Saturday, January 8, 2011

Fwd: Newsline 07 January 2011


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07 January 2011


In this week's Newsline
Quotes of the week
Essays of the week
NSS sparks a national debate over the place of religion in schools – and the place of the pope on the BBC
How many Muslims are there in Britain?
Mosque to take over Catholic school
Just for once, the Church fails to get its hands on a school
YWCA drops Christianity from its title
More religion to be imported into the House of Commons
Coming out as atheist: John Hurt
Secularist of the Year: who do you want to win?
Vatican's ploy to thwart criticism of its nefarious Bank is yet another scam
Pakistani clerics say anyone who mourns murdered politician is a "blasphemer" and will suffer the same fate
Quebec secularises its daycare
Vermont diocese sells its HQ to settle abuse claims, while Milwaukee files for bankruptcy protection to avoid its responsibilities
Australian school chaplains draw fire and ire
Bishops in Mexico City, frustrated by liberal reforms, say Government behaving like "secular Taliban"
NSS speaks out
From the web
Letters to Newsline

Quotes of the week 
"There are words which taint language, which obscure meaning. "Islamophobia" is one of the words that we urgently need to delete from our vocabulary."
(Pascal Buckner, Sign and Sight)

"When ordinary human beings see themselves as specially chosen by God, or even as gods themselves, they are not necessarily psychopaths, but they most definitely are spiritually disordered."
(Barry Cooper in his book New Political Religions)

"A journalist once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization. He answered: 'It's a good idea. They ought to try it'. Similarly, we might urge followers of world religions: 'Some nice moral principles. You ought to live them.'"
(Bernard Starr, Huffington Post)

Essays of the Week
Without secular government, there can be no religious freedom
(Susan Jacoby, Washington Post)

Secular courts increasingly having to rule in religious disputes

The blame for Islamic terrorism lies squarely with religion
(Robert Sibley, Ottawa Citizen)

How will religion survive in an age of secularisation?
(Kenneth Bagnell, UC Observer)

NSS sparks a national debate over the place of religion in schools – and the place of the pope on the BBC
The NSS was in the headlines over the Christmas period on two fronts. Firstly, the Pope's Thought for the Day contribution.

The NSS expressed its dismay that the pope would be given an uninterrupted, unquestioned platform to present himself as some kind of unimpeachable moral authority. Instead, we said, he should have been subjected to a grilling from John Humphrys about his role in the cover-up of child abuse by Catholic priests and his promotion of many cruel and anti-human teachings.

These remarks, from the President of the NSS, Terry Sanderson, ricocheted throughout the world's media, giving at least some idea that there was some opposition to the pope's invitation. If you listened to the dire Robert Pigott, the BBC's religious propagandist-in-chief lauding the pope, you'd have thought the nation was dancing in the streets at the prospect of hearing "His Holiness" uttering his tired platitudes ("Be nice to each other, especially old people" and "God surprises us, doesn't he?").

The pope's pre-recorded message was broadcast on Christmas Eve. Minutes before it was broadcast and on the same channel, the NSS's Executive Director, Keith Porteous Wood, went on the Today programme to put our point of view. He was up against Catherine Pepinster, the editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet. Keith said that the invitation to Ratzinger represented "a slap in the face for abuse victims".

James Naughtie, the presenter of the Today programme (who is also, incidentally, a lay preacher) berated Keith after he had claimed that the BBC had given far too much time and resources to the pope while sidelining opposing voices. "Well, you're here, making your case, aren't you?" Naughtie chided. But Keith countered that the amount of time given to the pope compared to that of his opponents was hardly fairly balanced.

Keith quickly changed the focus to child abuse and, to her credit, Catherine Pepinster conceded a number of her own deep reservations about the Church's role in both distant and immediate past from which the pope did not emerge unscathed. Keith pointed out bluntly that no one knew more about child abuse in the Catholic Church than Benedict, given his responsibility for priestly discipline for the last thirty years. Keith pointed out that the accusations he had made at the United Nations (under the auspices of IHEU) of the Church having broken the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child had subsequently been confirmed by Geoffrey Robertson QC's excellent book, The Case of the Pope. The final spat was Pepinster unwisely rejecting as untrue Keith's assertion that the Church continued to vigorously fight each case. He simply pointed to the evidence of a Wakefield solicitor he knows who has a hundred (sic) such cases on his books. (Name available on request.)

Of course, being interviewed on the Today programme meant Keith was not only under bombardment from Catherine Pepinster but also from Naughtie who was — what shall we say? — less than even-handed in his approach. The pope, on the other hand was given a clear run.

The Guardian then covered the news of a letter we had sent to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, calling for an end to collective worship in schools. We argued that forcing children to worship (the law demands they will "take part in" it) infringed their human rights. We were joined in this call by the Association of School and College Leaders. Keith wrote to Michael Gove:

"We believe that the mandatory daily acts of mainly Christian worship and in particular, the imposition on children to take part in such acts, represents an ... infringement of rights.

"We recognise that assemblies with an ethical framework have a vital contribution to make to school life. We do, however, object to collective worship in principle, as not being a legitimate activity of a state-funded institution.

"We are confident that you would not wish to perpetuate a law that is routinely disregarded. We hope that, under your leadership, the law will be changed so that it is brought out of disrepute."

The NSS suggests that changes are included in an education bill to be published next year. The Conservatives would have us believe they are for choice and against the nanny state. Let us hope that Mr Gove can see what is so obvious to everyone else: that forcing children to pray would seem to be the very antithesis of that.

The Daily Mail then picked up the story and presented it, inevitably, as a further attack on "religious freedom" in Britain. And it proceeded to argue that the Human Rights Act should be abolished to thwart "secular zealots".

"David Cameron went to the country on a promise to repeal [The Human Rights Act] and replace it with a UK Bill of Rights," the Mail editorialised. "Yet under the Coalition agreement, all we're given is the promise of a Commission into a possible new law that would 'build on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.' In short, it's a plan for no change. Just what must Britain do to reclaim the right to decide how we are governed?"

This all started a national debate about the place of religion in schools and both Keith and Terry did a series of interviews on local radio stations around the country to drive the point home.

The abusive emails from good Christian folk then began to trickle into the NSS, but this was more than compensated for by a large influx of new members.

If this is your first edition of Newsline, we proffer a warm welcome to the NSS. It's time to get ready for another year of the battle against increasing religious privilege and intrusion of religion into the lives of those who don't want it. It's going to be a momentous year, as our Judicial Review challenging prayers as part of council meetings moves forward in the High Court. This could have wide reaching effects if it is successful; unbelievably a majority of councils still say prayers as part of (not before) Council meetings, gratuitously putting many councillors who do not wish to pray into the position of being embarrassed or offended or even having to leave the chamber.

If you aren't yet a member, please join us and help increase our influence. If you are already a member, please note that subscriptions are up for renewal during January, so please make sure you stay with the organisation that Nick Cohen in the Observer referred to as "Britain's most urgently needed pressure group". The NSS is the only organisation in the country devoted entirely to the promotion and achievement of a secular society.

You can join or renew your membership securely online or by post to NSS, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL.

Please note: those paying by Standing Order of £5 a month or more automatically have their membership maintained.

How many Muslims are there in Britain?
The US-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has published estimates of the Muslim population of each country in Western Europe in 2010.

Pew's UK figure for 2010 is 2,869,000, which is equivalent to 4.6% of the population. In absolute terms, according to Pew, the UK has the third largest Muslim community in Europe, after Germany (4,119,000) and France (3,574,000).

In percentage terms, the UK is in ninth position, after Belgium (6.0%), France, Austria and Switzerland (5.7% each), the Netherlands (5.5%), Germany (5.0%), Sweden (4.9%) and Greece (4.7%). UK Muslims account for 16.8% of all Muslims in Western Europe.

The 2010 UK statistic represents an increase of 74.2% on the 1,647,000 (2.7% of the population) which Pew quoted as recently as last October, in its report Mapping the Global Muslim Population (pp. 22, 32, 54).

That earlier figure was primarily based on the 2001 census, which was the first reliable measure of UK Muslim numbers, earlier estimates having been ethnically derived. No explanation (nor source) for the revised estimate is given by Pew, but doubtless all will be explained in another report to be published shortly. The 2001 census figures were thought to have been a serious underestimate of the numbers, despite efforts to get Muslims to register on the census schedule.

The Government's Labour Force Survey estimated the number to be 1,870,000 for 2004, a figure which rose to 2,422,000 for 2008.

Another Government source, the Citizenship Survey, which covers those aged 16 and over in England and Wales, reveals that the proportion of Muslims in the population doubled between 2001 and 2008–09, from 2% to 4%. Four-fifths of Muslims at the latter date claimed to be practising their faith, compared with 37% of all adults professing a religion and 32% of Christians.

The 2010 Pew table

See also: The Islamification of Britain
Liberals are completely deluded about Islam in Britain

Mosque to take over Catholic school
A Catholic school faces being taken over by a mosque after it was revealed that 95% of its pupils are Muslim. It is believed to be the first case of its kind in Britain. Church leaders say it is no longer "appropriate" for them to run Sacred Heart RC Primary School which has just six Christian pupils.

Just ten years ago, more than 90% of pupils were Catholic. But now most are of Asian origin, do not speak English as their first language and follow Islam. The school in Blackburn, Lancs, could be handed to the nearby Masjid-e-Tauheedul mosque.

Harry Devonport of Blackburn with Darwen Council Children's Services, said the decision to abandon the school was made by the Diocese of Salford.

Diocese education director Geraldine Bradbury said: "We have never experienced a change to this extent before. We would not be serving the local community by insisting that we run the school. It brings things like having a Catholic headteacher and devoting 10% of the timetable to RE. It would be wrong of us to insist on putting a school community through that."

The mosque runs an Islamic girls' secondary school. Head Hamid Patel said: "Given that almost all of the pupils are Muslim, it makes sense."

Other organisations are in the race to run the school — in a predominantly Asian populated area of the town — including the Church of England diocese. But reports suggest that the Tauheedul mosque is favourite to take over. We understand that a report to the local council concluded that any attempt to turn Sacred Heart into a non-religious community school would be rejected because of the Coalition Government's "stated preference for new faith schools and free schools".

Just for once, the Church fails to get its hands on a school
A consortium led by Kingston Council in Greater London has defeated a Church of England bid to run the proposed new secondary school in north Kingston.

The Kingston Educational Trust (KET), which also includes Kingston College and Kingston University, was named the winner by the independent Office of the School Adjudicator this week. 

The competition to run the school, which is due to open in September 2015, sparked fierce debate between Christians and secularists in the town.

The report praised both bids, but said: "We concluded the KET's proposals are stronger particularly with regard to the potential impact on standards, the full exploitation of the school's specialisms and the enhancement of the range of options available for parents in the area." The council has yet to submit a planning application for the school, and the Government has yet to confirm whether it will provide funding.
See also: Religious apartheid in our schools just doesn't add up

YWCA drops Christianity from its title
The Young Women's Christian Association has changed its name to Platform 51 which its representatives say is an attempt to reflect the organisation's changed purpose in the modern world. They insist that it will still retain its Christian ethos. 

More religion to be imported into the House of Commons
A new multi-faith chaplaincy is to be set up in the House of Commons which will include Baha'i and Zoroastrian chaplains, even though there are no known MPs from those religions.

The plan, originating from the Speaker's Office, will also include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Jainists.

The Daily Telegraph reports that it could mean that religious leaders of non-Christian faiths will take part in parliamentary ceremonies, though there would need to be constitutional reform to allow them to read the daily prayers. At present, the Speaker's Chaplain is the only person allowed to say the prayers before each day's sitting and the role has been filled by an Anglican cleric since the office was created in 1660.

The new plan has been thought up by the current chaplain, the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who was appointed by the Speaker, John Bercow, against the wishes of the Very Rev John Hall, the Dean of Westminster.

The new chaplains will not receive a salary and their role is yet to be specified, but the Rev Hudson Wilkin said they will help to ensure everyone's pastoral needs are cared for. "Hospitals and prisons already have this type of chaplaincy system so it's no big deal we're now doing the same," she said.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: "Rather than pack the House of Commons with these religious representatives, it would have been far better to secularise the Commons and leave those MPs and others who work there who feel the need for spiritual sustenance to find it, more appropriately, in a place of worship. The chapel in the Houses of Parliament is but a few short yards from the Commons Chamber."

Mr Wood said that he was relieved that the public purse would not be opened to these chaplains, in contrast to the practice in hospitals, prisons and the armed forces. "The tens of millions handed over to 'faith representatives' in other public institutions is a scandal," he said. "In these times of cutbacks and austerity, hospitals should spend their limited resources on what they are established for – and that is not preaching."
See also: At last – a Government that isn't afraid of faith

Coming out as atheist: John Hurt
The actor John Hurt told Ginny Dougary in The Times :

"I don't have the actual facts but I understand that, of the last hundred Nobel prizewinners, only one of them was a Christian. All the rest were atheists and we take no notice. But we take notice of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Why?

"I'm constantly amazed that people in that position can believe what they believe with that kind of mind. Those extraordinary beliefs, which we think is all OK. We don't think Muslim religion is OK, because it's not ours. The reason for probably so much aggression and war in active religions is because that's the most vulnerable area in any society… Because society knows very well it's not true. In other words, that it has to be believed. If you attack something that is that vulnerable, one to one, you'll get a punch in the face. If you think, society on society, you'll have a war – it's a natural reaction because you have no solid proof." 

Secularist of the Year: who do you want to win?
It's time to start seeking nominations for Secularist of the Year and we hope that, as in previous years, you'll provide us with an interesting and varied batch to choose from.

We will be awarding the £5,000 Irwin Prize to the person who has contributed significantly to the secular cause over the past year. If you would like to nominate someone who fits this criterion, please send their name and a few words about why you want to nominate that individual to .

The prize will be presented at a glamorous but congenial lunchtime event — with its usual smattering of celebrities — on Saturday 19 March in London. The £45 ticket (same price as last year despite the VAT rise) includes a three-course lunch with aperitif and coffee or tea and all the entertainment. Hope you'll be able to join us – tickets are on sale now at the NSS shop. Or you can order through the post by cheque at NSS (SoY), 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. (Please state with your order the names of everyone in your party and whether any of them have any special dietary requirements).

Vatican's ploy to thwart criticism of its nefarious Bank is yet another scam
Editorial by Terry Sanderson
In a desperate attempt to pre-empt the findings of an investigation by Italian authorities, the Vatican has rushed through new procedures which it claims will make its notoriously opaque banking activities "more transparent".

In September, Italian prosecutors announced that they had put Mr. Gotti Tedeschi chairman of the Vatican's bank and the bank's director general under investigation for alleged noncompliance with Italy's anti-money-laundering rules. They also impounded 23 million euros of the bank's cash.

Now the Vatican has announced with great fanfare that it has created a watchdog to supervise financial transactions and new laws against financial crimes.

"This is a very important step in a long path towards transparency and legality," said Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's spokesman – as though honesty was something that Vatican had to strive for and ultimately be forced into.

The new so-called Authority for Financial Information claims that it will monitor all Vatican institutions — including its bank, pharmacy and supermarket — for possible crimes including terrorism financing, stock-market violations and insider trading, according to an apostolic letter published on the Vatican's website.

The Authority will be able to investigate and prosecute violators "in accordance with Vatican law". This is the same "Vatican law" that permitted the cover-up of thousands of crimes committed by paedophile priests. It is the law that is answerable to no-one but the pope and can be interpreted in any way that suits the Holy See's purpose. No-one who is prosecuted under canon law goes to prison; mostly they just have to say a few "Hail Marys" to absolve themselves.

The new watchdog is claimed to be "autonomous" – so autonomous, in fact, that all its members will be personally appointed by the Pope.

The whole thing stinks, but once again the Vatican puts up a smokescreen and flim-flams its way out of trouble and everyone just sits back and believes — because the pope says so — that the problem has been addressed and solved. Will the Italian prosecutors be taken in by this blatant attempt to deflect attention from the Vatican's almost-certainly illegal money-making activities?

According to a person close to the probe, as part of the investigation into the Vatican Bank's unregulated activities, Italian prosecutors are trying to determine whether the bank's clients used it to transfer funds to Italy from Vatican City, which is outside the jurisdiction of Italian financial regulators.

For years, the Vatican Bank has transferred funds to its accounts at other banks on behalf of its clients without fully disclosing who those clients are. It was because of this that suspicions arose that mafia money was being laundered through the bank. In 2007, however, Italy introduced tougher disclosure laws, requiring banks to list the names of people who receive funds from Vatican bank accounts and the reason for the transaction. 

Pakistani clerics say anyone who mourns murdered politician is a "blasphemer" and will suffer the same fate
More than 500 Muslim clerics in Pakistan have said that anyone who mourns the murder of Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab region who was murdered for opposing the country's blasphemy law, will suffer the same fate. They also praised the "courage and zeal" of Taseer's killer, saying his action has made Muslims around the world proud.

The clerics said "there should be no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy."

Salmaan Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had no day-to-day role in the central government, but his killing in broad daylight at a shopping centre in Islamabad reinforces the sense that the government is incapable of stabilising the Muslim country of 170 million. Mr Taseer was shot 14 times by one of his guards, who was apparently incensed by the politician's opposition to the blasphemy law. According to The Times, there is shock in Pakistan that the guard was from the elite police force that is responsible for providing security to the country's top civilian leadership and it is looking likely that he was helped by other guards.

Human rights groups say the blasphemy law is often exploited by religious conservatives as well as ordinary people to settle personal scores. But the law has widespread support in a country that is more than 95% Muslim, and most politicians are loath to be seen as soft on the defence of Islam. Taseer, however, was an outspoken critic.

Taseer's killing has deepened a political crisis in Pakistan, a nuclear-powered country which is regarded by the West as a front-line state in the war against militancy in Afghanistan.

The blasphemy law came under the spotlight after a court in November sentenced a Christian mother of four, Asia Bibi, to death in a case stemming from a village dispute. Mr Taseer had spoken up in her defence and visited her in prison.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the bodyguard who killed Taseer, identified as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, confessed and had been arrested. "Salman Taseer is a blasphemer and this is the punishment for a blasphemer," Qadri said in comments broadcast on Dunya television.

Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities, put his own life on the line by saying: "Salmaan Taseer's assassination is a barbaric act of religious violence as he took a principled stand against misuse of the blasphemy law. Fatwas and blasphemy laws were being used to victimize innocent people belonging to minorities and the nation and political parties should take a stand against this mindset which was destabilizing the country. Those who issued decrees for killing should be investigated and blasphemy laws should be reviewed to control the increasing intolerance in society," he said.

These are the final tweets of Salmaan Taseer:

24 December: Covered in the righteous cloak of religion and even a puny dwarf imagines himself a monster. Important to face. And call their bluff.
24 December: My observation on minorities: A man/nation is judged by how they support those weaker than them not how they lean on those stronger.
19 December: What is the qualification 4 issuing a fatwa? A beard? Title Maulana? Owning a madrassa?

Meanwhile, a fanatical Islamist group calling itself Moaviya is threatening to launch a suicide attack on the jail where Asia Bibi is being held. The Express Tribune newspaper said an intelligence report issued last week has corroborated the threat to her life.

Ms Bibi was sentenced to death last year after being convicted under the blasphemy law for insulting the Prophet Mohammed. She denied the charge and said she was framed by a group of Muslim women with whom she had a row.

According to official figures, 131 people are being held in jails across Punjab on blasphemy charges. Eleven of them have been sentenced to death, including Asia Bibi, who was the first woman to be given the penalty. Though no one has been executed after being convicted under the controversial law, 35 people, including Taseer, who were accused of committing blasphemy or defending those charged with blasphemy have been killed between 1990 and 2011. They were either victims of extra-judicial killings or found dead in prison in suspicious circumstances.
See also: Taseer was killed, like Benazir Bhutto, because he was secular
Taseer: a champion of secular democracy

Quebec secularises its daycare
The government in the Canadian province of Quebec has decided to secularise its daycare provision for children. Starting in June, publicly funded daycares that teach a particular faith to their young charges risk losing their government funding.

The new guidelines say religious symbols such as crucifixes and menorahs are still permitted at daycares, as long as they're not used for religious instruction. A religious leader like an imam or rabbi would be able to visit a daycare facility, but may not raise religious matters.

Ms. James says Christmas trees can stay, and daycare facilities can still pursue cultural traditions that grow out of a specific faith. But "crafts, role-playing, songs" used for religious teaching are banned, and so are religious rituals done repeatedly.

Salam Elmenyawi of the Muslim Council of Montreal is preparing to challenge the new policy in court claiming it "tramples on religious rights".

"What is the problem the Quebec government wants to fix?" Mr. Elmenyawi asked. "Are we going to have to stop teaching some of the moral values, like loving your parents, which are emphasised from a religious point of view?"

The Quebec government argues that it has the right to have a say about programmes in daycare facilities subsidised by the state. Today, parents in Quebec pay only $7 a day to send a child to a public daycare facility, with the government covering the rest, about $40 a day.

The Family Ministry says it found an estimated 100 subsidised daycare facilities in the province offering some form of religious focus, representing the Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Greek Orthodox faiths. However, after media reports earlier this year about the presence of Muslim and Jewish programmes in public daycare facilities, the Liberal government intervened.

"All questions touching the transmission of faith — that is, teaching religion itself — do not belong within the publicly funded daycare system," Quebec Family Minister Yolande James said in an interview last week.

Ms James says the inspectors will treat the daycare facilities with respect, but failure to comply with the guidelines could lead to the suspension of funding. Parents who opt for faith-based daycare facilities can always choose to go private, she added. "Every person, every group has the right to their religious beliefs, and to exercise them," Ms. James said. "The line that is clearly being defined here is with respect to the subsidy."
See also: Why Quebec is right to keep religion out of daycare facility
Alberta push to end separate religious schooling system

Winnipeg conflict over religion in schools

Vermont diocese sells its HQ to settle abuse claims, while Milwaukee files for bankruptcy protection to avoid its responsibilities
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington in Vermont has been forced to sell its headquarters building in order to pay compensation claims for sexual abuse in about two dozen lawsuits. The diocese has to raise $17.65 million to satisfy out-of-court settlements in these cases and several others that were being appealed in various courts.

The building went for $10 million – substantially less than was hoped. The 32 acre property includes a 77,000 square foot four-story structure that once housed St. Joseph Orphanage.

The diocese reached a $17.65 million out-of-court settlement in May in respect of 26 lawsuits alleging child molestation by priests in the state. The diocese also agreed to pay undisclosed amounts to settle three cases that were on appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the diocese of Milwaukee in Oregon has filed for bankruptcy protection as it struggles to come to terms with the huge amounts of money it will be forced to pay to victims of abuse by its priests.

The move has not impressed survivors' support groups. David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests was adamant that "this is about protecting church secrets, not church assets". "The goal here is to prevent top church managers from being questioned under oath about their complicity, not 'compensating victims fairly.'"

Milwaukee has an annual operating budget of about $24 million. It is the eighth Catholic diocese in the United States to declare bankruptcy in response to the clergy sex abuse scandal. The others are: Tucson, Arizona; Portland, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; Fairbanks, Alaska; Wilmington, Delaware; San Diego, California; and Davenport, Iowa.

More about the Church's disgraceful attempts to silence victims and avoid compensating them

Australian school chaplains draw fire and ire
A controversial scheme that introduced chaplains into schools in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia is being investigated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman after it was criticised in a report into its operation.

At the same time, a High Court challenge has been launched by critics of the scheme questioning its constitutional legality, which it is claimed violates the separation of church and state clause. Successive federal governments have committed $437 million to the provision of chaplains.

The new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has promised to double the money available to the scheme. This windfall will allow chaplains — nearly all of them Christian — to work in 3,700 schools in Australia by the end of this year.

The Prime Minister said in August: ''Chaplains and pastoral care workers provide general personal advice, comfort and support to all students and staff. Chaplains can help build the sense of community in the school, support the school ethos and provide additional support for vulnerable children.'' But critics have argued since the programme began that chaplains are not professionally qualified to counsel children; that schools cannot effectively supervise their work; that they are evangelising in the playground; and that public funding undermines the separation of church and state.

In a report published in November, the NT Ombudsman, Carolyn Richards, found problems with the national design and the local administration of the programme. After investigating complaints about the chaplains made by a number of parents in rural schools she concluded: ''In many areas, policies and procedures associated with the chaplaincy service were found to be inadequate or non-existent.''

She condemned the federal guidelines for providing no practical and ''nationally consistent'' criteria for a person to be called a chaplain. She criticised the access they had to classrooms and to sensitive information about children. Ms Richards questioned the capacity of schools to supervise the chaplains. But her chief recommendation was to ban one-on-one pastoral care sessions after she found chaplains were going further than providing ''a listening ear'' to children experiencing domestic violence and abuse.

''In one instance, a psychologist who later treated a student was of the opinion that the chaplain had provided psychological services without the required qualifications,'' she wrote. ''The most salient point is that nobody knew what services were provided during one-on-one sessions, nor the appropriateness or quality of those services.''

On her recommendation, the Commonwealth Ombudsman has agreed to examine the national supervision of the programme by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. This investigation will focus on the department's procedures for keeping track of funds, monitoring compliance with guidelines, verifying information and handling complaints.

The program is under question on a number of other fronts. The Queensland activist Ron Williams has begun a long-anticipated action in the High Court to test the legality of the scheme. The case is backed by the Australian Secular Lobby, advised by the leading Sydney silk Bret Walker and funded by public subscription.

Williams versus the Commonwealth of Australia will be the first big test of constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state since the DOGS case 30 years ago allowed federal funding of church schools.

One proposed line of attack is that no legislation has been passed to authorise the programme. Chaplains are paid for out of the Education Department's budget.

Bishops in Mexico City, frustrated by liberal reforms, say Government behaving like "secular Taliban"
The Archdiocese of Mexico City has launched a stinging attack on the secularist government of the city, accusing it of behaving like a "secular Taliban". In an editorial published in its official weekly publication, Desde la fe, the bishops said that the politicians who are running the city are "intolerant of criticism, fundamentalist in their immoral views, and unable to engage in rational dialogue."

But even as they launched their attack on the liberal Mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, he was being hailed as a hero by an international body that monitors urban affairs.

The Government of Mexico City has been at loggerheads with the Catholic Church for some time as it liberalised laws on abortion and gay marriage and insisted on observing the country's constitutional secularism which prohibits the church from involvement in politics. However, with 89 percent of Mexicans professing to be Roman Catholics, the words of clergymen still have a strong influence.

The church has openly stated that it wants to stop the liberal reforms of the capital spreading to the more conservative provinces, and applauded very strict abortion laws there.

But the war of words continues, and Francisco Baez, a journalist on La Cronica daily said: "The oxymoron 'secular Taliban' is almost comical. It is a complete contradiction of terms. The Taliban look for a society based on strict religious interpretation, a society with no space to think or act. Secular societies look for precisely the opposite."

The Church was further enraged that its attempts to paint Marcelo Ebrard as a villain were undermined when he was awarded the "World Mayor Prize" by City Mayors Foundation, an international think tank on urban affairs.

In announcing the prize, Tann vom Hove, senior editor of, called Mayor Ebrard a reformer and pragmatist:

"The mayor is a liberal reformer and pragmatist who has never shied away from challenging Mexico's orthodoxy. He has championed women's and minorities' rights and has become an outspoken and internationally respected advocate on environmental issues.

"Shortly after his election, the mayor outlined a 15-year 'Green Plan' (Plan Verde). The plan is designed to reduce Mexico City's overall greenhouse gas emissions by seven million metric tonnes from its inception in 2008 until 2012. Twenty years ago, Mexico's capital was the world's most polluted city. Today, with a metro population of more than 20 million, it is ranked outside the top 10 cities with the worst air quality. Marcelo Ebrard has signed up to City Mayors' Code of Ethics."

See also: The Catholic hierarchy will not listen to criticism, even when it is constructively meant

NSS speaks out
Keith Porteous Wood was on the Today programme just before the holiday, attacking the BBC for providing the pope with the Thought for the Day platform. The story was subsequently picked up by the Daily Mail. Terry Sanderson was on the BBC News Channel at the same time, also criticising the pope. Terry also did the newspaper review on BBC London 94.9. Our objections to the Pope's appearance on the TftD slot was reported around the world.

The NSS's letter to the Education Secretary calling for an end to collective worship in schools was covered by the Guardian and then picked up by the Daily Mail which got itself into a right old tizzy, calling for the abolition of the Human Rights Act. Terry was talking about collective worship on BBC West Midlands and Keith was on BBC Hereford and Worcester and BBC Norfolk on the same topic.

We were quoted in the Birmingham Mail on the news that the pope's visit had cost the City Council £82,000.

From the web
See the ad for Doritos and Pepsi that American Catholics are furiously trying to censor.

Non-Prophet Week: The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) is running a charity week around the UK from 7–13 February and would like the support of local NSS members both as groups and individuals. Part of the aim is to show that non-believers are as generous and committed as believers often claim to be. You can read more about it here and if you would like to get involved, you can find out the group nearest to you by contacting and they will put you in touch.

Letters to Newsline
Please send your letters for publication to We want to publish as many letters as possible, so please keep them brief: no more than 250 words . We reserve the right to edit. Opinions expressed in letters are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the NSS.

From Guy Burch:
I was glad to see Des Moore encouraging us to ask Feedback to question the Controller of Radio 4 on the Desert Island Discs thing – but don't hold your breath. I wrote to the BBC questioning the logic of the programme producer's press release. The response was the same press release! To recap, she justified it on three main fronts: it has always been this way, it is nothing more than a radio 'parlour game', and that the books represented 'spiritual' support on the 'Island'. It is completely perverse to say that 'it has always been that way' is a reason to not change things (Black and White Minstrel Show anyone?); that the 'parlour game's' rules were presumably in the control of the Plomley family (the BBC do not own it) and if it is they who refused change how did this run with the producers' guidelines and balance; 'spiritual' support is meaningless to those of us who are atheists and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue in question. A factual work (of philosophy or science?) was surely a perfectly acceptable alternative, but suitably serious, choice. I pointed this out in a reply asking for someone higher up (such as Gwyneth Williams) to respond; silence – I'm still waiting. It is precisely because the issue seems petty and simple to solve that one is led inevitably to the conclusion it is religious conviction that is blocking the change.

PS Sandy Shaw refused the bible this week.

From Garry Otton:
It was great to come back from my Christmas holiday to find my favourite read, Newsline, waiting in my inbox. And I was delighted to see the National Secular Society responding to the BBC's shameful lack of impartiality regarding the Vatican.

While I was away, I watched a reporter on BBC World News delivering news that Herr Ratzinger, the 'Pope', would be interrupting the morning news on BBC Radio 4 on Thought for the Day, a spot reserved exclusively for religious proselytising and part of the BBC's £10m-a-year 'Religion & Ethics' department, with his 'Christmas message'. But this was a 'story' entirely self-manufactured by the BBC! Director General, Mark Thompson, himself a staunch Catholic, personally organised the BBC's fawning coverage of the 'Pope's' visit to the UK (while his similarly religious lickspittle, former controller of BBC Radio 4, Mark Damazer, even tried to get the Pope on Thought for the Day during the 'State' visit). Astonishingly, the BBC reporter went on to inform viewers that this wasn't the time to question the child abuse scandals or the welcoming of disaffected Anglicans into full communion with the Catholic Church, but to concentrate on the Pope's Christmas message! The BBC's role in promoting the Vatican now exceeds impartiality and borders on collusion.

From David Cade:
It appears from the testimonies given at the end of this article about "The Islamification of Britain" (Independent 4 January) that some young British people (of Caucasian origin) have turned to Islam simply because they wanted an alternative to excessive consumerism and hedonism! Their desire to resist such corporate-sponsored lifestyles is admirable. But why aren't they "enlisting" as Humanists? And why aren't they turning to the traditional religion of this country, Christianity?

From Steve Oxbrow:
Tony Jordan is mistaken when he depicts Mary as a 15 year old, as he did in his BBC Nativity play. She was 13 at the time, the subject of a still traditional arranged marriage to a much older man, Joseph. As a 12 year old she had become pregnant (probably raped) by a Roman soldier who was very promptly posted away to Gaul for "consorting with a native girl" (contrary to good order and military discipline). As a 12 year old, she would by the definition of the time have been described as "a virgin" i.e. under age. The meaning of words in any language does change with time (e.g. gay and queer in our time) and much is lost in translation. Jesus' natural father in the fullness of time some 34 years later was retired and settled with a suitable farm, worked by the Gaulish slaves from whom it had been stolen in the first place.

Now Jesus announced to his 12 heavies at the so called "last supper" that he was going to live with his father. The spin that historians of the period put on that is still believed! Only Thomas is claimed to have shaken his hand and oddly (?) Thomas does not mention the event in HIS gospel. I could probably write a book on the subject but who would believe me or how I know these things any more than that I am clairvoyant (not I assure you all a gift but a curse) or go time travelling and have seen these things in my travels through time? Of course I can't prove any of this, just as no-one can disprove it either. It is called "belief". I will admit that a deep understanding of ancient languages and the peoples who spoke and wrote them is invaluable, especially when writing through a haze of seasonal spirits.

From Alastair Banton:
According to the recent Independent article "The Islamification of Britain " the number of Britons choosing to become Muslims has nearly doubled in the past decade.

They might also like to take note of the National Centre for Social Research's most recent Survey of British Social Attitudes, which shows that the number of those describing themselves as having no religion has gone up from 34 per cent in 1985 to 50.7 per cent in 2009. By any measure this is surely a more dramatic change. And since it is one that relates to more than half the population rather than the few per cent who describe themselves as Muslims, perhaps more worthy of note.

The same survey reveals that trust in politicians has plunged. Perhaps if governments paid a little more attention to the opinions of the non-religious majority and a little less to those of so-called "faith leaders" they might begin to regain some of that lost trust.

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