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Newsline 8 May 2015

It has been a busy week, and not just with the election. As usual we've been working on a range of issues, with faith schools, free speech issues, abortion access, religious bloc votes, freedom of belief and religious persecution all featuring in the news in the past seven days.

Read our coverage of the week's events below, including commentary and opinion, news stories, and an important call to action to help a ten year old girl in Paraguay, who was raped by her step-father and is now pregnant- and who is being denied an abortion because of religious dogma.

If you support our work, please consider joining us. Becoming a member of the National Secular Society is a declaration of your support for the separation of the state from religious institutions. Make a stand for freedom, fairness and human rights by adding your voice to the call for a secular Britain.

Most Britons aren’t religious- but are religious ‘voting blocs’ wielding increasing power in our elections?

Most Britons aren’t religious- but are religious ‘voting blocs’ wielding increasing power in our elections?

Opinion | Wed, 06 May 2015

Religious leaders are wielding disproportionate influence in this election. Benjamin Jones argues that this is likely to get worse, and politicians should resist the urge to treat religious people as blocs.

While the religious are declining as a share of the UK population, we are witnessing sectarian, religious politics on the rise – and not just in the egregious case of Lutfur Rahman.

From a politician's point-of-view, there are powerful incentives to encourage sectional, bloc-based voting- based on ethnicity and/or religion. Religious leaders can deliver hundreds of voters, community activism and outreach that is essentially unmatched. In an era of collapsing party membership, this is more valuable than gold.

The Henry Jackson Society found that Muslims- though numbering less than 3 million in the 2011 census- are poised to influence vital marginal constituencies and may tip the balance of the 2015 election.

The Society writes: "In a quarter of all constituencies … the number of Muslims is greater than the margin of victory ... This share rises to almost half (46.6%) among the 193 marginal seats, in 90 of which the number of Muslims is greater than the margin of victory."

While you can dispute whether religious bloc votes exist, and to what extent they can be harnessed, British Muslims are unusually politically homogenous. In 2014 some 73% said they supported Labour.

This leads to politicians courting religious blocs, and their treating religious communities as monoliths. The relatively disproportionate power of religious groups has led to politicians in this election promising to outlaw 'Islamophobia', continue to block legislation banning caste-based discrimination, and pledging to expand 'accommodation' for religious people who want to discriminate against homosexuals.

Not only do more homogenous religious groups achieve policy concessions (at least in manifestos), but voters within these groups are engaged by political parties explicitly as 'religious voters'. This is as true of UKIP's 'Christian Manifesto' as it is of the scandal of Labour MPs addressing a rally segregated by gender. You can debate whether the blocs exist, but politicians are increasingly behaving as though they are real.

The gatekeepers to these locally powerful groups are often socially conservative, orthodox figures- and almost always men. By approaching religious groups as monolithic entities in this way, 'minorities-within-minorities', like gay Muslims or women in orthodox religious groups, are disenfranchised.

Though not very widely reported, there have been real scandals in this campaign as politicians try anything to harness these groups.

The most widely reported- and perhaps least commented on by politicians- was the case of the Labour MPs who attended a gender segregated rally, and then tried to claim that the segregation was not enforced by organisers but arose spontaneously, despite attendees reporting that they were told by organisers to sit in gender-segregated zones. It goes without saying how unthinkable it would have been for politicians to appear at an event segregated on criteria other than gender. Religion gets away with it- despite the talk being a non-religious election event.

There are many other examples from this election: leaflets were sent out endorsing Conservative Bob Blackman, using divisive rhetoric about caste-discrimination, and praising him for voting against legislation outlawing caste-based discrimination.

In response he said that Islamic extremists had sent leaflets opposing him and supporting Labour. At the time of writing these leaflets have yet to surface.

Labour candidate Simon Danczuk, seeking re-election in Rochdale, tweeted a picture of himself with twenty or so Asian men- and no women- under the caption "such a diverse political culture in Rochdale – does make elections fun as this rally today shows!" He was lambasted for the post, and challenged over how a photo with no women or non-Asian men (save for Mr Danczuk himself) could possibly be 'diverse'. This just goes to show who is omitted by 'bloc' politics.

Elsewhere, the National Council of Hindu Temples was urged by the Charity Commission to remove a statement from their website which said Hindus voting for Labour or the Liberal Democrats (who are seeking to implement legislation to outlaw caste discrimination) were like "turkeys voting for Christmas."

There are countless other examples. One Tory candidate claimed that Labour campaigners used his sexuality to persuade Orthodox Jewish voters not to vote for him. Mike Freer, standing in Finchley and Golders Green, said: "Some of my Orthodox Jewish councillors were out knocking on doors and three residents also mentioned that they had had Labour round, and it had been brought up again, and they could no longer support me because I was gay."

The Exclusive Brethren – which gained charitable status for nearly 60 of its congregations in the past year under the Coalition- are said to be campaigning and 'praying' for a Tory victory.

This seems to be the shape of things to come- and it is a deeply troubling, non-trivial problem. The appeal to religious bloc votes is extremely unwelcome and the temptation for politicians to appeal to locally powerful but essentially reactionary figures should be resisted, not least because most people in the UK are not religious.

The disparity is compounded by the fact that there is no such thing as an 'atheist/non-believer bloc vote' to counteract these influential religious figures. Nor should there be: such a coalition would be nonsensical, the only thing holding it together would be a rejection of theistic, supernatural beliefs. Equally, a 'secular voting bloc' would be impossible. Secularism is (and should be) non-partisan. This does place us at something of a disadvantage however.

Religions wield disproportionate local influence; nationally the demographics are clear- most Britons are not religious. Vote-seeking politicians however are susceptible to religious influence, because 'community leaders' can command (or appear to command) a significant, unique local following- particularly in the vital marginal constituencies. This can all too easily lead to a privileging of religion and a 'multi-faith', essentially anti-secular, approach that shuts out the non-religious. It seems to skew how politicians view religion.

Another problem facing the non-religious and/or secularists is that on secularist issues there are essentially only 'least bad options' in the political mainstream. It is hard to cast an affirmative vote for secular policies- particularly on the right or centre-right where very few such options exist.

Secularism means a clear separation of church and state; but the separation of religion and politics is far more complex. There is a fine line between religious people being involved in politics – to which there is no reasonable, secular objection- and religion becoming involved in politics, which is a different matter altogether- and one to be wary of in this and future elections.

91% of barristers would insist witnesses remove face veil while giving evidence

91% of barristers would insist witnesses remove face veil while giving evidence

News | Wed, 06 May 2015

Over 90% of barristers would support some limits on face veils during trials, it has emerged.

Cardinal Nichols’ conflation of secularism and religious persecution is self-serving and shameful

Cardinal Nichols’ conflation of secularism and religious persecution is self-serving and shameful

Opinion | Sun, 03 May 2015

It's grossly distasteful to equate the persecution of Christians in the Middle East with the discomfort felt by some Christians in Britain at having to provide services in a non-discriminatory manner, argues Alastair Lichten.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols's recent column in the Telegraph, entitled 'What are our leaders doing about religious persecution?' seemed to start off on the right track. The issue of religious persecution around the world should concern us all. The next Government must do more. It should appoint an ambassador for freedom of religion and belief. It should push for the global abolition of blasphemy and anti-conversion laws - which are used so widely against Christians and others.

People of all faiths and none are deeply concerned about the ongoing persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Secular organisations across the world have been visible in calling for better protections for freedom of religion and belief. Meanwhile religious minorities such as Coptic Christians in Egypt have been calling for the protection of a secular state.

Against a backdrop of Syrian Christians being driven into exile, Yazidis being sold into slavery and Saudi Arabian Christian meetings being broken up by the religious police, it is deeply shameful and embarrassing for Vincent Nichols to equate (as he goes on to do) requiring public services to be provided in a non-discriminatory fashion with persecution.

Nichols got all the way to his third paragraph (or his fourth if you're being exceptionally charitable) before trying to capitalize on genuine tragedy to promote his own agenda. It comes as no surprise that Cardinal Nichols dislikes "secularist ideology" – or at least his fantasy version of it – after all, being marginally less privileged is probably the worst form of marginalisation that the Cardinal has experienced.

To even conflate secularism and religious fundamentalism as the cardinal does is ludicrous. Secularists seek to challenge religious privilege and strive for a society where all are treated equally in public life regardless of belief or lack of it.

Cardinal Nichols's claim that greater state privileges for his preferred form of religion (including religious based schools and other public services) would act as a "bulwark against fundamentalism" are cringingly self-serving.

But sadly we've come to expect it. When hardline Islamists sought to take over secular state schools in Birmingham, the Archbishop of Canterbury's response was to call for more Church of England schools. The Islamist far-right seek to divide our country along religious lines and the nationalist far-right call for a stronger assertion of 'our Christian identity'.

Mr Nichols believes: "All public institutions should recognise that faith is at the core of our society". Should the majority of Britons who are not religious recognise this? What about the larger majority who are simply indifferent to, or don't want to be defined by, religion?

While most secularists would surely welcome the charitable work done by many Catholics and Catholic agencies, attempting to leverage this for religious privilege is unseemly at best. It is important that faith-based welfare services, which will never be suitable for all citizens, compliment and do not seek to replace state provision. Mr Nichols insists that government at all levels should uncritically support religious organisations providing core public services "in accordance with their beliefs".

This could lay a dangerous path towards the breakup of the secular welfare state which is blind to religion and treats everyone as equal citizens first and foremost.

The Cardinal's own Church's child abuse scandals show the terrifying potential for institutional abuse of power when state and religious functions become so deeply intertwined.

Curiously I've yet to meet a single Christian whose volunteering is conditional on religious privileges being maintained. I don't know a single Muslim who would leave helpline I volunteer for if they were prevented from using their position to proselytise. And I can't imagine a Hindu colleague saying they'd like to spend their Saturday evenings supporting at risk youngsters but only if they're allowed to discriminate against the gay ones.

May the 4th be with you!

May the 4th be with you!

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