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Newsline 8 February 2013

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Fears that faith-based admissions criteria are infiltrating community schools through feeder schools

Fears that faith-based admissions criteria are infiltrating community schools through feeder schools

News | Fri, 01 Feb 2013

Concerns have been raised that faith based admissions criteria are being indirectly applied to community schools when 'faith' schools become feeder schools.

Local parents object to academy’s plans to prioritise church school pupils

Local parents object to academy’s plans to prioritise church school pupils

News | Thu, 07 Feb 2013

Residents of Solihull have reacted angrily to a non-religiously designated academy's proposals to give priority in admissions to pupils from two religiously selective 'faith' schools.

Will the new Archbishop’s evangelical fervour aid destruction of the welfare state?

Will the new Archbishop’s evangelical fervour aid destruction of the welfare state?

Opinion | Wed, 06 Feb 2013

By Terry Sanderson

Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury is a self-confessed "evangelical". We can, therefore, of course, expect a lot more evangelising from him than from his predecessor, who seemed more interested in abstruse theological meandering than engaging with the real world.

Dr Welby is searching for a role for his Church in the face of its increasing irrelevance. He doesn't just want to manage its decline, he wants to revive it.

He thinks that "faith-based welfare" is the answer. In a speech to an evangelical audience in Nottingham in January when he was still the Bishop of Durham, Dr Welby said the Church faced its "greatest moment of opportunity since the Second World War". He said Christians shouldn't be afraid to talk openly about their faith and "grasp the opportunity" presented by an expanding social role, through running schools and initiatives such as food banks, to spread the Christian message.

He told congregants at the Trent Vineyard church that while the economic downturn had a devastating effect, it could also open the way for social change.

"In 2008 we had the most significant financial collapse in this country, in terms of the banking system, since the mid-19th century. One of the reasons the recession has been so deep and may be going into a triple dip is because there has been such a loss of confidence.

"But the side effect of that has been that the state has run out of the capacity to do the things it had taken over since 1945. All the idols on which our society was based have fallen, they have been toppled. They have been toppled by the financial crisis, by scandal. Trust has broken down."

He said the "idols" included materialism and the belief in the economy's capacity to continue growing, adding: "And the state as security can no longer provide what it [could].

"I grew up in a country in which the idea of a food bank was something you had in theUnited States of America, we didn't have any. There are 50... in my diocese alone today. These are things that we never imagined because if you ran out of money the state cared for you."

He suggested that the state could no longer "replace" the Church in carrying out "works of mercy".

"We are educating, in my diocese, 50,000 children. In the country as a whole the Church of England alone educates a million children every day," he said.

"Are we going to take the opportunities that are there for the grasping to bring people to know and love Jesus Christ?"

And to back up the Archbishop's words, the Church Urban Fund has produced a report saying how much social input the church is providing.

About 54% of Church of England parishes run at least one organised activity to address a specific social need in their area, and many organise several. Activities range from parent and toddler clubs to highly specialised debt or stress counselling, community cafés and food, clothes or furniture banks.

More than one in 10 said they run street "patrols" providing blankets and food to homeless people or simply helping drunk people get home safely.

Paul Hackwood, chair of trustees, said: "All over the country, churches are working to transform their communities, providing food banks, drop in centres and youth projects. The recession has led to unemployment and benefit cuts, which are having a really negative effect on people's lives. "It has often left to communities themselves to come together and fill the gap."

It is laudable that the Churchess are doing their bit to help people survive this downturn in the nation's economic fortunes.

But Britain is still one of the richest nations in the world and there is no excuse to withdraw basic state welfare services.

Archbishop Welby's comments smack of unpleasant opportunism. Instead of seeking to make people dependent on the whims and vagaries of charity and volunteerism, he should be using his political clout to press for the retention of state-run welfare services. Instead, in his determination to "bring people to Jesus" he is colluding in the destruction of those services.

There is no American-style Religious Right in Britain, but the general theo-political landscape is lurching rightward

There is no American-style Religious Right in Britain, but the general theo-political landscape is lurching rightward

Opinion | Wed, 06 Feb 2013

By Terry Sanderson

A new report by the Theos think-tank throws some interesting light on the evangelical Christian groups that have pushed themselves to the forefront of religio-political activism in the past couple of decades.

The report entitled "Is there a 'religious Right' emerging in Britain?" is by Andy Walton and looks at groups such as the Christian Institute, Christian Concern, The Evangelical Alliance and CARE.

The conclusion is that there is no "Religious Right" in the American sense in Britain. The evangelical Christian groups in this country have not managed to colonise a major political party to any great extent as they have the Republican Party in the USA. There are religious groups attached to each party but their influence is limited.

Apart from their social conservatism, evangelical religious groups are not all right-wing in other areas, such as in their approach to fiscal policy. Neither do these groups have the same kind of financial clout that their American equivalents have. Although Christian Concern and the Christian Institute both have annual turnovers in excess of £2 million, this pales into insignificance besides the £38,000,000 generated by the Alliance Defence Fund in the USA.

Despite suspicions that they are being bankrolled by American fundamentalists, all these groups deny that they get any significant amounts from these sources. Andrea Minichiello Williams of Christian Concern and Christian Legal Centre says that the Alliance Defence Fund gives her groups "a £1,000 here and a £1,000 there".

She says that they exist on donations from supporters, with occasional cheques for £20,000 to £50,000 landing on her desk.

The report acknowledges that these groups have a "symbiotic relationship" with some elements of the press, a relationship that has inflated their voices and exaggerated their influence. Nevertheless, they make little practical impact in the areas on which they lobby.

They have failed almost completely to make any inroads on the issues on which they campaign. Of the dozens of legal challenges that the Christian Legal Centre and the Christian Institute have launched, only one has been successful and that was the recent decision in the European Court of Human Rights on Nadia Eweida, the BA "cross woman". And even that was decided more on a technicality than by establishing any new precedent. They have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds pursuing these cases all of which seem to be based on wishful thinking, delusion and paranoia.

The decision by these fundamentalist groups to wage war on the equality laws has, so far, been entirely unsuccessful. Every court and tribunal in the land has rejected their argument that Christians are somehow being discriminated against because they are forbidden from infringing the rights of others.

Their arguments that religious discrimination has been perpetrated when crosses were "banned" in the workplace was recognised by courts as entirely fallacious. Crosses were never banned. Occasionally workplace policies required that jewellery not be worn. If this happened to apply to a cross, it was purely coincidental. Presenting these uniform policies and health and safety regulations in court as "religious discrimination" showed that these groups were prepared to use misleading and dishonest tactics to further their cause.

The alliance with newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph ensured that the misleading claims were perpetuated to the degree that they eventually became accepted as truth. There is still a widespread perception that crosses are forbidden in the workplace.

Although these legal challenges have almost entirely failed to convince courts, the biased reporting around them has created a distinct narrative of "Christian persecution" that is mostly fabricated.

What the Christian conservative groups have failed to achieve in the courtroom, they have more than succeeded in doing in the realms of propaganda. Their synthetic claims of persecution have brought many Christians into their fold who seem genuinely convinced that either their faith is under attack or that it truly deserves a privileged status in society – even if that status comes at the expense of other people's rights.

So yes, I agree with Theos that there is no American-style Religious Right in this country and that those that want to create one are making little progress.

Another point made in the Theos report is that the presence of an established church acts as a "buffer" to keep such wild and extreme groups away from the centre of power. The state has the dear old mild and moderate Church of England to lean on when religion and politics collide.

This is self-serving nonsense. The truth is that religious groups in this country do not have a significant constituency any more. The idea that if the Church of England were to be disestablished, we would immediately run into the arms of crackpots like Christian Concern who would step forward to "fill the vacuum" is utterly unconvincing.

Firstly, the Church of England is not so moderate any more and seems to be at constant loggerheads with the Government. The confrontations over gay marriage and women bishops are the latest example.

Secondly, according to the 2009 British Social Attitudes Survey, only 9% of British people with a religious affiliation said religion was "very important" in making decisions on political issues. This hardly indicates that the people of this country are aching for the Church of England to step aside so that they can rush to support parliamentary fundamentalists who want to make abortion illegal and probably contraception, too.

And thirdly, we shouldn't forget that Theos was launched with the sponsorship of the Church of England, so is hardly likely to be an enthusiastic supporter of disestablishment and much more likely to be an apologist for the status quo.

So, there is no Religious Right in Britain, and those who aspire to create one have, so far, failed completely to make much progress.

What we must be aware of, though, is that the mainstream churches that are supposed to protect us from extremism are rapidly becoming extreme themselves. The Catholic Church particularly has been extraordinarily belligerent lately in its attempts to derail democratically agreed progressive legislation. The Anglicans are rapidly catching up with this new politicisation of religion. The new evangelical Archbishop of Canterbury has yet to show us how he will behave in this arena, but what he has said so far isn't promising.

We will watch his progress with great interest.

Here is why Sharia Law has no place in Britain or elsewhere

Here is why Sharia Law has no place in Britain or elsewhere

Opinion | Wed, 06 Feb 2013

By Nahla Mahmoud

There are many reasons why this needs to be said, starting with a personal trigger. I was recently interviewed by Channel 4's programme which was broadcast two weeks ago about my opinions on 'What does Sharia Law have to offer Britain'. I realised that I was the only one out of seven people interviewed that was clearly against Sharia and for a secular state. Activist and gay Muslim Omar Kuddus who was also interviewed regarding the same topic, agreed that 'Sharia' discriminates against homosexuals and would threaten his safety and civil rights.

My interview has triggered a debate in the Sudanese media, both at home and in the diaspora, from which campaigns have emerged inciting people against me calling me a 'Kafira' (infidel) and 'Murtadda' (left Islam) . I guess Sudanese government officials have time to watch Channel 4 because the Sudanese Armed Forces' Facebook page posted my picture declaring me an infidel and apostate. Who knew that my private beliefs could denigrate a country's government, religion, and armed forces?!

Focusing on Islam and Sharia as such here is mainly because of my experience living under an Islamic regime. However, I strongly oppose Sharia law as well as any other religious based laws because I deeply believe in secular, humanist values which put each human being on an equal basis with every other individual. International human rights are a testament to that principle and stand directly opposed to the discriminatory practices enshrined in and justified by Sharia law.

It is important that we secularists demand not only a secular Britain, but also a secular Middle East, North Africa, and world. Sharia as such is a law of a religion with state power in many regions around the world. We have also witnessed in the last two years a grand hijacking by Islamists of the achievements of civil society in the Middle East. Not only that, but here in Britain there are now 85 Sharia councils implementing Sharia law on the streets of London, Birmingham, Bradford and elsewhere.

It is important for me to clarify what I mean by Sharia. To be precise, I am discussing the laws and legislation which are already in practice in the UK and abroad, not theoretical or utopian ideas that only exist in the minds of those who defend and are usually in favour of Sharia. The examples below include Islamic laws in countries around the world that claim to be implementing Sharia — the right Sharia — and are legislated based on the main sources in Islam, the Quran and Hadith, and sometimes in Fatwas. What is clear from an anthropological perspective is that these interpretations are performed by those in power and as a result the application and punishments associated with Sharia vary dramatically around the world.

One: Women
Sharia discriminates against women (and Muslim women specifically): compared to feminist victories elsewhere, women are still not considered equal in most Islamic settings. A woman's testimony is worthy half a man's in Islam. She gets half the inheritance of her male siblings; a woman's marriage contract is between her male guardian and her husband. A man can have four wives and divorce his wife by simple repudiation using the word "Talig", whereas a woman must give specific reasons, some of which are extremely difficult to prove. Child custody reverts to the father at a pre-set age, even if the father is abusive. Women who remarry lose custody of their children.

These are real issues of inequality and discrimination that Muslim women face every day. I have personally experienced some because according to the Sharia constitution in Sudan, I am only eligible for half of my brothers' share of our inheritance and I need at least two women to one man to testify in court cases. Other brutal examples end in punishment by stoning crimes such as Iranian Sakineh Ashtiani who was accused of having a relationship outside of an 'Islamic contract marriage', or the public flogging of Sudanese Lubna Hussein for her un-Islamic dress.

Another issue is marital rape, honour killings and domestic violence: in Pakistan, there are 300 cases of acid burnt women with no charges pressed against their husbands. Here in the UK, a study reported by the One Law for All campaign shows that 4 out of 10 women in Sharia court cases were party to civil injunctions against their husbands. The One Law for All campaign as well as other groups like Secularism Is a Women's Issue are among the frontline defenders campaigning against Sharia courts, fighting for women's rights and demanding gender equality.

Two: Children
Sharia discriminates against children. Not only does it affect children when they are young, but the implications will last their entire life. Top of the list is child marriage. Under Sharia law, a girl is eligible for marriage as soon as a girl begins her first period. This makes it difficult to maintain a minimum age for girls to be married. Considering there were at least five cases recorded in the London Borough of Islington (including girls of only 9 years old), I wouldn't bother to count the number of child marriages in Islamic states where it is legal.

Other discrimination against children that must be considered is the lack of exposure to different ideas and thoughts. Children from an Islamic background are often taught to close their minds to new ideas and some are brought up to hate their Jewish, Christian and Hindu classmates, as well as any gay students in their class.

In addition to my own experiences at school in Sudan, one can grab any school curriculum from an Islamic state see how it restricts critical thinking and any questioning of religious doctrine. Evolutionary theory is banned from most educational systems in Islamic states, as it contradicts the creationist story in the Quran. Sudanese professor, Faroque Ahmed Ibrahim, stated in his open letter that teaching evolution at University of Khartoum was among the main reasons he was tortured and imprisoned by the Sudanese government. Moreover, little girls are often taught from birth that they are 'lesser' human beings, which results in lower self-esteem and lack of confidence later in life. It is however, the case with most other faith-based schools and education including Christianity and Judaism which, sadly, have the same 'holy-centralised' ideology.

Three: Homosexuals
Sharia discriminates against homosexuals. On this particular issue, Islam, as well as Christianity and Judaism, hold the same intolerant view. Homosexuality is forbidden in most Islamic states with punishments ranging from a fine or public flogging to life imprisonment. Ten Islamic states impose a death penalty for homosexuals, including Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Yemen and some states in Malaysia. In 2011, governmental driven gangs have been killing gays across Iraq.

Four: Non-Muslims
Sharia discriminates against non-Muslims, including other sects within Islam such as Bahia's, Ahmadia's, and Shia if under Sunni ruling government or the reverse. Under Sharia law, no one is allowed to force someone to convert to Islam, however, someone who is born into an Islamic family will grow up with extreme social pressure from their family. If this person wishes to convert to another religion or be an atheist, they are often considered an apostate, which can be punishable by death. Non-Muslims are subjected to extra taxes ('Jezya') and are afforded fewer rights in civic and family matters. For example, non-Muslim men (except Jewish and Christians) cannot marry Muslim women, while children of non-Muslim women cannot adopt their religion. Serious violence has occurred targeted at non-Muslim minorities in Islamic countries, such as the bombing of Coptic in Egypt or the attack of eight churches in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2011.Although some of these groups operate as separate fundamental extremists who don't necessary represent mainstream Islam or the ruling Islamic governments, these same groups operate in their territory and are protected by the local governments.

Five: Non-Believers and Atheists
Sharia discriminates against non-believers, atheists and apostates. It truly disgusts me that apostasy and blasphemy laws are still in practice in some regions of the world. Did you know that free thinking and freedom of speech are a crime punishable by death, public flogging and imprisonment in the 21st century? I have seared in my memory the brutal persecutions and executions of many atheists and scientists for the simple crime of critical thinking.

Cases such as Iranian Ali Ghorabat for apostasy, Jafar Kazemi and Mohammad Ali Haji Aghaee for enmity against God, Sudanese theologian Mahmoud M. Taha for his progressive Islamic views and Egyptian Nasr H. Abu Zaid for his critical views on the Qur'an show the widespread persecution of people who dare to question blind belief.

This is not a thing of the past: just this month Kuwait jailed Abdel Aziz Mohamed Albaz for criticizing Islam, Saudi Arabia jailed Raif Badawi for his liberal views, Tunisian artist Nadia Jelassi is facing prison for her 'un-Islamic' artistic pieces. Countries like Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen implement the death penalty for those who renounce or criticize Islam, but they also punish anyone who is progressive, liberal or wishes to think freely and live a modern, 21st century life.

Being an atheist and an ex-Muslim should have been a private matter for me under a secular state. However, under an 'Islamic Inquisition' as fellow secular campaigner Maryam Namazi describes, it became necessary for dissenters, especially those who are persecuted, to publicly air our views and call for equal treatment because this persecution will not end until we stand together and speak out. I chose to speak out on Channel 4 and in many other venues in the UK because I cannot stand by and watch others suffer the same discrimination and persecution that I faced. The current persecution of the five groups I discussed above, both here in the UK and around the world, provide a duty for everyone to stand up for the simple principle: all humans are equal.

For me, my atheism holds this broader meaning because I am taking a political stand to oppose mythology and advocate for evidence-based science and critical thinking. My stand is a way of supporting freedom of expression, freedom of religion or no-religion. I stand, indeed, for human rights in order to support equal rights for all citizens despite our gender, age, sexuality, religion or ethnicity.

I believe this is everyone's battle, including progressive, secular and liberal Muslims. The right to live, think and express freely your opinions is one of the great achievements of human civilization. These values belong to all of us regardless of our background or geographical regions. We cannot limit these achievements to 'western values' or 'cultural sensitivity'.

We must each strongly and unequivocally demand one equal law for everyone – both in the UK and abroad. Let's make sure the next generation of freethinkers does not have to suffer condemnation online or offline, face jailing, public flogging or death.

Nahla Mahmoud is an environmentalist and human rights activist originally from Sudan. She works with a few campaigns in the UK including One Law for All and Secular Middle East and North Africa. She leads the Sudanese Humanists Group. This article was originally published on Left Foot Forward and is reproduced with permission of the author.

Watch Nahla on 4ThoughtTV

See also: Court opens way to divorces by Sharia? Hold on a minute… by James Wilson

Education for Choice launch report into abortion education in UK schools

Education for Choice launch report into abortion education in UK schools

Opinion | Tue, 05 Feb 2013

Guest post by Education for Choice

Our new report 'Abortion Education in the UK: Failing our young people?' reveals the extent of poor-quality education on the topic of abortion.

Some teachers and external speakers delivering lessons on abortion have been found to be using materials which are inaccurate, biased, and often stigmatise abortion as a pregnancy option. For example, the three main anti-abortion groups regularly invited into schools to speak to thousands of young people have all claimed that abortion is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer (despite cancer organisations and respected medical bodies dismissing this link). Young people responding to our survey of abortion education reported lessons which were distressing and left them feeling upset and confused. Many felt that abortion was stigmatised, despite the fact that we know a third of women will make this choice in their lifetime. According to one young person:

"My R.E teacher taught about the 'evils' of aborting a foetus that had mental or physical impairments. The woman who came in showed us pictures and videos of late stage abortions...All the experiences seemed designed to put students off abortion or make those who had already had an abortion feel guilty or like murderers."

Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident and a number of schools are known to be using inaccurate or heavily biased information to teach about abortion.

We know, from speaking to those in abortion care services, that the stigma and guilt attached to abortion in these early educational encounters can stay with women for the rest of their lives.

And it's not just abortion which is misrepresented and stigmatised by these groups. We found materials from anti-abortion groups (and teachers' own presentations) which gave incorrect information about contraception. One organisation Lovewise, which claims to speak in hundreds of schools every year, refuses to teach about contraception for those who are unmarried, labelling it 'sinful'. Student materials from the Right to Life Trust claim that 'the contraceptive pill can be said to keep the female body in a permanently morbid, unnatural state.' Again, our concern is that young people are not getting accurate medical information and may be dissuaded from using contraception when they are sexually active.

As well as spreading misinformation and stigma around contraception and abortion many of these groups also hold views which are contrary to schools' equality and diversity duties. SPUC, for example, is currently hosting a virulent campaign against same-sex marriage and the director of the charity states that 'the fundamental argument against gay marriage is that homosexuality is disordered'. Similarly, Lovewise promises to promote heterosexual marriage as 'the only context in which honouring, fulfilling, secure and healthy sexual activity may take place' declaring that 'all other contexts, including homosexual activity are damaging to mind, body and spirit'.

We think it's time schools started paying closer attention to the groups they are inviting in to speak to young people about abortion and ensure that their teaching on this sensitive and relevant subject is impartial, factual and non-judgmental.

To read the full report/executive summary click here.

The EFC education toolkit is available for further information on best practice in this area.

Education For Choice is the only UK-based project dedicated to enabling young people to make informed choices about pregnancy and abortion. Find out more about EFC at their website

Pope gives personal backing to Europe wide anti-abortion push

Pope gives personal backing to Europe wide anti-abortion push

News | Wed, 06 Feb 2013

The Pope has given his personal support to a campaign being run by right-wing Catholics to have abortion "defunded" throughout the European Union.

Have you got your ticket for Secularist of the Year? Book now and avoid disappointment

Have you got your ticket for Secularist of the Year? Book now and avoid disappointment

News | Fri, 01 Feb 2013

This year's Secularist of the Year lunch is approaching (Saturday 23 March) and it promises to be a very special occasion. We hope that you'll join us for the NSS's premier social event.

We're recruiting!

We're looking for an enthusiastic, adaptable and highly organised individual to assist with our campaign work and communications at our central London office. Find out more.

NSS Speaks Out

Keith Porteous Wood was quoted in the Daily Mail on the topic of the new Catholic guidelines covering the private lives of teachers in Catholic schools. The story had been picked up from the Times Educational Supplement. It was also picked up by the Irish Independent and Yorkshire Post.

Terry Sanderson was quoted in the Sunday Times (subscription) on the gay marriage battle. He was quoted in the Daily Express about the so-called atheist church in Islington.

The dwindling of religious belief in Wales was explored in the Western Mail and the NSS was quoted.

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