their own choices – as Dispatches showed, and in the UK these campaigns are being infused with well-practised tactics from the United States.

It was recently reported that an NHS Trust produced a leaflet directing distressed patients to such a vehemently anti-abortion organisation as GCN (Good Counsel Network).

Currently those without professed religious belief and links to organised religion have been disbarred from applying for some NHS employment, namely chaplaincy. And it was the spiritual pastoral care team of the South West London and St George's Mental Health Trust who produced material directing women to GCN.

If all NHS staff were appointed on merit rather than by virtue of their religious beliefs, there would be less risk of disreputable religious pressure groups being given such a platform; a platform used exclusively to try to bully and frighten women into making the choice that suits them and not necessarily the women and their families.

The Secular Medical Forum fully supports the rights of GCN members to make the right personal choice for themselves about abortion. However, we condemn the deplorable tactics used by GCN and similar organisations, shown by Dispatches, which try to frighten, misdirect, obstruct and even threaten women who might want to make a different choice. We urge all NHS trusts to take steps to ensure that all leaflets and NHS information is carefully scrutinised to ensure that only reputable organisations which don't contradict NHS values are included in signposting advice.

NHS trusts should be vigilant that the leaflets they produce and distribute to patients are safe and are not signposting patients to disreputable or single-interest organisations which misrepresent the medical and psychological evidence for their ends.

There is enough misinformation about abortion without an NHS Trust directing women to a group like the GCN.

One oft-repeated claim made by religious anti-abortionists, and heard in the programme, about the risks of breast cancer after abortion is simply not true and has no evidence to support it. That many fervently religious people believe that the ends justify the means explains but does not excuse such outright scaremongering. As Dispatches showed these lies continue even after the lack of evidence for their assertions is well known.

Women consider abortion for a variety of reasons. When they seek professional help to make the right decision for them and their family, it is vital that women are not placed under duress from or misinformed by religious pressure groups with one agenda- their own. Neutral professional counselling and support allows women to explore all the options in a non-judgmental climate. These options include the option to terminate or to continue with a pregnancy.

Dr Antony Lempert is the chair of the Secular Medical Forum. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

Watch 'Dispatches: Britain's Abortion Extremists'.

Strike over Polish abortion ban forces U-turn

Strike over Polish abortion ban forces U-turn

News | Mon, 03 Oct 2016

Massive demonstrations in Poland have resulted in a government U-turn over a law which would have criminalised abortion on all grounds except to save the life of the mother.

The biter bit: Church of England suffers from Chancel Repair Liability

The biter bit: Church of England suffers from Chancel Repair Liability

Opinion | Wed, 05 Oct 2016

The legal requirement to repair church chancels has surprisingly started to impact the Church Commissioners. Here's what they did about it.

The National Secular Society has long campaigned to remove Chancel Repair Liability (CRL), which dates back to the time of Henry VIII and gives some churches the right to demand from some local property owners financial contributions towards repairs, whether or not the landowners are Anglicans or even Christians.

A parochial church council (PCC) is able to demand payment, in some cases, for the full cost of repairs, which for ancient churches sometimes runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds. This liability continues even after a property is sold and consequently reduces the value of properties significantly.

Up until 2002 the ability to claim chancel repairs against a landowner was not widely documented but in an effort to tidy up the situation the Land Registration Act 2002 gave PCCs until 12th October 2013 to register a Notice of Chancel Repair against liable properties or potentially lose the ability to demand payment. This deadline has passed but it is still possible to register notice against a property at any time until it has been sold.

So why if PCCs can pass the cost of repairs for church property on to landowners is the Church of England suffering? Because, in their own words;

The Commissioners have inherited a liability for the repair and maintenance of a number of chancels throughout the country and the Pastoral Division is responsible for administering this liability.

Ah yes! The Church of England is a big landowner itself and this land is held by the Church Commissioners, a national charity separate from the PCCs. So via CRL a church can charge the national church body for repairs. Local parishioners usually pay for the national church bodies but that aside what is the really painful part of this? Because the Church Commissioners make money by selling off land, again in their own words;

"… prospective purchasers of our land have been very reluctant to complete their purchases even where we offer to retain any CRL on sale. In essence, people are being 'scared off' by the spectre of CRL."

So CRL, which is blighting the property values of tens of thousands of people is also lowering the property values of the church itself. The biter bit.

What has the Church of England done? Up until 2015 the Church of England had been actively encouraging PCCs to register CRL but privately in a letter from Alan Guthrie-Jones of the Pastoral and Closed Churches department to Diocesan Registrars in February they signalled a change of tack.

"… I wanted you all to know that we are changing our policy with immediate effect whereby we are no longer going to seek to register CRL against land in our ownership. Instead, and if and when we are planning to sell some of our land, we will for the most part be prepared to offer binding Deeds of Indemnity to PCCs so that our acceptance of CRL will remain unchanged in their cases."

So from now on PCCs should not register any land owned by the church for CRL but should agree a private legal deal instead. These deals don't come without conditions;

"1. In our Deeds we will have to reserve the right to vary our percentage acceptance to cater for the cases where we have yet to conclude our forensic reviews (some of which can take months to conclude, especially where hundreds of tithe fields are involved).

2. A condition of the Deed will be that PCCs need to apply to the Land

Registry to remove registrations (or cautions against first registration) in respect of our current and former land (even where we ourselves registered the liability) as it is the PCC, and not the Commissioners, who have the benefit of the CRL. We are asking PCCs to put this in hand within 28 days of completing the Deed of Indemnity."

So the PCC may not know what support they will receive in the future but must absolutely remove any existing records at the Land Registry straight away.

It's interesting to know the Church Commissioners have worked out a plan to avoid CRL problems for their own land holdings. It's also nice to know they acknowledge that CRL is a broader problem for PCCs;

"We are also aware of the adverse publicity and the related pastoral consequences of PCCs registering CRL against properties of all descriptions."

But it is clear they are only resolving their own issues, not everyone's. Would not a better solution be to remove this holdover from the mediaeval age once and for all?

NSS quoted on why there should be no more Muslim faith schools

NSS quoted on why there should be no more Muslim faith schools

We're quoted by the BBC on why opening up more Muslim faith schools will be divisive - risking further harm to integration by fuelling religious and ethnic segregation. Our campaigns director Stephen Evans told the BBC, "Schools paid for out of public money should be inclusive schools where all children are educated together, irrespective of their faith backgrounds."

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