Blasphemy debate this week and a Faith School in the High Court
Two key events happening this week for secularists happening in the UK.
Archbishop Dr Rowan “Sir Humphrey” Williams
Earlier readers will know that a Private Members Bill in the House of Commons to scrap the blasphemy law was pulled so the government could introduce the amendment after consulting the Church of England. This week that amendment will be discussed this week in the House of Lords.
While this amendment enjoys cross party support, the earlier enthusiasm of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York has now waned with the prospective passing of the bill. The rejection is based on the fact that they are in favour in principle but:
The time is not yet ripe after 20 years of the church saying it should be scrapped
This should not be seen as making British society more secular
The Church of England should still have a special regard, which would amount to a first among equals kind of respect in society
That comedians and satirists may be beastly to people of faith
The digging of the heals of the clergy could be explained by the fact that they feel under threat. The in principle I am in favour but cannot happen yet is a tactic of Sir Humphrey in the Yes Prime Minister comedy. The Religious Hatred Act does not single out one faith as more true as another. Other faiths have been getting more vocal in their organising, whether it is Sikhs threatening a theatre or Muslims getting violent in their protests about cartoons of a person (that they regard as a Prophet and off limits to such a depiction regardless of context). A key part of the Act states:
29J Protection of freedom of expression
Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.
Then there is the wave of books questioning the basis of God, from The God Delusion, god is not great, The End of Faith, Breaking the Spell. The arguments ranging from the legal status of faith groups compared to others, to the special status given to people of faith have struck a nerve. From unelected Bishops in a legislative chamber to faith claims impacting on public policy that defy ethical consideration. Perhaps nobody expected the Secular Inquisition using humour, argument and passion making such headway. The Archbishop’s response is an attempt to be seen tough against this wave of reason.
In practise though 9/11 in the USA and 7/7 here is perhaps the catalyst for much of society’s attitude to faith. There is concern about passions in faith that make people treat others differently whether wishing everyone that does not believe ever lasting torment in the after life or death right now in the service of God. The non theistic arguments just got a better hearing then they normally would and perhaps people in this climate feel more confident about raising their concerns about faith. That wave is the one that Dawkins et al have successfully surfed to draw attention to the issue and problems – because how religion and faith claims are treated are a concern for all of us.
The Liberal Democrats, where the original bill came from, are also trying to fix other arcane bits of legislation that can still be used. These include lewd behaviour in a church yard being considered worse than anywhere else in terms of sentence, and the ability to fine someone for interrupting the Archbishop giving a speech compared to anyone else.
More on this story can be read here.
Faith Schools admission in practise
As readers of this blog will know I have an issue with faith schools based on the selection of children on faith accessing state education to the segregation and labelling of children. Right now some parents are seeking a judicial review based on such selection.
Legal Aid (state pays costs) has been given for the case going through the high court. The school in question was formerly known as the Jewish Free School (now JLS). It refused admission because it did not recognise the mother’s conversion to Judaism.
The school policy shows preference to pupils whose mothers were born Jewish and claim this is a religious issue not based on race. However non practising children whose mothers were born Jewish are favoured in the code of admission over those whose mothers converted to the religion and regularly practise it.
With such a policy, based on the idea that a faith line is passed through the mother, it does make me wonder why people think there should be more faith schools with such selective criteria. The idea that this does not encourage segregation in access, let alone in how children are taught to think about others, is one that the government urgently needs to rethink.
Faith is not a basis for limiting publicly funded services.