Saturday, February 19, 2011

Newsline 18 February 2011


There is far too much religion in our education system. Support the NSS's campaigns to curb the growth of "faith schools". Join us today. Go to 

18 February 2011


In this week's Newsline
Quotes of the week
Essays of the week
NSS says Government is breaking the law by increasing religious discrimination in academy schools
More councils look to scrap "faith school" transport privileges
Channel 4's Dispatches: Lessons in Hate and Violence
Fury as firm of solicitors offers sharia advice
Catholic Church on the verge of collapse in Ireland
Paranoia on show at General Synod
Church of England orders schools to serve an alternative to halal
Catholic abuse scandal reignites in USA as report shows Philadelphia to be a hotbed of rape and institutional cover-up
A.C. Grayling to present Secularist of the Year prize
Council prayers under pressure around the world
Bradlaugh biography is inspiring and revealing
Putting RE back on the Agenda
NSS speaks out
Letters to Newsline

Quotes of the week 
"After years and years, I've developed a brilliant, amazing, unconscious reaction to 'Thought For the Day'. The minute it is announced, I no longer shout and scream and lean over and switch it off, which was so tiring, so exhausting. Now I have an in-built mechanism which just blocks the sound. I hope scientists will one day investigate my inner ear and patent the mechanism."
(Hunter Davis, Sunday Telegraph)

"Nearly a decade after the child abuse scandal engulfed the American Catholic Church, children are still in peril and some leaders are still stonewalling investigations."
(Editorial, New York Times)

Essays of the Week
Get the bishops out of our law-making
(Johann Hari, Independent)

Freedom may be the biggest idea secularism gave to the world
(Tom Flynn, Washington Post)

Secular Europe and religious America?
(Emilia Luna, Tufts Daily)

NSS says Government is breaking the law by increasing religious discrimination in academy schools
The National Secular Society has complained to the Government and the European Commission following legal advice it has received that the transfer of both community and faith schools to academy status is likely to be in breach of the EU Employment Directive.

At present, the many non-religious staff in community schools have important statutory protections against discrimination on the grounds of their religion or lack of it. This includes not being required to take religious education lessons or conduct collective worship, something that is likely to be important if they are not believers in the faith promoted by the school. All this protection is lost when these schools are converted to academies, which is what the Government wishes to be the norm.

At present, there is a 20% limit on the proportion of staff who can be required to be religious in a "faith" school controlled by local authority, of which there are around 2,500. In the current Education Bill the Government has given itself the power, which it seems intent to use, to raise this limit for such schools transferring to academies to 100%, and remove the protection for the non-religious staff.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: "The statutory protections on which the jobs of hundreds of thousands of non-religious teaching and support staff depend will disappear when they transfer to academies, the new norm. Staff should be treated with equal respect whatever their faith or lack of it, and not forced into pretending to hold beliefs that they do not have, in order to retain their jobs. This has the potential to be a most serious erosion of religion and belief employment rights. It is even more disgraceful given that these academies are funded by the taxpayer, not religious bodies."

The legal advice was provided by the Head of Public Law at prominent city lawyers Beachcroft LLP who specialise in education. It concludes: "in respect of each of voluntary aided, voluntary controlled [the two main types of faith school] and community schools converting into academies, there are strong grounds to believe that the Government's proposals are a breach of its legal obligations to protect teachers (and others) from discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, set out in the Directive."

Accordingly, the National Secular Society has also complained formally to the European Commission which is responsible for the enforcement of EU directives. The last time it did so, it resulted in the UK Government being disciplined by Brussels, a process which it has not yet completed but could end up in the European Court of Justice.

The NSS has also asked the Government to make the necessary legislative changes to remedy these problems in the Education Bill that has just started its passage through Parliament.

However, the extent of Mr Gove's determination to further religionise schools was revealed in an alarming article he has written for the Catholic Herald. He recommended that Catholic schools should transfer to academy status to put them "out of reach of meddling secularists". He said the academy model gave Catholic schools a chance to extend "hard-won freedoms" over admissions, staff appointments, the teaching of religion and the way they are governed.

Mr Gove said: "Of course, what really makes Catholic schools stand out is their Catholicity … A key element of [Cardinal Manning's] vision was that Catholic schools must be allowed sufficient autonomy to integrate the Catholic faith into every aspect of school life. A Catholic ethos is not something confined to RE lessons, but a pervasive set of values that find expression throughout the school day."

He said "ideological opponents" of academies in the teaching unions were also likely to be opposed to faith schools". He added: "Active in the teachers' unions and in other parts of the education establishment, they often misrepresent the Catholic school ethos as a mechanism of religious indoctrination and wrongly portray the admissions criteria used by Catholic schools as selection on the sly…

"But by becoming an academy, a Catholic school can place can itself permanently out of range of any such unsympathetic meddling and so ensure it can remain true to its Catholic traditions."

Mr Gove said that all this indoctrination and discrimination could be carried out at taxpayers' expense. All the running costs come from public funds. And even the paltry 10% contribution that Catholic schools used to make to capital costs (originally 50% in 1944) will not apply when they are academies.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: "Mr Gove's outburst is truly astonishing. He seems to be saying that Catholic academy schools will be able to become virtual theocracies, with the rights of staff and pupils waved away. And all because he is desperate to privatise the education system. If that is not driven by ideological considerations, then I don't know what is."

More councils look to scrap "faith school" transport privileges
Coventry City Council has closed its consultation on the ending of discretionary transport to "faith schools". The Council is proposing to scrap the service to make an estimated saving of £278,898 a year. The cuts would affect children living more than three miles from their school who start school from September 2012.

Chris Mulley, from the Coventry Diocesan Board of Education, said: "It's really important for families who believe in a faith to be able to send their children to the school that they prefer. A local authority has a duty to look at fair access for children to be able to attend schools that their parents prefer them to go to." But the Council says it has a duty to ensure that spending is focused on its priorities.

The Council said some governors of those schools being considered were discussing plans to continue to provide free bus passes for children living over three miles from their school if the service was withdrawn.

Meanwhile, a consultation into withdrawing "faith school" transport in North Tyneside is continuing. A spokesman for the Conservative-led council said a review into home school transport had been undertaken as part of a review of a number of areas. He said: "The Council's cabinet will now take the consultation feedback into consideration before making any decision on the proposed changes."

Durham County Council and Cumbria County Council are also looking at potential reductions in support for home-school transport, while the Department for Education is currently carrying out a national review into the issue.

Meanwhile, a Catholic diocese is threatening a legal challenge over Swindon Council's decision to cut buses for pupils to Catholic schools.

The representative of Bishop Declan Lang, Peter Wells, claimed that the Council "failed in its duty" to consult over the changes. But Coun David Renard said: "I'm of the view we've gone above and beyond what is required in statute, in order to get the views of anyone who wanted to register them."

Peter Wells has demanded a rethink. If it passes, he said the council could be left open to an expensive judicial review. In a statement he said: "The council in its urgency to make cuts and balance books has failed in its duty to consult with the affected communities." 

Channel 4's Dispatches: Lessons in Hate and Violence
By Maryam Namazie (Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and One Law for All campaign)
Channel 4's Dispatches: Lessons in Hate and Violence on Islamic schools in Britain confirms the urgency of addressing the question of faith schools. Whilst the teachings of hatred in these schools are not surprising, it is nothing short of scandalous that vulnerable children are left to the mercy of Islamists despite years of evidence of abuse and violations of child safety and protection rules.

Religion in general, and Islam more so because of the rise of Islamism, will indoctrinate children – often violently. What is being taught at the schools profiled in the programme is what some of our members have been taught in Islamic schools in Britain and elsewhere. Religious schools by nature must teach the superiority of their belief system and the baseness of non-believers and kafirs. The teachings exposed on the programme show a deep-seated hatred not just for non-Muslims but Muslims and ex-Muslims who do not conform to Islamist standards. For too long, however, these schools have been allowed to carry on business as usual by feigning to distance themselves from those who have been exposed and by giving lip service to social harmony and cohesion.

Rather than being unusual, as the Muslim Council of Britain asserts, such teachings are very much the norm: half the Islamic schools in Britain are from the same Deobandi persuasion as one of the schools profiled. Like Sharia law courts, where women in particular are routinely denied equal rights, Islamic schools routinely deny children's rights. Rather than promote social harmony and cohesion, they segregate and divide. Rather than being anti-racist, they are a profoundly racist phenomenon, making sub-standard schools for 'different' children permissible.

Despite mountains of evidence, the government continues to promote and fund free schools, whilst hypocritically denouncing multiculturalism. Also, the likes of John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, are more concerned with hate mail received by the school, rather than the safety of the children attending these schools.

This is precisely what is wrong with multiculturalism. It gives precedence to cultures and religion rather than vulnerable children, cowering from their teachers, and being routinely beaten, abused and indoctrinated to hate each other, their friends and the world outside. And it says that human beings — depending on how they are pigeon-holed — are fundamentally different, and should be treated as such. This identity politics and its privileging of difference are what lead to extremism – whether it be the far-Right Islamist or English Defence League versions.

Unfortunately, the debate on faith schools has for too long focused on scrutiny, monitoring, (one of the schools profiled had been commended for its interfaith teaching), and changing admission codes and employment practices rather than that they are fundamentally bad for our children. This is because they are more concerned with the inclusion of religion — the religion of the child's parents — than the inclusion, wellbeing and educational needs of the child.

How the government will be able to stand by once again, after witnessing the heartbreaking acts of violence against children as young as five years old, is yet to be seen. Given that only one person has been arrested and no schools shut down, it seems that once again it will be giving precedence to religion over the needs, welfare and rights of children.

Let's be clear. Schools and faith are antithetical to each other. Education is meant to give children access to science, reason and the advances of the 21st century. It is meant to level the playing field irrespective of and despite the family the child is born into. It is meant to allow children to think freely and critically – something that religion actually prohibits and punishes. 

Education can only truly be guaranteed by a secular educational system and by ending faith schools once and for all.
See also: Same old story

Fury as firm of solicitors offers sharia advice
A Lancashire firm of solicitors, which has launched a new Family Law service offering clients UK civil legal representation alongside advice on Sharia law, has been attacked by campaigners who say Sharia law abuses the human rights of women.
Emmetts solicitors, with offices in Preston and Longridge, is introducing the new service for Muslim clients who want advice on matters such as divorce or child custody according to both UK civil law and Sharia Law.

The Family Law service will be delivered by trainee solicitor Farah Razaq and paralegal Sidra Ghani. Farah Razaq told Asian Image magazine: "The new service will focus upon divorce in accordance with Sharia Law. Any male or female Muslim who needs a divorce in accordance to Sharia law can come to us and we're here to provide services for them. If a Muslim is married in the UK, then a divorce may require civil proceedings as well as a Sharia divorce. And we deal with both matters."

But Maryam Namazie, leader of the One Law for All campaign reacted furiously to the news, saying: "It is scandalous that lawyers meant to defend rights are now set on violating them by recognising and pandering to sharia law decisions on women.

"Under Sharia, a woman's testimony is worth half that of a man's, men can unilaterally divorce by uttering a certain phrase thrice whilst it is often difficult for women to secure divorces. Marital rape is not considered a crime and violence against a disobedient wife a husband's prerogative. With regard to child custody – under UK civil law, the welfare of the child is paramount, whilst under sharia child custody goes to the father at a preset age irrespective of the child's welfare. Sharia law and UK civil law (however imperfect) are antithetical to each other so how can both be applied? In an ideal world, lawyers applying Sharia law would be disbarred. After all, the same would happen to doctors who hurt rather than helped their patients."

In launching the new service, Emmetts say they will also draw on their experience in dealing with the consequences of arranged marriages which result in separation.

Sidra Ghani added: "We're also offering services for those clients who have unfortunately been involved in forced marriages, either here or abroad. We're very passionate about the new service. We will be dealing with very sensitive matters and real people. There aren't many solicitors who deal with this service overseeing both sharia law as well as civil proceedings. We feel that this will be an important consideration for Muslim clients when choosing a law firm that deals with family law legal advice."

Lawyer Anne Marie Waters, a spokesperson for the One Law for All campaign, commented: "As Solicitors, Emmetts should be fully aware that sharia law fails the human rights test quite spectacularly. Rather than promoting and encouraging the use of sharia, solicitors should remain true to their vow to uphold the law and to act in the best interests of their clients – including their female clients." 

Catholic Church on the verge of collapse in Ireland
The Irish Catholic Church faces a very real risk of "collapse" within a decade, unless the authoritarian clerical control is relaxed. This bleak prediction is to be conveyed to the pope by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, in an official report he has prepared into the state of the Irish church in the wake of the Murphy and Ryan reports into clerical child abuse.

At a meeting with the Catholic Priests' Association, Cardinal O'Malley said that the Irish church had a decade, at most, to avoid falling over the edge and "becoming like other European countries" where religion is marginal to society.

His fears were reinforced by the Archbishop of Dublin who has "expressed great concern" over the plummeting numbers of people attending mass. New research shows that less than 20 per cent of Catholics in Dublin — the largest diocese in the country — attend on an average Sunday. In some parishes, the figure was as low as 3%.

The figures show that over the past five years, mass-going has declined from 22 per cent to 17 percent. He also expressed concern that most mass-goers were older people. He said: "More and more we encounter people who say they are Catholic but that going to mass is not very high on their agenda. There is a feeling that going to church is not a significant dimension of being a Christian."
See also: Is there too much religion in Irish schools?
Irish parents demand multi-faith schools

Paranoia on show at General Synod
Editorial by Terry Sanderson
As Church influence in Britain wanes, those who have been accustomed to privilege because of their religion are suddenly becoming very agitated at its erosion.

At the General Synod of the Church of England last week there were many paranoid cries of pain that bigotry is no longer acceptable, even when it is practised under a cloak of religion.

Sarah Finch, a synod member from London, asked for a debate on "freedom of conscience" which she said had been "seriously eroded" in the UK where "it is not safe to be an openly Christian person." She said that Christians had been "humiliated" for expressing orthodox Christian views. "Britain is a very scary place for a committed Christian," she said.

She accepted that the Bishops Scott-Joynt and Nazir-Ali had spoken out (mainly in the Telegraph and the Daily Mail), she said: "Mostly, the Church of England had been silent."

Ms Finch's fears seem to be prompted by gay people's human rights now being protected from the casual bigotry of Christians and other people of a religious bent. She is aching for Christians to be able once more deny gay people the rights that everyone else takes for granted. 

Ms Finch speaks of "humiliation", but has she any idea what it feels like to be a gay person who is turned away from a hotel simply because you want to access the same services as everyone else? Does she not see the insult that is intrinsic in a publicly-funded registrar saying "I won't conduct a civil partnership for you and the person you love, even though it is perfectly legal, because my reading of the Bible says I can't."

Does she know what it feels like to be thrown out of a pub because you are gay, or denied a job that you are perfectly well qualified to do because a Christian is on the appointment panel?

Ms Finch has therefore called on the Archbishops' Council to seek an amendment that would "protect Christians from the Sexual Orientation Regulations". She doesn't seem aware that these Regulations have been overtaken by the Equality Act 2010 and that the Government would end up in the dock of the European Court of Justice if it made the changes she demands. Ms Finch is not alone in her ignorance. We have seen an Archbishop in the Lords, himself a former lawyer, carrying on as if he hadn't realised the UK has EU obligations not to discriminate against gay people.

The latest case that has got the "we're being persecuted" Christians hopping is that of Hans-Christian Raabe, who was removed from a government drugs advisory panel, ostensibly because he has extreme views about homosexuality (and a number of other issues). The cry immediately went up that "Christians can no longer hold public office" which, in itself, is a ridiculous lie. If it were true half the MPs in parliament (and about 90% of peers) would be kicked out.

The truth is that Professor Raabe was completely inappropriate for the advisory panel because he had expressed opinions about drug policy that were — to put it bluntly — extremist. Honorary Associate Dr Evan Harris wrote revealingly about this in the Guardian.

These "orthodox Christians" who want to live by a different law to everyone else must be told repeatedly (as they have been so far in the courts) that they are not exempt. They do not have the right to deny rights to others.

Their own rights are protected, they are in no danger and they need not be scared. They have enormous influence in this country – far beyond what is reasonable. But disadvantaging and discriminating against other people is not a human right, even if it is dressed up as "religious conscience."
See also: Church and state on a collision course over gay marriage

Church of England orders schools to serve an alternative to halal
The Church of England is risking accusations of Islamophobia after it told its schools that they should not serve halal food without an alternative being available. The ruling came after it was revealed that some CofE schools are only serving meat that has been ritually slaughtered according to Islamic law.

But the Church did not raise objections to the Jewish equivalent of halal — shechita — in which animals are killed in exactly the same way, by having their throats cut and being allowed to bleed to death while conscious.

The official guidance was issued after Church members complained that the use of halal meat was effectively 'spreading sharia law' across Britain.

The Church's financial arm has also come under pressure to withdraw its investments — worth millions of pounds — in supermarkets that do not clearly label halal food.

Alison Ruoff, a long-standing member of the Church's 'parliament', the General Synod, told the Mail on Sunday: "The Church is only just waking up to this. We have been pathetic and mealy-mouthed but we should be really concerned about this. There is a lot of fear about upsetting Muslims but as a Christian you have to stand up for Christian values. Because we are unwittingly eating halal meat, we are spreading the practice of sharia law."

The Christian Muslim Forum, set up by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams four years ago, said there were concerns about "some public authorities which provide only halal products in schools and other institutions". It said in a statement: "We urge all food outlets, catering organisations and public authorities to label halal food properly, for the benefit of both non-Muslim and Muslim consumers."

John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford and chair of the Board of Education, which runs more than 4,000 Church schools, told the General Synod in London last week that guidance had been sent across the country. The guidance said if halal meat was served in schools it should not be the only option and suppliers should be changed.

The Rev Patrick Sookhdeo, an Anglican cleric who runs the international Barnabas Fund charity for Christians facing persecution, said some extremist Muslims viewed the growing use of halal food as part of their efforts to 'impose' sharia law on the West.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: "We agree that meat slaughtered in ways considered unnecessarily cruel by the Government's advisory body the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) should be labelled clearly so that an ethical choice can be made. And we are actively campaigning for this at the moment. But we think this should apply to Jewish shechita meat, too. It seems those in the Church of England who are raising these objections are doing so in a discriminatory fashion."

Mr Sanderson pointed out that some so-called Church of England schools in the north-west already had 95% Muslim pupils.

The contortions required by Church of England schools to be "respectful" of pupils from other religions is hilariously illustrated in guidelines (pdf) given to London diocese CofE schools. It includes the advice that in the light of restrictions on the wearing of jewellery, Sikh bangles and Hindu nose studs and ear-rings should be permitted, even though it is admitted that they could be hazardous in PE lessons. This also leads to Chinese lucky charms being permitted, even though they are not religious symbols.
See also: Europe drops plans for labelling halal meat

Catholic abuse scandal reignites in USA as report shows Philadelphia to be a hotbed of rape and institutional cover-up
The District Attorney in Philadelphia, USA, has released a grand jury report into sexual assaults by clergy in the Archdiocese. This is the second such report released in Philadelphia, the previous one being in 2005.

The 2005 report detailed dozens of cases of sexual abuse of children by clergy over many decades; the new report brings criminal indictments for the first time.

Charged with rape, assault and other felonies related to minors, as recommended by the grand jury, are former archdiocesan priest Edward V. Avery, 68, of Haverford; Father Charles Engelhardt, 64, of Wyndmoor and an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales; an archdiocesan priest, Father James J. Brennan, 47, of Linfield; and former lay teacher, Bernard Shero, 48, of Bristol (Pennsylvania). All four were arrested on 10 February.

Msgr. William J. Lynn, 60, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Downingtown, was charged on two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. The charges stem, according to the report, from Msgr. Lynn's conduct as archdiocesan secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004. In that role, he was responsible for recommending the assignment of priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

He is believed to be the first high-ranking diocesan official indicted under a criminal statute in the U.S. for charges related to the sexual abuse scandal that came to light in 2002. Commentators think his arrest could have implications nationally. CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John Allen said: "This is apparently the first time that a Catholic leader has been charged criminally for the cover-up as opposed to the abuse itself. It sends a shot across the bow for bishops and other diocesan officials in other parts of the country, who have to wonder now if they've got criminal exposure, too."

Because of the volume of evidence collected by the grand jury, which includes testimony of some 45 witnesses, Williams said a preliminary hearing for the charges will be waived. No trial date has been set.

Dozens of cases are detailed in the report, each more appalling than the last. A 10-year-old boy was passed among two priests and a Catholic school teacher, who raped the child. According to grand jury testimony, one of the alleged molester priests told the boy that "God loved him" as he forced the boy to have oral sex in a church sacristy.

In the aftermath of the abuse, the grand jury report describes the suicide of a young victim, "Ben," in Bristol. It describes the attempted suicide of another victim, "Mark" in Newtown Township. The report states that the sexual abuse of children in the archdiocese was "known, tolerated and hidden by high church officials, including the Cardinal himself."

Since the priest sex scandals first broke in Boston in 2002, eight U.S. dioceses have declared bankruptcy in order to avoid paying damages to victims. The latest, Milwaukee, declared bankruptcy last month, where the scandal burst under the "leadership" of the aptly named Cardinal Rembert Weakland.

Weakland was accused of shredding documents related to priest sexual abuse cases. He called abuse victims "squealers." He also closed parish schools for lack of money. Among the reasons for the cash shortage was that Weakland had used $450,000 to pay hush money to his boyfriend who had threatened to blackmail the archbishop about their affair.

In a series of statements, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia categorically denied that any archdiocesan priests with "an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them" remained in ministry.

But on Wednesday he announced that an investigation will be launched into as many as 37 priests identified in a grand jury report as remaining in "active ministry with credible allegations of child sexual abuse." He also announced that three priests were placed on administrative leave pending a review.
See also: Religious order settles abuse suit, offender still free

A.C. Grayling to present Secularist of the Year prize
The guest of honour at the Secularist of the Year lunch this year is the philosopher and author A.C. Grayling.

Professor Grayling is well known to members of the NSS not only as a valued honorary associate, but also as a leading light in the new movement to promote rationalism, secularism and a reappraisal of the veracity of religious claims.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: "We are very pleased and honoured that Anthony Grayling will be with us and we can look forward to a most stimulating afternoon."

Professor Grayling will be presenting the £5,000 Irwin Prize to an individual who is adjudged to have contributed very significantly to the cause of secularism over the past year. See the list of nominees .

The congenial event will be held at lunchtime on Saturday 19 March in central London and will consist of a welcome drink, a three course meal with tea or coffee and all the entertainment. Tickets cost £45 (with a special concession for students of £15) and you can buy them online or you can send a cheque to NSS (SoY), 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Please remember to tell us the names of everyone in your party and whether they have any special dietary requirements.

The event will end by 4pm, in order that those living outside London have the opportunity to get back home in reasonable time.

Council prayers under pressure around the world
A growing number of councils and governmental bodies around the world are being challenged over the saying of prayers before meetings. Following a decision that Hawaii would no longer permit prayers as part of the meetings of its Senate, the Freedom From Religion Foundation claims the invocations at the council meetings of Marshfield in Wisconsin violate Supreme Court guidelines for non-denominational public prayers. The Foundation's co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, says she would prefer that there be no prayers of any kind at the meetings.

"These prayers are directed almost exclusively to Christianity," says Gaylor. "The council is dealing with civic and secular issues…sewers and liquor licenses and they do not need to bring religion into this equation."

Marshfield Mayor Chris Meyer says the common council invocations do not violate the Constitution, because there has been an effort to involve non-Christian religions. Meyer says "they've had a Jewish rabbi, a member of the Muslim community, and a Wiccan give the invocation at common council meetings. So I really feel that there is no violation here," says Meyer.

Gaylor dismisses the non-Christian prayers as tokenism. "How do you possibly balance out the 15 percent of Wisconsin citizens who are not religious? Are they going to have 15 percent of the invocations be atheistic?" Gaylor said.

Meyer says the prayers are scheduled by local religious leaders, and not the common council, and that any religious group can get on the docket, even if they're not from Marshfield. "The fact that the majority of the people who give the invocations are from recognised Christian religions is representative of the demographics of our community," he says. "The fact that we have people from outside the community come in to give the invocation from non-Christian religions is kind of the opposite of tokenism."

Meyer says Marshfield's attorney will review the Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint, but there are no plans to change current practices.

Meanwhile, a Quebec Human Rights Tribunal has ordered the city of Saguenay and its mayor, Jean Tremblay, to remove a crucifix and Sacred Heart statue from city council meeting rooms and stop reciting a prayer before each meeting, saying they discriminate against the freedom of religion and conscience of atheist resident Alain Simoneau of Chicoutimi borough.

Judge Michèle Pauzé ruled this week that the city's duty is to be neutral and not promote or follow a particular faith or do anything that has the effect of imposing religious values, beliefs and practices on anyone. Pauzé also ordered the city, 200 kilometres north of Quebec City, and Tremblay to pay Simoneau $30,000 in moral and punitive damages.

But the noisily pious mayor has vowed to fight to preserve the city's Roman Catholic traditions. On Wednesday he announced that that he refuses to heed a judgment. Instead he is appealing for funds to take the case to court. He has posted a link on the city of Saguenay's website – it features Jesus with outstretched hands – summoning his flock to support his legal battle. "I am the first mayor in the history of the world to be punished for reciting a prayer," he said.

Quebec has moved to limit the place of religion in the public realm; the government has introduced legislation to ban Muslim face veils when transacting with the government, and this month legislators unanimously voted for a motion banning the Sikh kirpan (ceremonial dagger) from the National Assembly.

The Mouvement laïque québécois, or secular movement of Quebec, that pushed for the prayer ban in Saguenay says it will continue its fight to strip religion from public spaces. "Ours is not a struggle against symbols, it's a struggle to maintain the neutrality of public institutions," said Luc Alarie lawyer for the secular group.

In Britain, The National Secular Society is challenging the saying of prayers as part of council meetings at Bideford in Devon. It is awaiting a date at the High Court for the hearing of a judicial review into the matter. Read more about it .

Bradlaugh biography is inspiring and revealing
The new biography of the founder of the NSS, Charles Bradlaugh, Dare to Stand Alone, is an amazing adventure story about one man's determination to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds.

The book, by Bryan Niblett, is an excellent account of Bradlaugh's struggle to spread the word of rationalism in the face of huge resistance from an over-mighty Church. Reading about the way the Church of England behaved in the 19th century — in a manner that wouldn't have displeased any ayatollah — is shocking in the light of its present claims that it has always been a champion of human rights and democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this book illustrates clearly.

It's a beautifully written account of one man's life in a period when his principles and ambitions were totally at odds with the establishment. Make sure you read it, and be inspired.

Dare to Stand Alone is available from the NSS shop in hardback for £20, post free. Order online or by post from NSS (Books), 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. 

Putting RE back on the Agenda
On March 10 from 4pm, the Farmington Institute will be holding a talk on RE at Ercall Wood Technology College, Golf Links Lane, Wellington Nr Telford, TF1 2DT. The Institute was founded to support, encourage and improve Religious Education in schools, colleges and universities so local NSS members may be interested to attend and put the opposite view. RSVP and any enquiries to: .

Edinburgh conference on freethought, science and skepticism. On Saturday and Sunday 16–17 April, the conference, in central Edinburgh, will feature a variety of speakers from the freethought movement as well as social and entertainment events running throughout the weekend. It costs £45 for the weekend or £35 for students. Speakers include Jon Ronson, Robin Ince and Professor Richard Wiseman. More information. The event is less than a mile from Edinburgh Waverley station so could be feasible for those travelling from a significant distance.

Women Against Fundamentalism Nottingham Secular Society present Pragna Patel and Clara Connolly. Pragna Patel is a writer, journalist and founding member of the Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism. Clara Connolly has been a feminist activist for many years around issues of domestic violence, abortion for Irish women and the effects of Christian fundamentalism. She is active with Women Against Fundamentalism. Monday, 28th February, 7:00pm. The Grosvenor Inn, Mansfield Road, Nottingham, NG5 2BY. Members £1, Non-members £3.

NSS speaks out
The NSS's legal advice of the possible illegality of the Government's transfer arrangements of community schools to academy status (see lead story above) was covered by the Press Association, in The Guardian, Independent, Daily Express, the Times Educational Supplement and Yorkshire Post.  

NSS Council member Professor Norman Bonney had an article about David Hume in the Edinburgh Evening News and the Scotsman this week.

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 Christopher Finlay:
At the risk of stating the obvious, if David Cameron really believes in 'muscular liberalism' why doesn't he attack the Roman Catholic church or the Anglican Church for not holding to the values of equality and lack of discrimination in who can obtain office in their church? Why did he give such a sycophantic welcome to the Pope last Autumn? By singling out Muslims in the way he did, he is in danger of being selective. It really is quite simple: the basis for a liberal democracy is to obey J S Mill's harm principle – namely: you can believe or live whatever lifestyle you like provided you don't harm anyone. If you are an institution you should provide equal opportunities for everyone to reach the highest position regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Where it fails to do so then it can rightly be criticised – whether that be a church, synagogue, mosque or political party (including David Cameron's own).

From Veronique Denyer:
I must say that, reading what Jo Johnson, MP for Orpington had to say about the anachronism of prayers in the House of Commons led by the Speakers' Chaplain — who on earth is he and why does the Speaker need one — and finding that the public and the press are barred from prayers made me chortle and fume at the same time. Poor Mr Johnson needs to work out what monotheistic means before stating that this is not a monotheistic country any more. I do approve of the thrust of his comments in any case.

Then I read what the anachronistic Archdeacon for Bexley and Bromley, Paul Wright had to say in response. It just proves to me that the census question regarding religion has been worded in such a sloppy (well I trust that it is just sloppy!) way as to elicit ticks from people who really have no allegiance with any sect at all.

Wright's claim that the majority of people consider themselves Christian is a bit like the Vatican claiming all Italian births as Roman Catholic. It is just not so. Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough, should bone up on actual polls rather than citing recent polls – whatever they were; typically he doesn't say.

It is too late now to lobby any further for a change to the census question and its crafted response boxes for the upcoming census. The British Humanists lobbied for change to reduce the casual tick identifying with the sect responsible for baptism and nothing else.

If debaptism is the only way to get your name off their books then mass debaptisms should be held in the same way as mass baptisms were a couple of thousand years ago.

Maybe such events could be advertised far and wide with coffee and cake offered on completion of the unceremony. Why not?

Ed: No, not sloppy, deliberately designed to return the highest religious figure.

From John Gower Davis:
Well, Jeff Clarke nearly gets there (Newsline last week): in seeking, in this strange way of adamant secularists, to be fair by finding 'parity' (of offence) in all religions, he manages to (nearly) equate the totally-here-and-now violences and illiberalisms of Islam with what the Papacy once did. I suppose a National Secular Society has to stick with this ancient dogma, even as reality leaves it very far behind: ask yourselves this as you watch[ed] Dispatches [last] Monday: would you find similar dangerous craziness in a Church of England school?

From Jeff Clarke:
In response to Yasmin Alibhai Brown's article in the Independent. Trouble is, Yasmin, too many Muslims, by their own admission on the media as well as to me personally, give their allegiance not to the liberal Western Democratic system from which they so readily benefit, but to a religion besotted culture that has no roots here and has contributed little to human progress in 500 years. And if that sounds right wing then please forget it, since I'm certainly not of that inclination. I am simply responding to what I see and hear – and I assure you the same situation is evident in Australia, where I was just over a year ago.

From David Panton:
Tim Brassey asks whether he should lie on his census form and enter his religion as Jedi. My answer to him and the many thousands of others who might be tempted to do this is: grow up. It's not clever, funny or original and you can bet there will be people out there poring over the census who will take this seriously to beef up the percentage of religious observance, classifying Jedi (whatever that is) as a real religion. Having admitted I don't know what it is, it's a pretty safe bet that it's no more or less credible than any older, 'real' religion!

From David Amies:
I believe that more and more animals are being slaughtered according to the dictates of Sharia Law so that it can be labelled halal. I assume that this practice is followed in order to satisfy the demands of the growing Muslim population.

I gather, too, that such meat is not labelled. Thus the general public may be consuming it unknowingly. Supermarkets, in particular, and the food industry in general, would incur what they perceive as unnecessary costs, if they made it clear which meat was halal and which meat was conventionally slaughtered. Thus it is cheaper for them if one size fits all.

Ritual slaughter is much more cruel and brings about much more suffering to the unfortunate beasts that are doomed to end their lives in abattoirs. Those that insist on having such meat should bear any extra costs incurred in producing two separate supply streams. The general population should neither be obliged to consume halal meat nor to pay for its production.

How can the National Secular Society work to see that this practice ceases? Ritual slaughter is derived from ancient religious doctrines for which the vast majority no longer have any use.

From Hugh Davis:
Jeff Clarke says (Newsline last week): "How many times have we heard it said by people of religious opinion when talking about the crimes committed by members of their persuasion, 'Oh, but they're not real Christians,' or at the top of the inhumanities list nowadays, 'They're not real Muslims.'" This is an intentional logical fallacy called the "No true Scotsman" fallacy. It's described in detail here. Is it any wonder that religionists are woolly thinkers?

From Terry Martin:
As a secularist I am indignant at the Health Ombudsman's report on the neglect and ill-treatment of elderly people in hospitals. I wonder if the NSS will make it clear to the press that secularists question the role of hospital chaplains when these outrages were going on?
Is religious chaplaincy conniving in this dreadful treatment by looking the other way? By saying nothing? Doing nothing? Where is the much vaunted Christian value of prophetic involvement now?
Ed writes: The NSS is updating its research into the cost of hospital chaplains in the light of the deteriorating condition of the National Health Service. We will certainly ensure, when we launch it, that this issue is included.

From John Matthew Bostock:
David Cameron struck a chord with many people 'on the street'. He stated the obvious and many have been looking for a political leader to take the lead in sorting out the mess left by successive governments since the fifties. Let us hope he doesn't now forget all about it in the face of much criticism.
However, many commentators have ignored the base message and taken their own little bit for their personal criticism and our esteemed friend Yasmin Alibhai Brown in the Independent did her best to negate what should have been a veritable harvest for any secularist. When most of the population come out in favour of the PM on such a topic we need to be supportive, not give way to small minded thinking as Yasmin did in her piece. Muslims have nothing to fear from the indigenous population if they would just be allowed to join us by their leaders, but the leaders have much to lose.
Accusing Cameron of siding with the English Defence League (EDL) is an outrageous comment from one who is usually so sensible. Is Geert Wilders siding with the EDL? No, they are siding with him as he comes to trial in his homeland. But I do not equate his policies with those of the EDL. I think along the lines of those who consider Geert to me much maligned.
I was personally very pleased with Cameron although I abhor his policies generally. I wrote a 150 page dossier regarding assimilation of those from the Sub-continent into British society and questioned why it had not been tried, not just Muslims but Hindu and Sikh too, I presented it to my MP a couple of years ago and asked him to read it and comment; he never replied.
This subject needed a better response than Miss Brown submitted.

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