Friday, 15 July 2011

Papal visit in doubt as relations worsen

THE prospects of a visit by the Pope to Ireland next summer have receded , as the Government's relations with the Vatican sharply deteriorated.
In his first comment on the Cloyne Report, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it was "disgraceful" that the Vatican ignored child protection safeguards agreed by the Irish bishops.
Mr Kenny's criticism was a prelude to the Papal Nuncio being summoned to Iveagh House, where Tanaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore demanded an explanation for Rome's "inappropriate" intervention in Irish affairs.
An apologetic Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza undertook to deliver the report to the Vatican.
Unlike ex-Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his then Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, who last year sided with the Vatican's rights to diplomatic immunity in the wake of the Murphy Report, Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore went on the offensive.
Their focus on the Congregation of Clergy's dismissal of the Irish bishops' 1996 Groundwork Document as "a mere study document" at loggerheads with canon law has put the Vatican in an indefensible position.
Vatican watchers said that the stridency of the Irish protest has put a dent in its strategy of regaining control of church renewal in Ireland via this year's probe by a number of senior foreign prelates.
Sources suggested that Pope Benedict XVI postponed his response to the investigators' recommendations until early next year, when it was expected he would announce his intention to attend next June's Eucharistic Congress in Ireland.
But the renewal of a second wave of anti-Vatican anger in Ireland could upset this schedule, the sources added.
The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the disgraced ex-Bishop of Cloyne John Magee has compounded anger.
A spokesman for Cashel Archbishop Dermot Clifford said: "Bishop Magee is a retired bishop and is accountable only to the Pope."
The buck must stop with Pope Benedict. His official copy of the Cloyne Report is about to land on his desk.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Church braces for Cloyne Report findings

The Catholic Church is bracing itself for this afternoon's publication of the report of the Commission of Investigation into the Diocese of Cloyne.
The report scrutinises how both Catholic Church and State authorities handled allegations of abuse against 19 clerics in the Co Cork diocese.
The inquiry by Judge Yvonne Murphy and two fellow commissioners was ordered by the government in 2009, following revelations that child protection practices in the diocese were inadequate and in some respects dangerous.
The long-awaited Cloyne Report extends to over 400 pages and took almost two years to prepare.
It examines a representative sample of complaints and allegations of child sexual abuse made against 19 priests working under Bishop John Magee and his predecessors in the diocese between 1996 and 2009.
It reports on the adequacy and appropriateness of the response by the Church and State authorities.
When the commission was beginning its work, Bishop Magee announced he was stepping aside to devote himself to assisting it.
But 11 months later he resigned, leading to speculation that the findings would be extremely damaging to him.
It is over six months since the outgoing cabinet was given the commission's 26-chapter volume.
In April, the High Court asked counsel for the State and for a priest, who is before the courts and who is mentioned in the report, to agree on the deletion of excerpts that might prejudice the priest's trial.
Bishop not at home
There was no answer when RTÉ News called this morning at the parochial house in Mitchelstown in north Cork where Bishop Magee has been living.
Staff at the adjoining parish office confirmed that Dr Magee lives at the house, but said he was not at home.
The former bishop moved from Cobh to Mitchelstown following his retirement in March of last year, but local people say he has not been seen in the area for a number of weeks.

The Health Service Executive will operate a confidential freephone helpdesk for people who have suffered sexual abuse anywhere at the hands of clergy.
The initiative coincides with the publication of the Cloyne Report.
The helpdesk, which can be contacted on 1800-742800 from 8am until midnight, will open at 3pm this afternoon.
It will work in collaboration with eight counselling and advocacy agencies to ensure that people who make contact with the helpdesk can access a service appropriate to their needs.

Fine Gael call for mandatory reporting
A Fine Gael backbencher has urged the Government to introduce mandatory reporting of abuse or suspected abuse.
Derek Keating, who represents Dublin Mid-West along with the Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, said the Cloyne Report highlights again how children have been failed by institutions with responibiilty for protecting them.
Deputy Keating said the guidelines to be published by Minister Fitzgerald on Friday should include a legal obligation for professionals, including bishops, to report abuse.
He added that he was disappointed at indications that such a provision may not be included.
He raised the issue in the Dáil yesterday with Minister Fitzgerald.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

At last, equality police decide Christians DO have right to follow beliefs

Christians who disagree with gay equality rules should have the freedom to follow their conscience, a watchdog ruled yesterday.
In a major U-turn, the Equality and Human Rights Commission declared that judges should not have backed employers who pursued Christians for wearing crosses or for refusing to give sex therapy to gay couples.
‘The way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief,’ the commission said.

Test case: Martyn Hall, right, and his civil partner Steven Preddy who claimed sexual orientation discrimination after being refused a double room at a guesthouse.
Test case: Martyn Hall, right, and his civil partner Steven Preddy who claimed sexual orientation discrimination after being refused a double room at a guesthouse.

Just seven months ago it had championed the cause of civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy in their successful bid to sue Christian hoteliers who had refused them a double room.
But yesterday the commission, which is led by former Labour politician Trevor Phillips, said the law was confusing.
The intervention by the equality quango follows protests at the weekend from Church of England leaders, who said judges had encouraged a legal ‘chill factor’ against Christianity.

It also comes at a time when the EHRC is facing action from Home Secretary Theresa May to curb its £60million a year spending. Mrs May has accused it of wasting money and failing to do its job.
Yesterday the commission said judges had interpreted equality laws too narrowly.
Its lawyers have intervened to call for more leeway for Christians to express their beliefs and live by their consciences in four human rights test cases shortly to come before the judges of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

New stance: Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission
New stance: Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

The cases are those of Nadia Eweida, the BA check-in clerk who was told she could not wear a cross with her airline uniform, and of Shirley Chaplin, a nurse removed from the wards of her Exeter hospital because she refused to stop wearing her crucifix.
The commission also wants to raise the case of Lilian Ladele, a registrar removed from her job after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies, and Gary McFarlane, a Relate counsellor who declined to give sex therapy to gay couples.
Miss Ladele was refused permission to take her case to the Supreme Court because judges said no important legal principles were at stake.
Mr McFarlane’s case was brushed aside by Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Laws, who said: ‘Law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational … it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary.’
Yesterday the commission said: ‘Judges have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion or belief discrimination claims.The way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief.
‘The courts have set the bar too high for someone to prove that they have been discriminated against because of their religion or belief; it is possible to accommodate expression of religion alongside the rights of people who are not religious and the needs of businesses.’
The commission said it wanted to see a new legal principle of ‘reasonable accommodations’ to allow a religious believer and their employer to reach a compromise. It said that under this principle, a Jew who did not wish to work on Saturdays could be given his or her wish simply by a change to work rotas.

Nadia Eweida, who was suspended from work by BA for wearing a cross
Shirley Chaplin, 54, a Christian nurse from Exeter refused to remove a necklace bearing a cross
Christian duty: Nadia Eweida, who was suspended from work by BA for wearing a cross, and Shirley Chaplin, 54, a Christian nurse from Exeter who was transferred to an office role for also refusing to remove a necklace bearing a cross

This would give religious believers similar legal status to disabled people.
Commission legal director John Wadham said: ‘Our intervention in these cases would encourage judges to interpret the law more broadly and more clearly to the benefit of people who are religious and those who are not.
‘The idea of making reasonable adjustments to accommodate a person’s needs has served disability discrimination law well for decades.
‘It seems reasonable that a similar concept could be adopted to allow someone to manifest their religious beliefs.’
The commission said there should be an end to legal confusion which has stopped some people from wearing crosses while others are allowed to do so, and which has led some employers into ‘unnecessarily restricting people’s rights’.
It added that because of the confusion in the law, ‘it is difficult for employers or service providers to know what they should be doing to protect people from religion or belief-based discrimination’.
When backing Mr Hall and Mr Preddy against the hotel, Mr Wadham had said: ‘The right of an individual to practise their religion and live out their beliefs is one of the most fundamental rights a person can have, but so is the right not to be turned away by a hotel just because you are gay.’

Monday, 11 July 2011

Global survey shows there are more than twice as many non-religious people as Muslims in the world

A new international survey by Ispos/Mori conducted in 24 countries and involving 18,473 people sought to discover the attitudes to religion around the world. Needless to say, it found vast differences between Europeand the developing and Muslim worlds.
The survey asked: “What, if any, is your faith or religion even if you are not currently practising?” 47% said Christianity; 11% said Islam; 25% said no religion at all. In Britain 37% said they had no religion. Japanhas the largest number of non-religious at 67% followed by China at 62% and Swedenat 49%.
In answer to the question: “Does religion provide the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to thrive in the 21st century?” Overall the number of people answering ‘yes’ was 48%, but there were huge differences in different areas of the world. InBritain, 29% did so, whereas it was 19% in Sweden and 92% in Saudi Arabia.
Worldwide, 30% of people agreed with the statement “My faith or religious belief is an important motivation in my giving time or money to people in need”; 14% of Britons agreed, whereas only 11% did in Sweden but 84% of people in Indonesia said yes.
52% thought “My faith or religious belief makes no difference to my giving time or money to people in need – I see this as important in any case”.
When asked to agree or disagree with “My faith or religion is the only true path to salvation, liberation or paradise” 9% of Britons agreed, 5% of Spaniards and 75% of Saudis agreed.
To the question: “How important, if at all, is your faith or your religion in your life?” 52% of Britons thought it important to some degree, whereas 41% of Swedes and French thought it was important – and all the Saudis.
The results for Saudi Arabia should be treated with caution, however, the authors of the survey say. Respondents there were given the opportunity to opt out of answering questions they found “sensitive” (and presumably because the wrong answer might get them into trouble).

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Unlike Catholic Charities, secular group helps everyone

Fueled by religious dogma, Catholic agencies across the country have shut down adoption and foster-care programs helping thousands of children because they refuse to extend services to legally married gay couples.
It started in Massachusetts, after that state became the first to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2006, Catholic Charities of Boston announced it would end its adoption program before it was forced to comply with state laws preventing discrimination against married gay couples. Then last year, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington followed suit, shutting down its 80-year-old adoption program in the nation’s capital rather than help place children with gay foster parents.
Now the trend has spread to Illinois, where the Chicago Tribune reports that Catholic Charities in five regions decided to end their state-funded foster-care programs once that state’s civil union law took effect in June. Thousands of families – including 330 children in the Rockford area alone – were suddenly without an organization to handle their casework.
How compassionate of those “charities”!
Luckily, a secular organization – which includes many individual religious members – has decided to step up and take responsibility for some of the families abandoned by Catholic Charities because of their anti-gay religious bias.
David McClure, executive director of Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley, believes Catholic Charities left his agency no choice but to take care of the 330 children affected by [Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford]’s decision. […]
McClure also had watched employees, children and parents disperse when Catholic Charities of Chicago ended its foster care services in 2007. He didn’t want to see the same turmoil in Rockford. “I took a very deep breath because it’s much bigger than what we’re doing now,” he said. ” … The children needed some fairly immediate help, and that had to get started.
McClure describes his organization as “secular and not faith-based,” but he adds that many social workers, including himself, draw on their personal faith to get their job done.
McClure said his church has helped him understand gay and lesbian couples shouldn’t be excluded from the pool of prospective foster parents. He has watched same-sex couples in the congregation excel at raising children. Through conversations with gay members, he has learned to empathize with the challenges of being gay.”We don’t have enough foster parents, period,” he said. “My friendships with people at that church helped me realize that these distinctions don’t need to be made.”
McClure believes his children’s generation will move other churches forward on the issue. “We’re going to grow out of this,” he said. “It’s too bad it happened to the (Catholic) Church in this way. If you can’t adapt your institution to it, it’s going to create problems.”
Here is another wonderful example of religious individuals rejecting dogma and embracing secular values and institutions as a way to help the greatest number of people.
Let’s hope more will follow.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Church of England faces being wiped out, report warns

The Church of England faces being wiped out as a significant national force without an "urgent" campaign to recruit more believers, a report warns.

The Church of England faces being wiped out as a significant national force without an
In the last 40 years the number of adult churchgoers has fallen by half while the number of children regularly worshipping in public declined by 80 per cent, the study says.
The Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the Rt Rev Paul Butler, will present findings to the Church's national assembly, the General Synod, in York on Saturday.
Synod members will be urged to vote for a new national drive to recruit more members.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has acknowledged that the Church must devote more energy to increasing the number of regular worshippers over the next five years.
The report, Mission Action Planning in the Church of England, states that the "sharp" fall in churchgoing since 1970 poses a significant threat.
"This decline in membership, and the accompanying rise in average age, means that fewer people are becoming disciples of Jesus Christ, and that the Church is able to have less impact and influence in the public realm, both nationally and in the transformation of local communities," it says.
"We are faced with a stark and urgent choice: do we spend the next few years managing decline, or do we go for growth?
"In other words, do we accept the continual numerical decline of the Church of England as inevitable, or do we dare to believe a different future, that God might want his Church to grow, in holiness and in numbers?"
According to official figures, the number of worshippers attending church each week fell by 30,000 between 2007 and 2009, to 1.13 million.
Church of England officials argue that the decline partly reflects the nature of modern society, in which many kinds of membership organisation - including political parties - have lost supporters.
The House of Bishops is expected to oppose Bishop Butler's motion calling for a "national mission action plan" to help parishes grow. His critics argue that recruitment is most effective at a local level.
The General Synod will also hear a call for an emergency debate on homosexuality. Church officials will be accused of "woeful" failure to protect the institution of marriage from erosion by the rise of civil partnerships and Coalition plans to allow same-sex couples to register their partnerships in religious settings.
A lay member of Synod, Andrea Minichiello Williams, will urge the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to calls an "emergency" debate to discuss Church's stance on marriage reforms.

Friday, 8 July 2011

No discrimination by not releasing worker for Friday prayers

The Employment Appeals Tribunal has ruled that a Muslim man who wanted to leave work on Friday to go to prayers at a mosque was not discriminated against when his employer refused.
Balancing the employer’s operational needs with the discriminatory effect on the employee, the tribunal was entitled to find that the requirement for security guards to remain on site was objectively justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
Mr Cherfi is a Muslim. G4S was required to have a specified number of security guards on site for the full duration of operating hours, i.e. to remain on site throughout their shifts, including their lunch breaks, for which they were paid. Mr Cherfi raised a grievance about not being allowed to attend lunchtime prayers on Fridays. The company proposed amending his contract so that he worked from Monday to Thursday, with an option to work Saturday or Sunday, but this was rejected.
The EAT upheld the tribunal’s decision that G4S had not indirectly discriminated against Mr Cherfi by requiring him to remain at work on Friday at lunchtime. While the provision, criterion or practice (PCP) put him at a disadvantage as a practising Muslim, the PCP was justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, namely the operational needs of the company’s business. The tribunal had properly carried out the balancing act required. The potential negative cost to the business far outweighed any discriminatory effect since there would be not only financial penalties for the company if the contract was broken, but a danger of it losing the contract altogether.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Losing our religion: Could RE teaching die out?

Pupils at a London school learn about Christmas

Pupils at a London school learn about Christmas

I was struck by President Obama's recent reference to the Commonwealth as one of the distinctive features of what the UK brings to the transatlantic relationship – that it is as strategically important as its bridging to Europe. Then, I noticed Andrew Marr's extolling of London as a truly global city – a place to feel at home in the midst of human diversity. In subsequently asking why this is, I come face to face with the R word, and its close relative RE.
Religion is simultaneously a source of division and delight. For some it's associated with mass slayings, closed mindedness and hypocrisy. For others, with all that is good, true and beautiful. As critic or defender, I have to recognise the force of evidence in both regards.
Historically, the British Empire is as ambiguous and no less fiercely argued. Embarrassment, as much as pressure to favour Europe or the US, may explain the apparent reluctance of politicians to speak strongly of the Commonwealth. Economic gain was a prime motive in imperial ambitions, but so, too, was sharing a gospel of mutual care.
As Brits spread themselves around the world, goods and services were appropriated. Eventually, independence – of a sort – followed. A sense of greater belonging persisted, not just family, tribe or even nation, but a more inclusive allegiance.
Genetically, the Brits have always been of hybrid stock, the present religious and cultural diversity of the UK derives from the imperial past of recent centuries. As empire or as island the story is one of encounter with diversity.
Failure to notice and cherish the distinctive character of the national RE tradition shows a similar lack of historical sense and imagination.
Religious difference can indeed be divisive. In 1944, in a world shadowed by Nazism, the Government identified RE as the one obligatory subject, and the mechanism for delivering it was a locally agreed syllabus. Then, it was rooted in the Bible as trusted charter across Christian difference, in part shared with the Jews.
By 1988, when global religious diversity had become more evident, the specification was extended to include other principal religions alongside Christianity.
Now there is a pattern of RE provision which, when well taught, is popular with children of all ages. It enables them to understand others and at the same time better understand themselves. Locally, it is referenced and supported by Standing Advisory Councils for RE (SACREs), comprising teachers, politicians and representatives of the principal faith communities, often including humanists. European and global educational responses to this approach are highly appreciative. And yet, this RE, like the virtues of the Commonwealth, is in jeopardy from government policy.
The proposal for an English baccalaureate is supposedly based on a need to strengthen academic subjects. As well as two sciences, maths, English and a foreign language, this includes one of the humanities – either history or geography, but not RE. Already the response from many schools – as reported by teachers – is not to offer a GCSE full course in religious studies as an option, and a related reduction in staffing priority for RE. Unless good quality RE is confirmed as an entitlement for every pupil, one might be tempted to think that the English baccalareate is a convenient way of avoiding the vital need to educate more teachers in the subject.
Turning to academy schools, little allowance is made for the local authority "support" role. The response of local authorities is to shed advisory staff, including those supporting quality classroom RE, and local SACREs. Were the Government now to become indifferent to the need to retain the principle of statutory RE in all types of school, along with checks on compliance, one might again see this as a crafty device to undermine the servicing support for RE teachers.
The policy shift towards severing the historic link between universities and teacher education, locating it instead entirely in schools, assumes that there is a simple transition between study in higher education and classroom effectiveness in schools. This overlooks the fact that existing PGCE courses are already 50 per cent school-based. It is tragic to see that Europe's leading university research unit in religion and education at Warwick University has been obliged to terminate its role in initial teacher education – a highly regarded tradition that antedates even the university itself. Again, a cynical interpretation would see this as deliberately targeting RE, when actually it's just based on bad advice.
Now is the time, before the summer recess, for the Secretary of State to reaffirm that religious education remains essential to the curriculum in all schools, colleges and academies, and for the benefit of every pupil. RE could be included as a humanities option in the English baccalaureate, the supportive and beneficial role of SACREs could be commended both to local authorities and all educational institutions in an area.
Equipping teachers to meet the challenges of RE in the contemporary world could be identified as a national priority. This would be an exercise in common wealth creation.
Now would be an opportune moment for David Cameron to give legs to the Big Society idea by associating it with the Commonwealth heritage at home and abroad, and its roots in personal and communal loyalties and motivations.

* In the aftermath of the 9/11 bombing of the Twin towers in New York, religious education became one of the fastest-growing subjects at GCSE. Pupils, it was said, were anxious to have an understanding of comparative religions in the aftermath of the bombings.
* Last autumn, though, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced his proposals for his new English Baccalaureate and brought a halt to the expansion.
* The baccalaureate will be awarded to pupils who obtain five A* to C grade passes at GCSE in maths, English, science, a foreign language and a humanities subject such as history or geography.
* Significantly, the English Baccalaureate was included in this year's exam league tables as a performance measure for schools, despite the fact that the certificate will not be awarded for a couple of years.
* As a result of only history and geography being considered as humanities subjects – and not RE – the numbers taking the subject fell by a third this summer as heads put pupils in for subjects that would give them a high ranking in the tables.
* Mr Gove has carried out a consultation on his proposals and is expected to make a final decision on the composition of the English Baccalaureate before Parliament breaks up for the summer recess.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Will Ireland Apologize to the Women of the Magdalene Laundries?

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Mary Smith from Co. Cork who was abused in a Magdalene Laundry holds up children's shoes as she joins clerical abuse survivors from Canada before they meet Taoiseach Brian Cowen at Government Buildings in 

The 1955 advert for the Magdalene laundry in Dublin, Ireland reads like a tear-jerking charity appeal: "The Superioress and Sisters of The Magdalen Asylum ... very earnestly beg the support of the liberal and kind-hearted to help them with the upkeep of the Institution for 130 Poor Penitents, who receive a home within its walls."
But the reality for many of the "penitents" — or repentant sinners — living in these institutions was very different from the ad's beneficent tone. The ten Magdalene laundries, which operated from before the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 until 1996, were for-profit businesses where women and girls were incarcerated against their will and forced to do unpaid physical labor. Over the past few years, a number of former Magdalenes have come forward with accounts of the physical and psychological abuse they suffered at the hands of the nuns who were supposed to be caring for them. 
The survivors of the laundries — due to a lack of records, nobody knows exactly how many there are — have long been seeking official recognition of their ordeals, asking for an apology from the government and compensation for their years of unpaid work. Now, with a recent United Nations decision in their favor and an announcement by the Irish government that it will establish an inquiry to clarify the State's relationship with the institutions, many in Ireland feel that the Magdalenes may finally find justice.
They may have been labeled sinners, but most of the Magdalene victims committed no crime other than to have broken the social mores of the strict Catholic society in which they lived. Some had give birth outside marriage; others were themselves illegitimate. Some girls were sent to the laundries because someone in authority considered them to have acted promiscuously, and some because their families were incapable of taking care of them.
Margaret (not her real name) was brought to the Good Shepherd Magdalene laundry in Cork at the age of 17 having been badly mistreated by her mother. For six years she worked six days a week — Monday through Friday in the laundry and every Saturday cleaning the church. "We were robbed of our freedom," she says. "We all got a number from one to 100. I was 45 — everything belonging to [you], your number was put on it. When the washes were put through they would say, 'Oh, that was number 45.' It was never "that's Jennifer's or that's Marian's" — you were always just a number."
When Margaret, now 64, left the laundry and was put to work in a hospital, she was shocked that she actually "got paid for it and got two days off in the week." Yet she considers herself "one of the lucky ones." She wasn't physically abused during her time as a Magdalene and built a good life for herself after she got out. Now happily married with a grown daughter, Margaret knows of many women who did not fare as well.
Testimonies collected by the advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) give a disturbing insight into how much the women living and working in the laundries suffered: "When [you] got there, they took all your clothes off, cut off your hair and bandaged [your breasts] up so that you wouldn't look like a girl, because your body was a sin and belonged to the devil," one account reveals. "You were hit or ... punished by your hair getting cut shorter and shorter," another former Magdalene recalled. "For talking out of turn, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for being late coming down from the dormitory ... We never asked about pay. We didn't know we were supposed to be paid to work...We had no rights whatsoever." Yet another testimony speaks to how their time in the laundries haunted some women for the rest of their lives: "I [have] tried to commit suicide many times in the past. I never found happiness. I felt like broken pieces."
For years advocacy groups have been demanding that Ireland's leaders acknowledge the State's responsibility and apologize for what happened in the laundries. But even though government agencies were among the customers of the Magdalene laundries, previous Irish governments have denied culpability, distancing themselves from the issue by noting that the State did not run the institutions.
That excuse may not work for much longer, however. Following a submission by advocacy group JFM, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) released a report on June 6 that held that the government should set up a statutory investigation into the laundries, provide redress for those who suffered in them, and punish the perpetrators of any abuse. In its report, UNCAT says it is "gravely concerned at the failure by the State party to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined ... by failing to regulate their operations and inspect them."
Responding to UNCAT's statement, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said: "Taking into account the difficulties experienced by the women for a variety of circumstances, we at least owe it to them, after more than 100 years, to look at the implications of this report." A week later, the new Fine Gael/Labour government announced it has ordered that a committee be set up to carry out a limited inquiry — the sole purpose of which is to clarify the State's interaction with the laundries — and put in place a "restorative and reconciliation process" where appropriate. On Friday, senator Martin McAleese, husband of Irish President Mary McAleese and a respected figure in the Northern Ireland peace process, was appointed to head the committee.
Separately, members of the Ministry for Justice are due to meet with the four religious congregations who ran the laundries and advocacy groups to discuss the cases of the former Magdalenes and the women who are still in the care of the religious orders.
JFM has welcomed the developments the news but cautions that the government needs to act quickly given the age of many of the Magdalene survivors: "The women need help now," says James Smith, a Boston College English professor who sits on JFM's advisory committee. "They have suffered in silence too long, and many of them feel that the government has pursued a 'deny 'til they die' policy." JFM wants the government to issue an apology, pay the survivors compensation and recalculate their pensions to include any time spent working in the laundries — and quickly, while the women "are still alive to enjoy these deserved entitlements," says Smith. 
For now, however, the victims of the Magdalene laundries can only wait and hope that their country will finally repent for turning a blind eye to the injustices they suffered.

Monday, 4 July 2011

NSS stands up for Human Rights in Brussels

Because of our role in co-sponsoring Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, the NSS was invited to bring a secular perspective to a presentation by academics on Sharia in the UK hosted by the Centre of European Policy Studies in Brussels. Keith Porteous Wood was on hand in Brusselsto oblige.
He made a spirited defence of the need to retain one law for all. He was adamant that democratically determined human rights compliant law should always prevail over any other “law”. He was disappointed at the seeming willingness of so many of the academics to abandon protection for every citizen of Europe's proud jurisprudence on human rights, the envy of the world.
He was particularly scathing about the naïvety of considering that there is a Western or European version of sharia, somehow unconnected with the versions practised in Islamic countries. He also strongly disagreed with the suggestion from some academics that anyone who identified themselves as Muslim should be subject to Sharia jurisdiction, rather than our own law. Keith said that many Muslims were secular in their outlook, and indeed many had come to this country seeking to avoid justice of this sort. They should not be forced to be subject to it.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Religion has many privileges in European dialogue, says NSS

On Wednesday, President Jerzy Buzek of the European Parliament made his first official visit to the Parliament’s Secular Platform, invited by its chair, Sophie in ’t Veld MEP (who is also NSS Honorary Associate and winner of Secularist of the Year 2011). Accompanying him was vice president Laszlo Tokes.

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek debates with Sophie in ’t Veld MEP (NSS Honorary Associate and winner of Secularist of the Year 2011).
Article 17 of the Treaty of Lisbon requires dialogue between the EU and religious organisations. There is a similar requirement in respect of “non-confessional” organisations and this meeting was held under this provision.
Ms in’t Veld, Keith Porteous Wood and other speakers told President Buzek that despite at least half the population being non-religious, their voice comes a poor second to the religious in this dialogue. By the very nature of churches hierarchical structure, they were much better placed in this respect. NSS Honorary Associate Michael Cashman also challenged President Buzek strongly over this – as he did his fellow Pole Joanna Senyszyn, MEP, Vice Chair of the Secular Platform.
Keith observed that polls confirmed how unrepresentative that hierarchy was, particularly the Catholic one, relative to those in the pews especially on crucial social issues where the churches exercised most influence. The majority of those identifying as Christians were markedly more liberal over such matters than their hierarchy and their voices were totally absent from this dialogue.
President Buzek raised some eyebrows by rejecting the term “separation” of church and state, preferring instead “autonomy”: each responsible for their own affairs and not taking direction from the other. He did however accept that religions should “render unto Caesar …” and paid tribute to the enlightenment. The difference is more than semantic; he thought that the public role of religion should be much greater than the secularists did, and that the EU had an obligation to listen to the “well organised” religious voices. He did agree, though, that the EU should try to compensate for the resulting imbalance, but offered no ideas as to how it should do so.
Both President Buzek, a Polish Lutheran, and Vice-president Tokes, a bishop of the Reformed Church in Romania, who is responsible for the Article 17 dialogue, mentioned their own churches’ leading role in delivering their countries from totalitarian rule, and clearly felt that this exemplified or justified the need for their greater public role.
Mr/Bishop Tokes was criticised at the meeting for taking an overtly religious stance in discussions with religious bodies. Many of those at the Platform meeting were irritated by his inability to grasp the concept of acting in a secular manner in his official capacity, or even his determination not to do so.
Sophie in ’t Veld reflected that, ironically, the person sitting on one side of her (the deputy) was the victim of totalitarianism – which he ascribed to atheism. Sitting on her other side was an MEP, Miguel Angel Martínez, was also a victim of totalitarianism, but it was religious – he had been to jail under Franco, because of his failure to support the Catholic Church.
Not that all participants at Platform meetings are non-believers; the meetings are open. But on this occasion a much larger number than usual opposed to secularism were present. Some came with the express intention of being disruptive: one young intern, an evangelist, rose ostensibly to ask a question only to embark on a sermon, before being silenced by the chair.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Gay Marriage: The Coming Clash of Civil and Religious Liberties

Supporters of same sex marriage celebrate after Senate members voted and approved same-sex marriage at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., 

What does the historic vote on same-sex marriage in New York mean for the rest of the country? Will it play a role if and when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the California case? Will it propel or impede efforts in other states to legalize gay marriage?
Vows will be said in New York long before those questions find answers, but what can be said for sure is that the New York legislation will nationalize the gay marriage debate in a way that no other step in the long campaign has. "A significantly larger percentage of the country now lives in states with marriage equality for gays and lesbians," constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine law school, told TIME. "That is important on so many levels. It shows that the trend continues in this direction and that it is just a matter of time before it is throughout the country. It will help fuel the on-going shift in public opinion."
"The New York vote marks a particular and important shift in the political landscape around same-sex marriage," adds Professor Marc Spindelman of the Ohio State University law school, who has followed gay marriage's serpentine legal path for years. "Who, a few years ago, could have imagined a high-profile Democratic governor leading the political charge for this still-controversial right in a state with a Republican-controlled senate, and with the help of major Republican party donors, to boot?"
And Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., told TIME that New York's impact on the rest of the country can't be overstated. "The New York vote is massively important — perhaps even pivotal," he said. "This is due, not only to the size of the state's population, but to the political process by which the Governor and leading Republicans pushed this through the New York Senate. We should expect these same tactics to appear elsewhere."
In one sense, the most immediate impact of the New York legislation, beyond the obvious fact that more gays will now marry, is the way the 10 days of political wrangling in Albany came to a head over nearly intractable issues of religious liberty. While Chemerinsky told TIME that the furor was in some ways overblown — "No religion has to marry anyone it does not want to marry. I think that this was a misleading argument," he says — other scholars who have followed the debate for years say there's no denying that expanding gay rights so quickly has created real tensions between laws protecting the freedom of conscience and the newer protections for gays and lesbians.
Gay marriage isn't the first issue to do so, but it's likely to be the most fought over. No one is arguing that the Catholic Church, or any church, must marry a gay couple — and the protections written into law in New York saying so were probably redundant. But the New York law went further than merely restating the constitutionally obvious. It also wrote into law the right for all religious institutions — hospitals, adoption services — and so-called benevolent organizations to refuse to not just marry gay couples but the right to refuse accommodating their weddings, too. For gay couples in New York, good luck finding a Knight of Columbus hall to rent, for instance.
Some saw the religious-based objections to gay marriage as mere pretext for deeper, and harder to express public antipathy towards homosexuality. And others, like Mohler, see the provisions as mere fig leaves for defecting conservatives who wanted cover for their votes n favor of marriage. But whatever their political uses, the religious protections point to one aspect of the New York vote that will resonate throughout the country as the issue advances elsewhere.
"There is certainly a religious liberty issue," Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, told TIME after the New York vote. And it's not just a question for the prelates of the world who might bristle at the idea of the state ordering up gay marriage, a prospect that sent Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City into rhetorical overdrive in the days leading up to the vote. Individuals who deeply oppose gay marriage could find themselves pushed to participate in ways big and small — and for that reason the protections in the New York law could become important.
"The 'guy who runs the tuxedo shop' is trying to live his life in accordance with his most deeply held ideals, which is just what gay couples are trying to do," Koppleman says. "The fairly mild religious accommodations in New York law will somewhat ease conflicts of that sort, in a way that is unlikely to significantly injure any gay people."

Friday, 1 July 2011

Chief Rabbi 'should be grateful' to live in Britain, says secular president Terry Sanderson, president of National Secular Society

Terry Sanderson, president of National Secular Society, calls on Lord Sacks to withdraw immigration comments.

Chief Rabbi 'should be grateful' to live in Britain, says secular president
Terry Sanderson, president of National Secular Society 

Mr Sanderson writes:
Lord Sacks’ remarks are fatuous in the extreme. If by religious freedom the chief rabbi means religious privilege, it is clear that he would be happier in some kind of theocracy. But, of course, it would have to be the right kind of theocracy – one where Jews weren’t persecuted. And there aren’t many of them.
Rather than fleeing this country, he should thank his God that he lives here and knows that he and his people are safe and free to practice their religion within the law.
He should remember that here the state funds and encourages Jewish schools. Exemptions from the law permit the cruel slaughter of animals so that his religious freedom is guaranteed.
Religious freedom to him seems to mean the freedom to discriminate against and persecute others. Well, in a plural society we all have rights, not just religious people. Lord Sacks should retract this foolish statement and apologise to the people of Britain for suggesting that his religion is not respected and permitted to flourish here. He should also remember that those who sailed on the Mayflower were escaping persecution by people of their own faith, not secularists.
Thousands of Jews fled to this country in the 1930s and were given shelter. They valued our tolerance and the fact that no-one interfered with their worship. Most of them are now happy to live in a secular and fair-minded nation that allows everyone to be who they are without disadvantage.
His statement is selfish, self-serving and politically motivated. It is also unworthy of a religious leader of his authority.