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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege


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Newsline 2 November 2018


This has been a mixed week for free speech on religious issues.

The people of Ireland voted to remove blasphemy provisions from their country's constitution. This decision should encourage governments to take a firmer stand to protect free thinkers around the world. And we're relieved to report that Pakistan's Supreme Court has overturned the blasphemy conviction of Asia Bibi, whose case we recently raised with the Foreign Office.

But as last week drew to a close there was less encouraging news from the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled that Austria was not wrong to convict a woman for criticising the Islamic prophet Muhammad. As our CEO Stephen Evans argues below, the court's judgement sets a dangerous precedent and should be reconsidered.

The NSS has defended free speech since our founding in 1866, and we'll continue to do so at home and abroad. Free speech is the ultimate value of a secular society and the first right that any citizen should enjoy. If you value it, please consider supporting our work. Thank you.


News & Opinion


European ruling that ‘religious feelings’ trump free speech is a dangerous development

Just as Irish citizens strike a blow for the right to freedom of expression, the European Court has fundamentally undermined... Read More »


Pakistani court orders woman facing death for blasphemy to be freed

Pakistan's Supreme Court has ordered the freeing of Asia Bibi, who awaited a death sentence for blasphemy for eight years.


Ireland votes to remove blasphemy from constitution

The NSS has welcomed Irish voters' decision to repeal the blasphemy provisions in their country's constitution.


Individual rights and autonomy key themes at NSS healthcare event

Speakers have told an NSS conference that individual rights and autonomy should take priority over religious concerns in healthcare.


No plans to create public holidays to mark more religious festivals

The government has rejected calls to make Hindu and Muslim religious festivals public holidays after the NSS lobbied against the idea.


Saudi Arabia is worst country to be an atheist, report says

Saudi Arabia has been named the worst country in the world to be an atheist in a report monitoring the treatment of the non-religious.


Most Britons support key secularist principles, says Pew research

Britons support several key secularist principles but a significant minority are unwelcoming of religious minorities, a study has found.


Latest from the No More Faith Schools campaign


Publicly funded faith schools damage children's education and are undemocratic

Teachers have an obligation to broaden children's minds, says Robert Bradley. While secular education introduces children to different ways of thinking, faith schools reinforce ignorance.


Sex education consultation closing: please respond

A government consultation on relationships and sex education in England closes next Wednesday. Earlier this year our Unsafe Sex Education report revealed that more than three-quarters of state-funded secondary faith schools in England are failing to teach this subject impartially.

We encourage our supporters to respond to the consultation to argue against the government's guidance being watered down on religious grounds.


Other news

The government has asked the Law Commission to review how to promote greater flexibility on wedding venues for couples in England and Wales. The move was announced in this week's Budget (see section 6.10). Earlier this year we wrote to the government to call for the marriage laws to be "fully secularised". Within our letter we recommended allowing couples to marry wherever they like regardless of their religious affiliation.

Just under 750 cases of female genital mutilation were referred to the Metropolitan Police over the last five years, though prosecutors are still yet to make a conviction.

The foreign secretary has told parliament that reports of mass internment camps for Uighur Muslims in China are "broadly true".

The Catholic Church is about to be inundated with writs from survivors of clerical abuse who previously received modest payments in the Australian state of Victoria.

Amendments which would legalise abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland have been added to a bill currently making its way through parliament. Peers are divided over whether to extend abortion rights and same-sex marriage equality to Northern Ireland in the absence of a devolved administration.

After setbacks in court, the Trump administration is revising rules that allow employers to deny women insurance coverage for contraceptives based on religious or moral objections. Officials hope the changes will overcome judges' objections without fundamentally altering the purpose or the effects of the rules. Meanwhile the administration has been accused of promoting damaging messages on sex education and withdrawing resources from valuable programmes.

A brewery in west Yorkshire has said it is "open to" changing the name of a beer called 'Ganesh' after the head of a Hindu group took offence.

To get all the latest news and views on secularism from the media in your inbox every morning, you can sign up to receive your daily media briefing.


Events coming up


Secularism 2019: reclaiming religious freedom

Religious lobbyists commonly use terms like 'religious freedom' to demand privileges. But this conference will show that genuine religious freedom involves freedom of belief for people of all religions and none. It will also explore the limits of religious freedom when it impedes on other human rights, including bodily autonomy, equality and freedom of expression.


Other events

Other upcoming events include: a talk in London examining the historical conflict between 'blasphemers' and the authorities; a conference on sharia, segregation and secularism; and a talk by our honorary associate Gita Sahgal in Nottingham.

See all upcoming events.


Scholarship applications open

The NSS's scholarship supports students who conduct research relevant to secularism and the promotion of human rights. We invite requests for grants ranging from £500-£3,000.

We've now opened the latest round of applications. The scholarship is open to anyone publishing research in English.

You can find out more on our research & scholarships page.


Quotes of the week

"God above everything. There is no such thing as this secular state. The state is Christian and the minority will have to change."
Jair Bolsonaro, the new president of Brazil, makes clear his opposition to secularism in a campaign speech delivered last year and reported after his election victory this week


"Within high-control religious communities, the very existence of a non-religious person, or someone who is questioning the status-quo, is deemed blasphemous."
Imtiaz Shams, co-founder of Faith to Faithless, on the injustice created by blasphemy laws and codes


"The shooter wasn't a deranged atheist trying to eradicate peaceful worshippers. He was a right-wing conspiracy theorist who openly admitted to hating Jews specifically... (The US) won't solve the problem of mass shootings with more God in the public square."
Hemant Mehta, editor of the Friendly Atheist blog on Patheos, responds to Kellyanne Conway's claims that mockery of religion and secularism drove the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre


"Anyone should have the right to 'defame' the prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, the virgin Mary, Moses, the Buddha, the ayatollah Khomeini, Thomas a Becket, Joseph Stalin and Abraham Lincoln. To criminalise such speech is an attack on liberty."
David Aaronovitch, Times columnist, responds to the European Court of Human Rights's judgement

See our quotes of the week archive.


Essays of the week: the ECHR and free speech

None of us should enjoy the right to have our beliefs shielded from abuse
By Kenan Malik, for The Observer

We live in sorry times if hurt feelings have now become a matter for lawmakers.


Attempting to appease Islamists by enforcing blasphemy laws will make Europe more dangerous
By Helen Raleigh, for The Federalist

If Europe believes in enforcing blasphemy laws in order to suppress offensive speech is necessary for maintaining 'religious peace,' it's wrong.


The European Court of Human Rights has not created a European blasphemy law but it has produced a lamentable judgment
By Matthew Scott, BarristerBlogger

The ECHR's decision has been welcomed by Islamists and condemned by secularists. Article nine does not and should not include the 'right' to have your religion respected.


In Europe, speech is an alienable right
By Graeme Wood, for The Atlantic

Europe could learn from the US's constitutional commitment to free speech.


Read elsewhere


UK Christian ‘reactionaries’ mark 10 years of lobbying against women’s and LGBT rights

By Adam Bychawski, for openDemocracy

At Christian Concern's birthday party in London, lobbyists talked about their expansion plans and work to recruit young people.


Would it be best for the Church of England to get out of the legal business of marriage?

By Jude Smith, for Christian Today

The Church of England would focus better on its spiritual task if it no longer registered marriages.


Brazil’s abortion rights push could come to a screeching halt after Jair Bolsonaro’s election

By Caitlin Cruz, for Bustle

Bolsonaro could make Brazil's abortion policy more extreme as government money will not fund NGOs which promote abortion.


White evangelicals are the sleeping giant of the 2018 US midterms

By Dylan Scott, for Vox

Evangelicals view the Trump presidency as a fundamental realignment of US politics. The Christian right is reasserting itself, and will turn out heavily for Republican candidates in next week's midterms.


NSS speaks out

Our briefing to MPs advising against arranging public holidays on religious festival days was quoted at length on the Law & Religion UK blog and mentioned in The Hindu.

Our president Keith Porteous Wood was quoted in The Tablet on the response to child abuse from the Benedictine religious order at Ealing Abbey and the campaign for mandatory reporting of abuse.


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