BHA responds to the Archbishops’ letter

From the BHA, 6 May 2017

In a letter written to the Parishes and Chaplaincies of the Church of England ahead of the 2017 general election, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have argued for faith to continue to play a central role in politics, and denounced the growing secularism of the United Kingdom.

In the letter, the Archbishops write:

This election is being contested against the backdrop of deep and profound questions of identity. Opportunities to renew and reimagine our shared values as a country and a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only come around every few generations. We are in such a time. Our Christian heritage, our current choices and our obligations to future generations and to God’s world will all play a shaping role….

Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief. The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives…

Religious belief is the well-spring for the virtues and practices that make for good individuals, strong relationships and flourishing communities. In Britain, these embedded virtues are not unique to Christians, but they have their roots in the Christian history of our four nations…

Political responses to the problems of religiously-motivated violence and extremism, at home and overseas, must… recognise that solutions will not be found simply in further secularisation of the public realm. Mainstream religious communities have a central role to play; whilst extremist narratives require compelling counter-narratives that have a strong theological and ideological foundation.

Responding to the letter, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘This is a letter to a country that no longer exists. The public today overwhelmingly recognise that sound virtues and ethics are not the preserve of the religious nor “spring” from Christianity. That is just a self-aggrandising lie, and an insult to the majority of the British people who have non-religious beliefs and values and contribute enormously to British life as they have for generations.

‘The Archbishops  are right that our country stands at a crossroads but they are wrong to say that greater religious privilege is the path that will lead to a happier future. The cause of social cohesion and a peaceful society will not be advanced by the special pleading of already powerful elites whose beliefs have no popular support, but by the creation of a shared national life that treats everyone equally, regardless of religion or belief.

‘Polls show that British people also believe that religion is already too privileged. The Church of England in particular often uses that privilege today to harm others. The most glaring example is the way in which many of its fully state-funded schools continue to turn away those of other religions and beliefs in their admissions – a practice that may shortly be extended – and shut out poorer children. If the Archbishops want to do their bit for a better Britain they should put their own house in order before lecturing others.’

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact BHA Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on richy@humanism.org.uk or 020 7324 3072.

Read the letter: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/electionletter_TEXT.pdf

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

BHA: Government moves to ban organisations from exposing law-breaking schools unfairly restricting access to children and parents

From the British Humanist Association, 25 January:

Following a report published by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) last year revealing that almost every religiously-selective school in England is breaking the law, the Education Secretary has announced she now plans to ban groups and organisations from officially raising concerns about the admission arrangements of schools. In a thinly veiled attack on the BHA, the ban, which was first suggested by a variety of religious organisations in a meeting with Department for Education (DfE) officials last year, is specifically targeted at ‘secular campaign groups’, according to Nicky Morgan. The BHA has described the proposal as an ‘affront to both democracy and the rule of law’, stating that it will allow religiously selective schools to continue abusing the system and unfairly discriminate against a huge number of children in the process.

Under current rules, any citizen or civil society organisation is allowed to lodge an objection with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) if they believe a school has failed to comply with the School Admissions Code. In the absence of a body actively enforcing compliance with the Code, these objections from parents, local authorities, charities, and other organisations, represent the only impartial means of ensuring that schools adhere to the law and do not attempt to manipulate their intakes.

Despite this, the Government is now proposing to prohibit organisations from lodging objections with the OSA, largely in response to a joint BHA/FAC report published last year. The report, entitled An Unholy Mess: How virtually all religiously selective schools are breaking the law, detailed the rulings of the OSA on the admission arrangements of a small sample of religiously selective schools, finding widespread violations of the Code in every case. These violations acted to prevent parents from gaining fair access to state schools and the consequent rulings added credence to long-standing concerns about the cynical way in which religious selection is carried out in ‘faith’ schools. These concerns were widely shared by parents and clearly indicated that more needs to be done to enforce the Code, not less.

The Education Secretary’s comments represent the first time Nicky Morgan has confirmed her plan to push ahead with the ban, stating: ‘we are ensuring only local parents and councils can object to admissions arrangements, which will also put a stop to vexatious complaints against faith schools by secularist campaign groups’. The Government have stated that they plan to launch a consultation on the proposals in the next few months.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: ‘We all need to be clear about what is happening here. A near-universal failure to adhere to the law in a particular area has been identified. Instead of moving to enforce the law, the Government has responded by planning to make it harder to identify future violations of it. This is an affront to both democracy and the rule of law. It will reduce parents’ fair choice of state schools in the interests of the religious organisations that run them at taxpayers’ expense and demonstrates the Government is more interested in concealing the appalling record of religious schools manipulating their intakes than it is in addressing the serious problems this causes.

‘The report we published last year was provoked by the high volume of requests for help we receive every year from parents who are victims of the unfair system, and it revealed that a huge number of children are being unfairly denied places at their local schools due to the abuse of the admissions system by religiously-selective schools. Any restrictions on who can object will not only allow this to continue, it will encourage it by drastically reducing the accountability of the admissions process. The Government is due to consult on this draconian intervention in the next few months, and we will certainly be encouraging everyone who believes in a fairer, more transparent, and less discriminatory education system to respond and oppose the proposals.

‘In the past, civil servants from the Department for Education have often welcomed, indeed encouraged, ours and others’ exposing of schools that are frustrating Government policy by unfairly and unlawfully restricting parental access to and choice of state schools. This sudden change of attitude will be to the detriment not just of transparency in a vital public service, but also to the whole of society, and in particular to parents and children, in whose interest the publicly funded education system should surely be run.’

Notes

For further comment or information please contact BHA Faith Schools and Education Campaigner, Jay Harman, on jay@humanism.org.uk or 020 7324 3078.

Read the BHA/FAC report An Unholy Mess: How virtually all religiously selective schools are breaking the law: https://humanism.org.uk/2015/10/01/an-unholy-mess-new-report-reveals-near-universal-noncompliance-with-school-admissions-code-among-state-faith-schools-in-england/

Read the FAC’s briefing on the report: http://fairadmissions.org.uk/anunholymess-briefing/

Particularly notable findings of the report include:

  • Almost one in five schools were found to require practical or financial support to associated organisations – through voluntary activities such as flower arranging and choir-singing in churches or in the case of two Jewish schools, in requiring membership of synagogues (which costs money).
  • Over a quarter of schools were found to be religiously selecting in ways not deemed acceptable even by their relevant religious authorities – something which the London Oratory School was also found guilty of earlier this year.
  • A number of schools were found to have broken the Equality Act 2010 in directly discriminating on the basis of race or gender, with concerns also raised around discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and socio-economic status.
  • A majority of schools were found not to be sufficiently prioritising looked after and previously looked after children (LAC and PLAC) – in most cases discriminating in unlawful ways against LAC and PLAC who were not of the faith of the school, and in a few rare cases not prioritising LAC and PLAC at all. A quarter of schools were also found to not be making clear how children with statements of special educational needs were admitted.
  • Almost 90% of schools were found to be asking for information from parents that they do not need. This included asking parents to declare their support for the ethos of the school and even asking for applicants’ countries of origin, whether or not they speak English as an additional language, and if they have any medical issues.
  • Nearly every school was found to have problems related to the clarity, fairness, and objectivity of their admissions arrangements. This included a lack of clarity about the required frequency of religious worship and asking a religious leader to sign a form confirming religious observance, but not specifying what kind of observance is required.

The Fair Admissions Campaign wants all state-funded schools in England and Wales to be open equally to all children, without regard to religion or belief. The Campaign is supported by a wide coalition of individuals and national and local organisations. We hold diverse views on whether or not the state should fund faith schools. But we all believe that faith-based discrimination in access to schools that are funded by the taxpayer is wrong in principle and a cause of religious, ethnic, and socio-economic segregation, all of which are harmful to community cohesion. It is time it stopped.

Supporters of the campaign include the Accord Coalition, the British Humanist Association, Professor Ted Cantle and the iCoCo Foundation, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Campaign for State Education, the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, the Christian think tank Ekklesia, the Hindu Academy, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrat Education Association, Liberal Youth, the Local Schools Network, Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign, the Runnymede Trust, the Socialist Educational Association, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

Iranian blogger: ‘Why I Love Being an Atheist Even Though I Live in Iran’

Here in England, we tend to take religious freedom for granted. But it was not always so. Up to the 18th century, it could be very dangerous to be an atheist, and at the very least there were serious restrictions on non-members of the established church. Even up to the 19th century, you had to be an Anglican to go to university or (apart from Jews or Quakers) to get married.

We may forget that for many people their religion still requires that others should not be allowed to practise their own beliefs freely, and given a chance, they would force that on the rest of us.

In some parts of the world, not believing still can mean death at the hands of the state or of mobs. This is why we can be impressed at the courage of Iranian blogger Kaveh Mousavi (a pseudonym) who would certainly be murdered if he were known. He writes:

So this is what good atheism has done for me: atheism has enabled me to wage a war to liberate those “the few cubic centimeters inside my skull”. It is ultimately a war destined to be lost – I will never not be the child of my time and my place, and I will never be entirely free in my thought. But it is a worthy war to wage nevertheless, for every battle won is a great victory in itself.

Because of atheism I can support democracy, oppose theocracy, support the equal rights for women and LGBT+ people without having to hold sacred a book which embodies the opposite of all these values and I do not have to resolve the mental dissonance of such an intellectual contradiction.

Because of atheism I can easily accept science and not be forced to choose between my dogma and the facts on issues such as evolution or circumcision or masturbation or abortion.

Because of atheism I can laugh at Mohammad and all else that is sacred, and save my outrage for the real injustices in the world, instead of getting angry at harmless satire targeting warlords of the past.

Because of atheism I can indulge in my harmless desires and to consider the naked human body beautiful, not something to be covered in shame.

Because of atheism I can think about the great questions without a God vetoing certain areas and certain concepts. I am not aware of all my unconscious biases and failings of critical thinking, but at least religious ones are not among them.

Atheism is freedom. Atheism does not equal critical thinking, or tolerance, or a truly liberated mind. But atheism is an opportunity, an option, a potential blank slate. To me atheism means that on this Saganian speck of dust we inhabit I find my own destination and I walk my own road and all my accomplishments and all my failures are ultimately my own, no idol is my god and no lord is my shepherd.

And this is something I relish, something that makes all those traumas and abuses worth it.

Read his article in full here.

His blog is here.

NSS: Even the chief architect of the expansion of religious schools is now having doubts

From the National Secular Society, by Terry Sanderson

With the public, of all faiths and none, increasingly recognising the problems caused by faith schools, NSS president Terry Sanderson calls out politicians who complain about religious separatism on one hand while deliberately promoting it on the other.

Tony Blair, who was the chief architect of Britain’s dangerous “faith school” experiment when he was Labour Prime Minister, now appears to be having doubts about it.

Speaking at a session on world education at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai in March, Mr Blair said that intolerance must be “confronted” wherever it is found. And school is a good place to do it.

Asked whether, in general, faith schools can lead to greater segregation, Mr Blair replied: “That’s a very good question, and it’s one I ask myself often because faith schools are a big part of the UK system, a lot of people like to educate their children in those schools because sometimes they have a stronger ethos, a stronger kind of grounding in values and so on.

“I think what I would say is faith schools only work if they’re also integrated in the education system, it’s very important that young people, even if they’re taught in a school of a particular faith, are taught about other faiths, are taught in what I would say is a constructive way”.

He went on: “This question of what I call education for the open mind, is really, really important now”.

So, there we have it: Mr Blair thinks that “faith schools” only work if they are integrated into the education system”. The problem with this is that they are integrated into the education system and, as far as community cohesion is concerned, they are a disaster.

Even in community schools, that are supposedly free from a particular single religious influence, it isn’t difficult for religious zealots to gain influence. We’ve seen it happen in some Muslim areas when determined Islamists have overwhelmed community schools and tried to impose a “religious ethos” that wouldn’t be out of place in Saudi Arabia.

We are told that these schools are now returned to their original purpose of giving children a balanced education – indeed, a committee of MPs is now saying that there was no problem in the first place. But can we really dismiss the testimony of parents at these schools who were interviewed at the time and expressed their alarm at what was happening? Were the newspaper investigations that found evidence for the plot all made up? Were those teachers who were fired to make way for more Islamically pure replacements telling lies? And if there was no problem, why was the whole board of governors fired?

Read more…

Terry Sanderson is the president of the National Secular Society. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

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

Simon Nightingale on the thought crime of not having a religion

Available until Saturday. Listen from 1:19:00 to 1:25:00 on the time line.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p024zyxp

Why the faithful need secularism

Jeremy Rodell, on the Humanist Life blog, discusses the meaning of ‘secularism,’ among other things. What is Secularism? Let’s start with what secularism means to secularists. The British Humanist Association (BHA) defines secularism as ‘the principle that, in a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life, the communal institutions that we share (and together pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms. State Secularism, where… the state is neutral on matters of religion or belief, guarantees the maximum freedom for all, including religious believers.’ The UK’s National Secular Society (NSS) adds that it’s ‘not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.’ So a secular state does not mean denying the role of Christianity and other religions – for both good and ill – in history and culture. It does not mean that religious people must forego their principles if they enter public life. Perhaps most important of all, it does not mean a society lacking in values. There’s a fairly clear set of liberal, human values shared by the majority in the UK and most other western countries, including freedom of speech, thought and belief; respect for democracy and the rule of law; equality of gender, age and sexual orientation and the view that fairness and compassion are virtues. Many of these values are enshrined in law. Read more at Humanist Life

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