Thursday 21 November: Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion – A Tour of the Case Law by Caroline Roberts

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Caroline is a final year PhD Researcher in Law at the University of Bristol. Her research, supervised by Professor Sir Malcolm Evans and Professor Russell Sandberg, focuses on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion at the international, European and domestic level. Caroline’s thesis – entitled ‘Reconceptualising the Place of the Forum Internum and Forum Externum in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights’ – which comprehensively reviews the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights relating to the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, challenges the traditional approach to this right and advances a radical alternative reading.

During this talk, Caroline will introduce the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and take us on a tour of the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, to explore the European landscape as a whole and some interesting cases in detail.

Thursday 21 November, 7.30 pm.  University Centre Shrewsbury, Guildhall, Frankwell Quay, Shrewsbury SY3 8HQ. You are very welcome to come for tea and coffee from 7 pm to meet and chat with other members and guests. A voluntary donation is requested towards room hire and refreshments.

Noel Conway’s report on the campaign for Assisted Dying

For the Hot Potatoes open mike session on 17 January, Noel Conway wrote an update on legal action concerning a change in the law on assisted dying. Noel is unable to attend in person, so the text was read by Simon Nightingale.

Dear colleagues,

Simon has asked me to bring you up-to-date with where we are regarding the assisted dying campaign.
Read the rest of this entry »

Noel Conway is seeking funding for his legal fight on assisted dying

Noel ConwayA couple of months ago we highlighted our member Noel Conway, who has motor neurone disease and  is currently seeking, with Dignity in Dying, a judicial review that could result in a change to the law on assisted dying.

He is seeking funding for his legal case, and you can donate at Crowdfunder. Shropshire Humanist Group has made a donation of £100 from group funds.

Noel Conway on assisted dying and his application for judicial review

Noel Conway is a Shropshire Humanist Group member who has motor neurone disease. He is currently seeking, with Dignity in Dying, a judicial review that could result in a change to the law on assisted dying. Simon Nightingale presented this contribution on his behalf to our Hot Potatoes evening on 19 January. He asks people to write to their MPs in support.

Dear colleagues, Simon has asked me to talk briefly on the issue of assisted dying. If this paper is being read to you it is because I’m not well enough to attend and I do apologise for not being able to be with you.

As you may have noticed in the media recently, I am chief claimant seeking a judicial review to change the law with regard to assisted dying. I’m sure that most of you will be aware what the main issues and arguments are. By the Suicide Act 1961, suicide was decriminalised. However a new offence was introduced making it illegal for anyone to assist another in committing suicide. Specific reference was made to health practitioners and medical professionals. The penalty for providing such assistance is a maximum of 14 years in prison. I’m working with the campaign organisation Dignity in Dying to change the law so that terminally ill people like myself can receive assistance to die in a humane and dignified way. The legal challenge to current British law rests on the argument that the Suicide Act 1961 is incompatible with article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights 1998 which provides a right to private life that the European Court in Strasbourg since 2011 has held means a Right to make decisions about the end of your life and your death.

There does of course need to be provision to protect vulnerable people from abuse. Consequently, the proposed changes are limited to those who are terminally ill and likely to die within six months. Two doctors must confirm this and that the person is mentally competent to make such a decision for him or herself. The law will only apply to people over the age of 18 years who have made a clear declaration that is their wish. A High Court judge must also confirm that each individual case is free from undue influence and pressure. Furthermore the individual must be able to administer a lethal dose him or herself. This is not euthanasia.

The attempt to introduce an assisted dying law in Britain is not new. There have been a number of legal and parliamentary attempts since 2002. In each case some progress has been made. A significant development was a legal challenge by Debbie Purdy, who had multiple sclerosis, in 2008-09 to seek clarity on how the law on assisted suicide was applied by the Crown Prosecution Service – she wanted to have a better understanding of how her husband was likely to be treated if he supported her to have an assisted death overseas (for example by travelling with her and providing moral support). The Supreme Court directed the DPP to introduce guidelines for anyone who assisted another to die on compassionate grounds by for example helping them to go abroad, for example, Switzerland where there is an assisted dying facility. A prosecuting policy now exists for this purpose but the courts have emphasised this has not decriminalised assisted dying in the UK and each case must be investigated individually. To date no one has been prosecuted by helping their loved ones obtain an assisted death in Switzerland. However, it is still clearly an offence for a doctor to prescribe, advise or assist in assisted dying in the UK.

The BHA has supported these attempts, the most recent of which was that by Tony Nicklinson in 2014. Tony Nicklinson had locked in syndrome after having a stroke in the mid-2000s and could only move his head. Although his claim that UK law was incompatible with his basic human rights was rejected, the Supreme Court showed a majority of the nine law Lords had tremendous sympathy for his situation. Two would have ruled in his favour and another three declared that whilst the court could rule on assisted dying, Parliament should first have the opportunity to address the issue. They took the view that it was preferable for Parliament to rule where there was such a conflict between two apparently conflicting human rights, the right to life versus the right to die. However, they stated clearly that if Parliament did not fully engage with the issue of assisted dying, then it would be for the courts to do so and they expected in that event that there would likely be a future and successful challenge made.

As you will recall, the Falconer Bill, which received majority support in the House of Lords was overtaken by the General Election of 2015. Rob Marris reintroduced an identical bill to the House of Commons in autumn last year where it was defeated by a large majority of 188 to 330. A further Bill was introduced by Lord Hayward in June last year but this has not received a second reading nor is it likely to do so. Consequently, the blanket ban on assisted dying remains in Britain and since Parliament has not provided for the terminally ill as the Supreme Court Justices signalled, the initiative must return to the courts.

It must be said that it will still be possible for Parliament to ignore any ruling by the Supreme Court that UK law is not compatible with article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is essential therefore that the legal case is accompanied by a robust media campaign to change the law and I would urge all those of you who support it to campaign locally by contacting the MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, Daniel Kawyczinski, who has so far opposed any change in the law. You can also join Dignity in Dying or sign up to its email list or facebook or twitter for regular updates.

Although the House of Commons has proven particularly unsupportive, though not the House of Lords, there is consistent and robust evidence to show that 80% of the electorate in the UK support assisted dying. Despite this, change will not be easy given the opposition of three powerful vested interests: the Church of England, the British Medical Association and pressure groups representing the disabled such as Not Dead Yet.

As a humanist, I’m committed to a rationalist and humane perspective and support all measures which are not to the detriment of others. I have been a supporter of the principle of assisted dying for many years. Now that I find myself terminally ill with MND and perhaps less than 12 months to live I am even more of the view that a change in the law is essential in a civilised and humane society.

Judge: exclusion of humanism from religious studies is wrong



By Barry Duke in The Freethinker:

In a landmark ruling today, High Court judge Mr Justice Warby, above, found that the British Government was wrong to exclude humanism from the GCSE RS subject curriculum.

The exclusion, according to this report, flew in the face of the Government’s own consultation results, and went against the opinion of RE subject experts and religious leaders.

Judge Warby ruled in favour of  three humanist parents and their children who challenged the Government’s rejection of non-religious worldviews in the latest subject content for GCSE Religious Studies.

The families claimed that Education Secretary Nicky Morgan had “skewed” the teaching of religion in schools by leaving out “non-religious world views” from the syllabus.

The families, supported by the British Humanist Association, argued there was widespread concern about:

The failure [by Mrs Morgan] to comply with her duty of neutrality and impartiality as between religious and other beliefs.

In his decision, the judge stated that the Government had made an “error of law” that amounted to:

A breach of the duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner.

While the Government will not be immediately compelled to change the GSCE, religious education syllabuses around the country will now have to put non-religious world views such as humanism on an equal footing, and pupils taking a GCSE will also have to learn about non-religious belief systems.

The judge said:

In carrying out its educational functions the state owes parents a positive duty to respect their religious and philosophical convictions … the state has a duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner … the state must accord equal respect to different religious convictions, and to non-religious beliefs; it is not entitled to discriminate between religions and beliefs on a qualitative basis; its duties must be performed from a standpoint of neutrality and impartiality as regards the quality and validity of parents’ convictions.

The Department for Education will now have to take action in response to the judgement against it. Further meetings will now take place between the parties to decide what steps must now be taken to ensure non-religious world views such as humanism are included.

Kate Bielby, one of the parents acting as a claimant in the case, commented:

My daughter and I are delighted by today’s decision and the clear statement that it makes in support of equality of religion and belief. It is long past time that the beliefs of the non-religious were treated on an equal footing with religions in the school curriculum.

I am confident that whatever changes are introduced on the back of this judgement, Religious Studies will be a fairer, more inclusive subject, benefitting all children whatever their religious or non-religious background.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed the landmark decision, and its Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

We have made the case for many decades that the school curriculum on religions should include major non-religious worldviews such as humanism. It is great news that the Court has now said the law is with us.

This is a stunning victory for the three humanist families who stood up to the Government on this issue. It is also a victory for the vast majority of people who believe in the importance of a religious education curriculum that is inclusive, balanced, and pluralistic, and which contributes to mutual understanding between people of all religions and none.

We look forward to working with the Government to ensure that the changes required by the judgement are implemented and hope they will use this as an opportunity to improve the GCSE for the benefit of all children. Continuing to exclude the views of a huge number of Britons, in the face of majority public opinion and all expert advice, would only be to the detriment of education in this country and a shameful path to follow.

18 June meeting: The English Collective of Prostitutes on Sex workers organising for safety and justice

A recent survey found 5% of students are working in the sex industry to pay off debt and cover living expenses. At the same time, unemployment, benefit cuts and sanctions, lowering wages and homelessness, are driving increasing numbers of women, mostly mothers supporting families, into the sex industry where we are being arrested, criminalised and even imprisoned. Sex workers who report violence can find themselves prosecuted while their attacker goes free; victims of trafficking, instead of the support they are entitled to, are treated as immigration offenders and face detention and removal. It’s about time consenting sex was decriminalised. Find out what sex workers are doing to insist on our rights to safety, protection and justice.

7.30 pm at The Lantern, Meadow Farm Drive, Shrewsbury SY1 4NG

‘There is a threat to British values – the British government’

I am including this to raise awareness of the issue. The new Government is undertaking laws against freedom of speech. Given that this government is committed to promoting ‘faith’, it’s not too difficult to see that those who criticise religion can easily be labelled ‘extremist’. Unlike most democracies, we don’t have a constitution and a court that can rule such laws unconstitutional.

Caroline Lucas MP writes: A Conservative government has been in power for less than a week, and already our fundamental human rights are under threat.
It has been announced today that the Queen’s Speech will contain plans for banning orders intended to limit the “harmful activities” of extremists. The detail of the plans are chilling.
They are part of a strategy to promote “British values” including freedom of speech and democracy, yet they’ll actually prevent people from exercising those very values. According to the proposals, anyone who undertakes activities that cause harassment, alarm or distress, could be faced with a high court order requiring them to submit anything they plan to publish online, in print, or even on social media, to the police.
That means actions like placing 200 body bags on the beach in my constituency of Brighton Pavilion, as Amnesty International did last month, could be prevented, and Amnesty subjected to police censorship. That act was distressing because it brought home the reality of the suffering endured by migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. But it was also powerfully important in raising awareness, and encouraging moves to prevent further tragedies.
The planned banning orders for “extremists” are particularly concerning. They are intended to hit not only organisations that incite hatred on the grounds of gender, race or religion, but also those who seek to “undermine democracy”. Does that mean campaigners like the Electoral Reform Society, who call for an overhaul of our democratic systems as they stand, could be outlawed? The phrasing is simply too vague to rule it out.
The national extremism database currently includes the names of people who have undertaken such “extreme” activities as organising meetings on environmental issues. That suggests people like me, who push for strong action on climate change, could be outlawed if we so much as come together to plan a protest. Read more…

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