The National Secular Society on defending free speech

The National Secular Society is a founding member of the Defend Free Speech campaign, formed in response to Government plans to introduce sweeping new powers to combat extremism.

Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) will allow courts to ban someone from speaking in public or on social media, restrict their freedom of association, and ban them from taking up various positions – such as a school governor.

The proposals risk capturing a whole range of behaviour and speech which fits under a broad, ill-defined conception of ‘extremism’.

George Osborne has said that for a court to serve an Extremism Disruption Order an individual must have participated in “activities that spread, incite, promote or justify hatred against a person or group of persons on the grounds of that person’s or group of persons’ disability, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and/or transgender identity.”

This is an unclear definition which sets a very vague threshold. We are also particularly concerned that in an effort to appear ‘fair’ and avoid the impression that EDOs only or primarily target Islamist extremists, that the broad measures will catch, for instance, Christian street preachers or those defending the right to criticise and ridicule religion. Evangelical street preachers have already faced prosecution for their sermons. Additional restrictions on free speech can only further jeopardise and chill freedom of expression.

As a society we are already far too prone to silencing opinions in fear of them causing ‘offence’, and it seems inevitable that EDOs will encompass people far beyond the Government’s intent.

We are also concerned by reports that the orders would be applied on the “balance of probabilities”, rather than the higher standard required in criminal trials of “beyond reasonable doubt”.

We recognise the need to tackle religious extremism, but existing powers already exist to meet this end. For example, the Public Order Act 1986 – which criminalises the incitement of violence, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 ­– which creates an offence of inciting hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion, and the Terrorism Act 2006 – which prohibits statements that “glorify” terrorism. The Government is yet to identify a legitimate target which could not already be captured by existing law.

Reports have indicated that EDOs would be used against those who “spread hate but do not break laws”. This is absurd by definition. If breaking the law is not a trigger for the state to act, at what moment does the state intervene?

Instead of new powers for the state, we would like to see more effective use of existing powers, and a robust defence of human right and freedom of speech to promote what the Government term ‘British values’ in the face of religious extremism.

We believe that objectionable ideas should be subjected to challenge, debate, scrutiny and ridicule. Society has a range of tools with which to tackle extremism; reaching immediately for new legal powers is short-sighted and risks undermining the values the Government seeks to promote.

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NSS: Government’s anti-extremism plans will have ‘chilling effect’ on free speech

The National Secular Society has expressed concern at the Government’s new proposals to challenge extremism and radicalisation.

Home Secretary Theresa May has announced renewed plans to introduce “extremism disruption orders” that would target those spreading extremist ideology.

David Cameron said: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”

The Guardian reported in 2014 that the EDOs, then blocked by the Liberal Democrats under the Coalition Government, would include “a ban on broadcasting and a requirement to submit to the police in advance any proposed publication on the web, social media or in print.”

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood commented: “The Government should have every tool possible to tackle extremism and terrorism, but there is a huge arsenal of laws already in place and a much better case needs to be made for introducing draconian measures such as Extremism Disruption Orders, which are almost unchallengeable and deprive individuals of their liberties.”

The NSS is concerned that the plans are currently very vague, and would have a chilling effect on free speech. The Society is calling for a stronger civil society response to counter extremism, and is critical of an approach that relies too much on new legislation.

The Christian Institute also criticised the proposed “Extremism Disruption Orders”. Simon Calvert, spokesperson for the Christian Institute, said: “While everyone applauds the principle of tackling Islamic extremism, comments by David Cameron and other senior members of the Government suggest EDO’s will exceed even Labour’s notorious religious hatred Bill or Section 5 of the Public Order Act.”

The NSS and the Christian Institute worked together, along with other civil liberties organisations to defeat the then-Labour Government’s proposals to criminalise “deliberately insulting a religion.”

Mr Calvert continued: “Last year the Government was forced to back down on proposals to outlaw ‘being annoying in a public place’. Now it looks like they are returning to their theme with a vengeance.

“The Christian Institute warns the Government not to rush through these measures, but to engage with groups with a track record of defending free speech.

“In the current climate, there is a real risk that EDOs will be used to clamp down on legitimate expressions of dissent.

“If the Government does not ensure that there are adequate safeguards, then, because of the low burden of proof, it is perfectly plausible that comedians, satirists, campaign groups, religious groups, secularist groups, and even journalists could find themselves subject to these draconian measures.”

A Telegraph editorial called on the Government to safeguard free speech, and argued that “In trying to protect democracy, the Government should be careful not to water down further our most precious value: freedom of expression.”

The Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank, was also critical of the Government’s plans.

National Secular Society on churches, charity and the conferring of privilege

There are many ways to do good, including campaigning for human rights and equality over discrimination and prejudice, but charitable work is not a bargaining chip for special privileges, argues Alistair McBay.
Recently some Christian leaders in Scotland angered at secularists challenging their privileges have responded by pointing out the National Secular Society and other secular groups don’t run care homes, or operate food banks, or run adoption agencies. Secularists have been the target of this ill-informed sniping from both the Free Church of Scotland and the Church of Scotland, and Anglican and Catholic leaders have made similar attacks in the past. So here is an attempt to set the record straight on a few points.
First, let’s deal with the obvious. The NSS is not a registered charity, it is a not-for-profit campaigning organisation. It would be more accurate for the churches to compare us not with themselves, but to the Christian not-for-profit think-tank Ekklesia, which is also a campaigning group, not a registered charity, and doesn’t run care homes or food banks. Perhaps the Christian Institute might be another more appropriate comparator – it is a registered charity but which spends its funds on campaigning for ‘Christian influence in a secular world’, and not on food banks.
So while it is true that the NSS runs no care homes or food banks, the religious leaders who condemn us for failing the vulnerable can be accused of the very same. For example, they have never campaigned for equality for the LGBTi community. In fact, they continue to campaign for LGBTi rights to be restricted and for Christians to be able to practise discrimination and prejudice against them through exemptions from the Equality Act. They also campaign to retain the legal right to exclude children and teachers on the grounds of their parents being of the ‘wrong’ religion or no religion. There is not much charity in evidence here – just the demand that Christian belief be seen to confer a right to discriminate against, segregate and exclude vulnerable groups.
I know of no secular charity that prostitutes its charitable works as justification for retaining special privilege in society – that seems to be the sole prerogative of some religious groups. All over the UK, every day of the year, people of all religious beliefs and none perform selfless works and activities to raise funds for those worse off in some way, or give up their valuable personal time as volunteers to make better the lives of others less fortunate. Yet the only people who consistently brag (sorry, bear witness) about what they do in this regard are church leaders looking to leverage this work in exchange for power and privilege, and to champion their allegedly superior belief system.

Continue reading here.

National Secular Society on how new Government-backed council prayers bill will undermine religious freedom

From the National Secular Society:

Council prayers: Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Bill

We would like to see local government meetings conducted in a manner equally welcoming to all attendees, regardless of their individual religious beliefs or lack of belief. We therefore argue that religious worship should play no part in the formal business of council meetings.
What’s the issue?
The Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill[1] seeks to make provision for the inclusion of prayers or “other religious observance” or “observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief” at local authority meetings.

The Private Member’s Bill, sponsored by Conservative MP Jake Berry, seeks to negate a High Court ruling [2] that “The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a Council is not lawful under s111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue.”

The judgement followed a Judicial Review initiated by the National Secular Society to challenge the practice of saying prayers as part of the formal business of council meetings in Bideford Town Council (Devon).
The ruling was an important step in recognition of secularism as a basis for equality in public life and public office. Simply, it ensured that all elected councillors, whatever their religious beliefs, would be treated with equal respect at council meetings.
If the Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Bill were to become law, it would enable a majority of councillors to impose their beliefs on other elected councillors who do not wish to participate. As well as those of no belief, this would of course include those of another faith to those of the prayer being recited.
Furthermore, for local democracy to be representative, we think it is important for local councils to resist practices that deter full involvement from all sections of the community they serve.

Why worship should play no part in local authority meetings
Given that the role of local councils is to represent and serve all people in their area equally, it is inappropriate for them to appear corporately to subscribe to any religious beliefs, far less to one faith in particular.
The imposition of prayer gives the impression of the body identifying with a particular belief or range of beliefs. This can alienate those who do not wish to pray, or make them feel they are not full or legitimate councillors. It may also deter prospective councillors/candidates.
Mr Justice Ouseley, the Judge in Charge of the Administrative Court at the High Court, stated in his ruling that the 1972 Local Government Act did not give councils the power to introduce a religious dimension to their meetings:
“I do not think that the 1972 Act, dealing with the organisation, management and decision-making of local Councils, should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of Councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude or, even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected Councillors.”
The Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Bill would overturn this ruling, in order to allow one group of councillors to impose their religious practices on other elected councillors.
In our view, permitting acts of worship to be imposed on councillors in a secular council chamber, as the Bill seeks do, is incompatible with religious freedom and inimical to ensuring our local councils are equally welcoming to all sections of society.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not
Within each local authority area there will be a diverse range of religious beliefs. If enacted, this legislation can be expected to increase the incidence of religious observance (predominantly, but not exclusively, Christian prayer) during formal council proceedings, potentially generating unnecessary sectarian conflict.
We note that the average age of councillors increased from 55 in 1997 to 60 in 2010 and only 4 per cent came from an ethnic minority background[3]. It is important to make local democracy as open and inclusive as possible. The presence of predominantly Christian prayers may be seen as alienating for some who are not Christian. This is equally true for non-believers forced to sit through Christian prayers, as (for example) Christian councillors forced to sit through Islamic ones.

Religious freedom
The supporters of this Bill claim it increases ‘religious freedom’. We think the opposite is true. The Bill undermines religious freedom by enabling the majority of councillors to impose their beliefs on other councillors. Secularism is a necessary adjunct to any democracy that supports equality for all.
The absence of prayers from the formal business of local authority meetings does not impede the religious freedoms of believers or deny anybody the right to pray. The current legal position simply prevents local authorities from summoning councillors to religious observance at council meetings and imposing it on those that do not wish it.
It is important to note that religious freedom is not just for believers. It also includes non-believers. Religious freedom protects both “freedom of religion or belief.” This protects an individual’s rights to manifest their religion, but does not extend to allowing believers to impose acts of worship on those that do not share their faith. This may also be regarded as basic good manners. Secularism does not seek to interfere with believers following their faith in any way, provided that it does not impinge adversely on others.
Councillors are free to meet and pray before their meetings, but formal acts of worship should not take place as part of the official business of local authority meetings. In this way, meetings can be conducted without anyone feeling compelled to participate in prayers, or feeling excluded, or that they have to absent themselves from any part of the meeting.

Social Cohesion
Separating acts of worship from the formal business of council meetings creates a neutral space and removes an unnecessary barrier to local democracy being equally representative of all sections of society.
Acts of worship can alienate councillors who simply do not wish to participate in public religious activity. This was the experience of the late Clive Bone, a councillor who assisted the NSS in our High Court challenge of the inclusion of prayers before meetings of Bideford Town Council by being a party to the case. Cllr Bone felt uncomfortable in refusing to participate, and said the worship created an unwelcoming atmosphere for non-religious councillors, and that he was aware of it putting off potential councillors from standing.
This was also the case for Cllr Imran Khan, a Muslim and Conservative councillor on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council in Surrey, who asked for Christian prayers to be separated from full council meeting as he felt it was wrong that he was forced to stand outside the council chamber while prayers were being said. After speaking out on the issue, Mr Khan was not reselected by the Tories to contest the seat and claimed the prayer row had “a big influence”.[4]
Before the High Court ruling in 2012, a number of local authorities introduced multi-faith prayers. Such initiatives, though often well-meaning, became cause of tension, rather than cohesion.
When Portsmouth Council allowed for a Muslim Imam to say a prayer during a meeting, a local councillor was accused of “disrespect” after excluding himself from the meeting while the prayer was said. The councillor told local media: “I don’t feel it’s appropriate for Muslim prayers to be said, as I don’t feel we worship the same God as Muslims, so I left.”[5]
Similarly, councillors in Shropshire called a fellow non-religious councillor “disgusting” after he wore headphones during a prayer held during a council meeting.
If successful, this new legislation could re-open the door to such unnecessary conflict and sectarianism at council meetings.
Community cohesion is best served by local authorities moving away from divisive practices, such as religious worship, that deter full involvement from all sections of communities they serve.
In a religiously diverse nation, where large sectors of the population do not hold or practise religious beliefs, local authorities should perform their civic duties in a secular manner without privileging or identifying with any particular religious position.
Get involved!
Using the arguments set out in the briefing, please contact your MP and ask them to ensure local democracy is inclusive and secular by opposing Jake Berry’s Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Bill.
1 http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2014-15/localgovernmentreligiousetcobservances.html
2 https://www.secularism.org.uk/uploads/bideford-judgment-final.pdf
3 http://www.local.gov.uk/local-government-intelligence/-/journal_content/56/10180/100325/ARTICLE
4 http://www.surreymirror.co.uk/Muslim-councillor-deselected-Horley-prayer-row/story-15669740-detail/story.html
5 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-12284894

Web: secularism.org.uk email: enquiries@secularism.org.uk Tel: 0207 404 3126

Local campaign forces church U-turn over Chancel Repair Liability

Stottesdon-cchurch-repairsThe National Secular Society has a follow-up to the earlier story about the disastrous (for the home owners) Chancel Repair Liability.

The NSS has warned about this ancient and unfair law before: see NSS warns thousands of homes could become worthless as a result of an ancient church tax.

It’s notable that “God’s love” does not seem to have influenced the PCC’s decision to try to claim the tax in the first place, and that the diocese is weaselling out of its responsibility for the “division” in the village.

 

A parochial church council (PCC) that used an ancient law to make homeowners financially liable for repairs to their local church has withdrawn its claim.

Villagers in Stottesdon, near Kidderminster, reacted with dismay when they received notices from the Land Registry informing them claims against their properties had been made by their local church.

The PCC has now backtracked following a local campaign which threatened to boycott the Church. A statement issued by the Diocese of Hereford, stated:

“This PCC has listened to the concerns of parishioners and discussed at length the issue of Chancel Repair Liability. Following careful review and consideration of all material facts the PCC now wishes to withdraw the unilateral notices and the cautions against first registrations lodged with The Land Registry.”

Commenting on the decision to withdraw the claims, Colin Resch, the vicar of St Mary’s Church, said: “The consequences of Chancel Repair Liability in our parish have made it very difficult for us to carry out our prime objective of sharing God’s love within our community.”

The diocesan press statement, entitled, “Church decision brings hope to divided village”, omitted to mention that it was the actions of the PCC that caused the resentment in the first place.

The removal of the registrations means that when houses are sold on the repair liability will not transfer with the ownership, and new householders will not have to pay it. Until that time, the properties are still potentially subject to CLR.

Elaine Hesssion, who set up the local campaign with her partner Jonathan Hill, welcomed the U-turn. She said: “The decision to withdraw Chancel Repair Liability Notices registered against properties in Stottesdon was the morally right one and very good news to the community. Whilst this is certainly a step in the right direction the legal position is that the current PCC or a future PCC can re-register these Notices at any time and then we are back to square one. Those property owners affected would like a deed of relinquishment from the PCC stating that they will never pursue us for chancel repair liability and hopefully this will restore the value to our properties. Maybe then we can all put this behind us and unite once more as a community.”

Ms Hession Facebook campaign group is now assisting homeowners in other areas affected by chancel repair liability.

The withdrawal of the registrations was also welcomed by the National Secular Society (NSS), which is campaigning for Chancel Repair Liability to be abolished.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, said. “We acknowledge the contribution to our heritage of ancient churches, but it is completely unfair that money for repairing them can be demanded from property owners simply because of what the Law Commission describes as “anomalous, uncertain and obscure” law.

“Chancel Repair Liabilities have caused a substantial reduction in value and even saleability of the properties registered. Until the law is abolished the Church needs to try much harder to permit property owners to buy out their liabilities at affordable rates.”

The law of Chancel Repair Liability dates back to the time of Henry VIII but had been little exercised for centuries until, in 2009, Adrian and Gail Wallbank were forced to sell their home after losing a protracted legal battle over a demand for almost £100,000 to fund repairs of their local medieval church at Aston Cantlow in Warwickshire.

Following the Wallbanks’ case, the Government introduced a registration procedure enabling CRL to be shown on Land Registry documents. Around 12,000 registrations have been made by 250 parishes. Another 5,000 parishes that are eligible to do so, have not registered any claims. Further properties are potentially subject to CRL, despite being not being registered.

Since the Wallbanks’ case, many vendors have taken out insurance against purchasers’ future liability. The option of relatively inexpensive insurance is not open to owners of properties that have been registered – many of which were purchased before the Wallbank case, without CLR appearing on the deeds.

A petition urging the Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling to abolish chancel repair liability can be signed at Change.org.

The campaign group set up my Elaine Hession can be contacted via Facebook.

Interesting meetings at nearby groups

March has been a great month for interesting meetings in Shropshire and around, and there are more still to come.

Sanal Edamaraku Birmingham Humanists has a visit from Sanal Edamaraku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association, on Friday, 22 March 2013 at 7.30 pm at the  Moseley Exchange, 149–153 Alcester Road, Moseley, Birmingham B13 8JP.

For many years Sanal has campaigned against superstition, helping to expose frauds and supposed mystical happenings. In 2012 he was charged with hurting religious sentiments for his role in examining a claimed miracle at a local Catholic church. At present he is travelling in Europe, campaigning in defence of free speech and against blasphemy laws.

Everyone is welcome. Please note that the Moseley Exchange building is fully accessible, with disabled access to meeting rooms via a lift, and with hearing loops.

Ludlow and Marches Humanists present The struggle against religious privilege. led by Dan Bye of the National Secular Society. Tuesday 19 March , 2013 at 7:30 pm at The Friends’ Meeting House, St Mary’s Lane, Ludlow.

And don’t miss our own meeting on Thursday 21 March, advertised separately.

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