The Coalition government: friend or foe of secularism?

I was invited to take part in a debate at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow yesterday evening, with Sophie Bridger, ex-president Liberal Youth Scotland and Gary McLelland (Chair, Edinburgh Secular Society), and we had what you might call a full and frank exchange of views. If you’re interested, here’s what I said…

Secularism is the only reliable protection for freedom of religion. In an open democratic society, the government should listen to all, and a secular state should have a neutral constitution that treats all religions and beliefs fairly and alike. That’s why I would have thought that Liberal Democrats would be strongly committed to the ideals of secularism, but looking at your record as part of this coalition government, I’ve had to revise my opinion.

It’s true that same sex marriage is a definite tick on the plus side. In the face of opposition from a very vocal – mostly religious -minority, the coalition has brought equality to a group of its citizens. Passing the act is indeed a friendly gesture towards secularism, but it is perhaps the only one this government has achieved. In fact, the Coalition has perpetuated the status quo in favour of religion in many areas.

Technically Scotland has no state church (even if the Church of Scotland would like us to believe otherwise). Obviously the Church of England is the state church of England but, as there has been no move towards disestablishment, the Coalition has to be seen as a foe of secularism.

Many governments have consulted on change to the House of Lords but in one of the most recent consultations, in 2011, the government proposed to retain a proportionately greater number of seats for Church of England Bishops in a smaller, partially appointed chamber. It also proposed to give the Church of England new powers to choose which bishops represent the Church, and to exempt those Bishops from provisions which would apply to other members, including those on expulsion and suspension, creating a new, independent and largely unaccountable bloc for the Church of England in our parliament. So as well as being a foe for failing to reform the House of Lords, the Coalition government becomes a bigger foe of secularism by trying to extend unaccountable religious interference in legislative processes.

It’s also interesting to see how closely religious groups engage with political parties and how often they are given dispensation from laws that are denied to the non-religious. For example, the Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats Willie Rennie received a free intern from Christian Action, Research & Education and the President of the Lib Dems Tim Farron hosted a prayer breakfast in Westminster where he stated, “Christianity is not a bit true. It’s either wrong or utterly compellingly true”. His letter to the Advertising Standards Agency demanding that it provide “indisputable scientific evidence” that the literal physical healing power of God did not exists gives us a clue as to what he thinks.

Not only do religions receive considerable tax breaks through their charitable status, but they go beyond that. In the 2012 budget, Listed Building alterations lost their VAT exemption but then the faith groups protested. The Chancellor then introduced the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme so the VAT change didn’t affect religious organisations, but many other secular organisations and charities suffered.

The continued permission granted to Jewish and Muslim communities to slaughter animals without prior stunning flies in the face of UK and EU scientific evidence. The Farm Animal Welfare Council which advises the government on how to avoid cruelty to livestock, says the way Kosher and Halal meat is produced causes severe suffering to animals, but the Coalition government continues to allow meat from animals slaughtered without pre-stunning to be sold with it being labelled as such. So, for its close relationships with religions and continued acquiescence to religious positions and organisations the Coalition is a foe of secularism.

A number of problems stem from religious involvement in our education system that are damaging to children.

Secularists believe that children should be educated about religion not forced to take part in it. Academies and Free schools, although not seen in Scotland, are able to mandate collective worship. Across the UK, in places like Glasgow in particular, religion can dictate which school a child can and cannot go to. We continue to segregate our children in cities where historically that segregation results in violence and hatred. A secular approach to education would ensure that publicly funded schools are equally welcoming to all children, regardless of the beliefs of their parents.

Schools with a religious character account for around a third of the UK’s publicly funded schools and they are allowed to deny pupils the best teachers if those teachers are not of the faith of the school.

Throughout the UK, evangelical religious groups have gained access to schools to promote their beliefs, which often conflict with what the pupils are being taught in science, Creationism being the most obvious example.

Humanists are rational. We believe in evidence. All the evidence about sex education shows that young people who have had appropriate sex and relationship education from a young age are more likely to have sex for the first time when they are older, and they are more likely to use condoms and contraception. In Scotland the Catholic Church has secured an exemption from this and still teaches abstinence. In England Academy and Free schools don’t have to teach anything about sex and relationships.

By allowing confusion to grow, between observance of religion and education about religion, and by failing to support amendments to the Education Act 2011 that would immeasurably improve sex and relationship education, the Coalition is definitely still a foe of secularism.

A democracy, and especially a democracy that contains the Liberal Democrats in government, should be crying out against the spread of Sharia Courts in the UK. There should be no parallel legal systems, especially ones biased towards cultural norms other than fairness and quality. But having accepted the Jewish Beth Din courts it seems the UK government does not accept the idea of one law for all. An attempt to begin regulation and have legislative oversight of these courts was made in the “The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill”, but the bill did not receive Coalition government support and is destined to fail.

Humanists defend the right of each individual to live by his or her own personal values, and the freedom to make decisions about his or her own life so long as this does not result in harm to others. Humanists do not share the attitudes to death and dying held by some religious believers, in particular that the manner and time of death are for a deity to decide, and that interference in the course of nature is unacceptable.

We firmly uphold the right to life but we recognise that this right carries with it the right of each individual to make his or her own judgement about whether his or her life should be prolonged in the face of pointless suffering. Currently, the needs and autonomy of patients are often disregarded, often at the behest of religious bodies. For those who do not believe, having their choices about their life curtailed by the beliefs of others is not equal and is unfair. This government, at best, hides from the issue and prevaricates when pressed. The courts have made it clear that it is up to politicians to face this challenge but the current government has resoundingly failed to do that.

By failing to address parallel religious legal systems and by bowing to religious pressure regarding end of life choices, once again we can see that this government is a foe of secularism. My question to the Liberal Democratic Party is a very simple one – what are you going to do about it?

PS the answer came back that ‘politics is the art of the possible’. What do you think the Lib Dems should do?

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