SECULAR NEWS NETWORK

GOVERNMENT GRILLED IN HOUSE OF LORDS ON MOVE TO BAN ORGANISATIONS FROM REPORTING ILLEGAL SCHOOL ADMISSION POLICIES

During questions in the House of Lords this afternoon, peers from a range of parties quizzed the Government on its controversial move to ban civil society organisations from formally challenging school admission arrangements where they are not compliant with the School Admissions Code. Raising the issue, Shadow Education Spokesperson Lord Watson expressed his concern at the lack of oversight and enforcement within the admissions system, especially in light of evidence that a large number of schools are failing to comply with the law. Attention was also drawn to the findings of the report published by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) last year, revealing that almost all religiously selective school in England are breaking the law, with Baronesses Meacher, Barker, and Massey all commenting on the lack of transparency in the system and the seriousness of the violations that many schools have been found to commit.

In addition to the oral questions asked today, almost 60 written questions have been tabled in both Houses of Parliament opposing the Department for Education’s move, and the BHA has once again called on the Government to consider the concerns of peers, MPs, and parents alike before it goes ahead with the proposals.

The ban, which has been proposed essentially in response to the BHA’s and FAC’s report, has been roundly criticised by a range of prominent figures since it was announced last month. Just yesterday Lord Watson wrote that the move was ‘a clear case of shoot the messenger rather than address the problem’, and the Chief Executive of Mumset, Justine Roberts, said that the ban ‘is likely to add to parental dissatisfaction’. Further, Director of the Institute for Community Cohesion Foundation Ted Cantle said it would ‘reduce scrutiny’ in a system already ‘very open to manipulation and abuse’, and one education campaigner also commented in a blog for the Local Schools Network, ‘imagine a world where only the victims of a crime could complain to the police and where witnesses to a crime would be banned from reporting the incident. That’s the world Education Secretary Nicky Morgan wants to create.’

Bizarrely, and despite the continued insistence that they plan to go ahead with the ban, the Government appears to have acknowledgedthe important role played by organisations in improving the school admissions system for parents. Last month, in response to a parliamentary question tabled by Baroness Meacher, Lord Nash conceded that the overwhelming majority of objections submitted by the BHA and FAC had revealed illegality, and just two weeks ago the Education Secretary wrote to the BHA about the issue, saying ‘I am grateful for the work that you and your colleagues on the Fair Admissions Campaign have put into highlighting examples of non-compliance with the School Admissions Code’. She also stated that she was aware of the support the BHA has provided in the past to parents who have concerns about the admission arrangements of their local schools.

BHA Director of Public Affairs and Policy Pavan Dhaliwal commented, ‘We’re glad that this issue is getting the attention it deserves in Parliament, not just in the form of Lord Watson’s oral question, but also in the form of the 50 parliamentary questions that have been tabled in both Houses so far, by MPs and peers from a range of different parties.  Like us, they recognise that an opaque and unaccountable admissions system in which schools choose pupils rather than the other way round is fundamentally a broken one, and they know, as we do, that far from redressing this imbalance, the Government’s proposal will only serve to entrench it. The level of opposition we’re seeing is therefore unsurprising, and we will continue to urge the Government to reconsider so the right of parents and children to fair access at local schools can continue to be defended.’

BIG BUSINESS FUNDING OF ANTI-SCIENCE PROPAGANDA ON HEALTH

Most readers are aware the fossil fuel industry finances the spreading of doubt about climate change science. But people are less aware of the role played by the “natural”/alternative health industry in promoting doubt about the science of health issues. Author Kavin Senapathy exposes one example of this in her recent Forbes article If You Doubt The Organic Industry Leads The Anti-GMO Movement, This Settles It.

She describes how Joseph Mercola, of Mercola.com considered the most visited “natural health site”, is bankrolling propaganda opposing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Mercola has designated last  week: ”

February 21–28 as GMO Awareness Week to help you learn more about the dangers of GMOs and instruct you on how to eat healthier, purer food.”

“To contribute to a GMO-free future, we’re matching donations to OCA for the entire week up to $250,000”

OCA is the Organic Consumers Association which is running campaigns opposing GMOs. In particularly the GMO labeling ballot initiatives.

FUNDING ANTI-FLUORIDE CAMPAIGNS

Anyone following the activity of the anti-fluoride activist group Fluoride Action Network (FAN) will recognise Mercola’s wording. It parallels exactly the fundraising campaigns by that organisation – except that the donor is sometimes described as “anonymous” instead of acknowledged as Mercola.com. At other times, Mercola acknowledges his funding – as for example in December 2014 when he launched a “fluoride awareness week” and pledged to “match the funds his supporters give to FAN” by donating “up to $25,000 in profits from the sales from his store during Awareness week.”

Of course, this is the public face of fundraising – behind the scenes payments may have nothing at all to do with the number of donations received from members or persons in the street.

Mercola bankrolls a number of organisations which cast doubt on health science. He set up the Health Liberty Coalition which includes FAN, OCA, an anti-vaccine group [the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC)], an anti-GMO group [the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT)], and a group campaigning against amalgam fillings [Consumers for Dental Choice]. An organisationally and financially intertwined coven of activist groups campaigning  to cast doubt on the scientific understanding of health issues.

Mercola bankrolls a number of organisations which cast doubt on health science. He set up the Health Liberty Coalition which includes FAN, OCA, an anti-vaccine group [the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC)], an anti-GMO group [the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT)], and a group campaigning against amalgam fillings [Consumers for Dental Choice]. An organisationally and financially intertwined coven of activist groups campaigning  to cast doubt on the scientific understanding of health issues.

Local anti-fluoride campaigners are not strangers to these sort of funding of campaigns either. In Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action? I described how the New Zealand Health Trust, a lobby group for the local “natural”/alternative health industry, was funding anti-fluoride High Court action. Legal action which costs a fortune (considering the numbers of appeals they have launched when rejected) but was ultimately unsuccessful (see Corporate backers of anti-fluoride movement lose in NZ High Court). The annual financial returns for the NZ Health Trust and its daughter group, New Health NZ, which fronted for the legal action, show the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industry to cover this activity.

This financial and ideological support for anti-fluoride activities is not the sole task of big business parts of this industry. Anyone who has sifted through the numerous submissions opposing fluoridation made to local bodies is aware of the high proportion of alternative health practitioners making such submissions. In my article Commercial and ideological support of anti-fluoride activity I analysed the list of “professional” supporters claimed by Fluoride Free New Zealand. This clearly showed a high proportion of “alternative” practitioners are involved – and that is based solely on the declared business interests of the supporters.

Ironically, the opponents of science-based health often talk about “money trails” and “shills” in their attacks on vaccination, GMOs and community water fluoridation. Yet these charges should more appropriately be laid at the feet of those campaigners themselves.

A case of “pots and kettles.”

FLUORIDATION: WHAKATANE DISTRICT COUNCIL MAKES THE HAMILTON MISTAKE

Here we go again.

The Whakatane District Council has ignored the results of their own referendum and decided to stop community water fluoridation (CWF). (see Council votes to stop fluoridation, and Whakatane mayor stands by fluoride decision).  This mirrors almost exactly the behaviour of the Hamilton City Council three years ago.

But are the Whakatane councillors (or, at least, the 6 who voted to stop CWF) so short of memory that they did not learn from the Hamilton experience? There the decision resulted in protests and petitions, eventually forcing the council to hold yet another referendum at the end of 2013. That showed, once again, clear support (about 70%) for CWF and the council later reversed their decision.

A thoroughly bad experience for that council and a humiliating one for the city. We had the picture of council politicians pretending to know better than the health and scientific experts and attempting to impose their own ideologically motivated position on the voters. It got so silly the council even issued their own leaflet providing oral health advice – advice which was out of step with that issued by health authorities!

Councils ignore voters wishes at their own peril. The Whakatane District Council anti-fluoridationist Mayor, Tony Bonne, justified his move by referring to the low voter turnout in the referendum. Are we to take it that if he loses the next election he will ignore that result and refuse to step down because of the low voter turnout?

REFERENDUM RESULTS

The 2013 referendum in the Whakatane District showed that 60.5 per cent of those who voted were in favour of fluoridation, with 39.5 per cent against. However, in the only areas currently fluoridated – Whakatane City and Ohope – support for CWF was even greater – 65.8 per cent and 70.5 per cent respectively. The council is surely silly to ignore that vote without a good reason.

“WE LISTENED TO THE EXPERTS.”

Mayor Bonne declared “we listened to the experts” before making the decision. But who the hell were these experts?:

Supporting CWF –  Dr Neil de Wet of Toi Te Ora Public Health and local dental practitioner John Twaddle. OK, these people seem to have some qualifications to be described as “expert.”

Opposing CWF – Mary Byrne and Jon Burness of Fluoride-Free New Zealand. What expertise do these people have? – why should their word be accepted?

Well, they are both activists, belonging to the local activist group which is a chapter of the US Fluoride Action Network. That body is financed by the “natural”/alternative health industry – particularly by the Mercola on-line business.  (Local anti-fluoride actions, such as those in the High Court, have similarly been financed by the NZ health Trust – the lobby group for the local “natural”/alternative health industry. See Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action? and Corporate backers of anti-fluoride movement lose in NZ High Court).

Mary has no expertise I know of except her activism. Jon is an alternative health practitioner and business person. He specialises in kinesiology and is a member of the  Society of Natural Therapists and Researchers, NZ. As part of his business he runs the Whakatane Natural Health Centre.

Whakatane Natural Health Centre …… bringing together a comprehensive range of therapies for mind, body and soul. Kinesiology, Massage Therapy, Bowen Tech, Hypnotherapy, Lymphatic Drainage, Herb and Allergies, Acupuncture. – See more at:

OK, everyone has to make a living and I do not want to question the sincerity of either Mary or Jon.

But experts!! Tony Bonne is disingenuous to use that word. He should be representing his voters, not the alternative woo merchants, whatever his own personal ideological beliefs. It is a sad day when we elect councillors (or at least the six who voted for Bonne’s resolution) who cannot differentiate between acceptable scientific and health experts  on the one hand and ideologically driven activists and alternative “practitioners” using very questionable techniques on a gullible public on the other.

COUNCILS NOT APPROPRIATE FOR FLUORIDATION DECISIONS

Mayor Bonne did, however, make sense with his statement that it should not be left to local bodies to make public health decisions and he would welcome stronger direction from central government. In that he actually agrees with the Daniel Ryan, President of the Making sense of Fluoride group who said:

“There is just no excuse any more for John Key’s government to keep making councils juggle the expensive and diversionary hot potato. They want councils to focus on core business and be fiscally responsible – and they say they care about children’s health. With one simple measure on fluoridation they could have a really meaningful impact on all of that.”

The ball is in the government’s court on this issue – and has been for several years since local bodies formally asked central government and the Ministry of Health to take responsibility for decisions on CWF. There is really no excuse to leave this with councils whose decisions are so easily clouded by ideology and personal ambitions that they, or at least some of the council members, will happily ignore the advice of the real science and health experts and the wishes of their voters.

NON-PROPHET WEEK: AHS STUDENT FEDERATION RAISES MONEY FOR CHARITY

This week, 7th-13th February, the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), which is facilitated and supported by the British Humanist Association, has been encouraging its members to raise money for a wide variety of charities.

‘Non-Prophet Week’ is off to a great start, with over £1,400 having been raised over the first three days, and over 50 events are planned by 20 different societies. The formula for events is very simple: Societies ‘choose the charity, raise the money, give the money to the charity, have the fun, compete with other societies to see who can raise the most, and boast about their results to the wider world.’

AHS President Richy Thompson commented, ‘There is a common misconception that the religious do more for charity than the non-religious, brought about by the fact that whilst the religious give to religious causes, the non-religious give to neutral, secular causes such as humanitarian charities. During this week we will still be giving to secular charities, but in a more visible way.’

AHS Secretary Nicola Jackson, who has been coordinating the week, added, ‘It’s great to see so many societies participate in this event, which is running for the first time. We will continue to monitor activities during the week itself – you can see more on the Non-Prophet Week website.’

CARLY FIORINA INSISTS THAT PEOPLE OF FAITH MAKE BETTER LEADERS

Republican presidential candidate, Carly Fiorina, speaking at the Presidential Family Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 20 told the crowd that she believed “people of faith make better leaders.”

Fiorina continued by saying that, “It’s important to elect a leader of faith who knows more — not less — prayer is necessary in public life.”

She also stated that “faith gives us humility.” The irony of such a statement seems lost on her.

Fiorina is not the only candidate to make such an assertion as of late, as Senator Ted Cruz told a crowd earlier in November that atheists were not “fit to be” leaders.

American Atheists President David Silverman took to twitter and offered Fiorina a chance to explain her statement, but no reply has been given, and it likely won’t given that the statement lands well with Republicans.

While the statements won’t win voters from the Republican candidates from moderate voters, it will strongly appeal to the party base and potentially help set Fiorina up with some points against the race’s current leaders, Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Fiorina has had trouble finding her footing in the race and appealing to religion has seemed to help Carson a great deal.

Yet, Fiorina may not have made the most ignorant comment of all after Mike Huckabee told the crowd that in the event of a terrorist attack under his presidency, the first person he would call would be God.

Huckabee then turned his attention to secularists and atheists, has he has before in calling them one of the greatest threats against the U.S. saying, “The greatest threat we have is loss of God consciousness, the fact that we don’t believe that we’re ultimately accountable other than to the people that we see.”

Why Humans Want to Believe

A listener reached out to me with a question regarding why belief in a deity seems to be a “default position” that most people take. Some apologists use this as an argument for the truthfulness of their belief. They posit that people are born “knowing God” or at least “knowing an afterlife” or “wanting something more.”

They use this as evidence for belief in theism being the default position.

For starters, this is attempting to touch on a common fallacy built upon the idea that “because a lot of people think this way, it’s more likely to be true.” Even if it were evidence, it’d be poor evidence. But I shall address the thought anyway.

The truth is, consciousness, ethics, guilt, and dreams combined to create theistic beliefs in early humans. It is believed that early man likely fought to the death for control of the family, just like most mammals fight to control their herd. Upon the realization of morality, compassion, and ethical treatment, it is likely that a young adult male killed his father or older brother for control of the group, and then felt guilt.

He likely had dreams, remembering his father after death, leading to the belief in the supernatural afterlife. There are clear examples of Neanderthals performing rituals and burials for their dead over 50,000 years ago. This doesn’t lead to any truthfulness of a religion, it simply leads to an anthropological explanation of the evolution of belief in the metaphysical.

Moreover, there is an instinct in most mammals to stay close to parents immediately after birth. How does a new born deer know the difference between her mother and a lion? She has no mirrors. She just knows mom means safety.

The same is true for most other mammals. But for the (arguably) most intelligent primate, figuring out that there is no greater protection is a little hard to swallow. We still have this vestigial need for something greater to protect and watch over us, even when we know better.

This instinct to look for something greater than ourselives is a survival instinct seeking parental approval and protection. It has nothing to do with the truthfulness of any god. You combine that perceived need with the guilt, ethics, and detailed dreams and imagination of the powerful human brain, then you have the reasons theism feels like a natural default position. This is not evidence that any particular belief is truer than others, it’s only evidence to show why man created gods; instead of the other way around.

FFRF message: ‘God fixation’ not good for nation

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is again taking its national billboard campaign to keep state and church separate to Colorado.

This time, FFRF’s billboards (two in Denver and one in Colorado Springs) will alert passersby to the folly of theocracy with the message, “God Fixation Won’t Fix This Nation.” The billboard idea and design stem from the fertile mind of illustrator Steve Benson, the atheist grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, a former Mormon Church president.

“This is the launch of our election-year caveat,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who adds that the billboards are also meant to counter the May 3 National Day of Prayer and its Task Force, which is based in Colorado Springs.

“God fixation is what is wrong with our nation, and we need to place our best energies, time and money in improving this world, and not worrying about an unknowable, unprovable afterlife, or expecting an imaginary god to swoop down to fix our very real problems,” Gaylor says.

It’s the 61st annual National Day of Prayer, which requires the U.S. president to issue a proclamation declaring it that. This year’s theme, “One Nation Under God,” is based on Psalm 33:12, which says “blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” Task Force Chairman Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family evangelical founder Dr. James Dobson, works out of Colorado Springs.

As a nonprofit 501(c)(3), FFRF steers clear of partisan politics but works to keep religion out of government. Based in Madison, Wis., with more than 18,000 members, it placed its first billboard in Madison in 2007. Since then, it’s placed about 700 billboards in more than 60 cities.

The Colorado Springs billboard will be up through the first week of May and is located off U.S. Highway 24 east of Academy Boulevard.

The Denver billboards, also up through the first week of May, are at West Colfax Avenue half a mile east of Sheridan and off Interstate 70 a mile east of Colorado 470.

New motion puts pressure on MPs to prevent religious discrimination in public services

Humanists have welcomed a new policy approved at the Liberal Democrat Spring conference which commits the Party to ensuring that religious organisations which provide public services may not discriminate in their employment or against service users on religious grounds in the provision of those services.

The clause was included in the ‘Community Futures (Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Policy Paper)’ and states:

c) Ensuring that public services are delivered without unjustified discrimination against service-users or employees, by amending equalities legislation to narrow the exemption granted to organisations with a religious ethos , and in the interim requiring public sector commissioners to include non-discrimination clauses in their contracts with providers.

Peter Kunzmann, chair of the Humanist and Secular Liberal Democrats (HSLD), spoke when the motion was being debated in favour of the clause, and urged delegates to welcome its inclusion in the motion.

BHA Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips commented: ‘It is the BHA’s firm position that religious organisations which are providing public services on behalf of the state – a policy the government is actively encouraging – should be held to the same equality standards as any other private or state provider. That means that such organisations must not be permitted, as they are at present, to discriminate on religious grounds against employees and service users. Such discrimination is unjustified, unnecessary and wrong.

‘The BHA works closely with others, including religious groups, and we know that our concerns to have fair and inclusive secular public services are widely shared. The policy motion passed at the Liberal Democrat Spring conference reflects that shared commitment to promote real inclusion of all people regardless of belief. We hope that this is an issue that can be taken up and supported by other political parties as part of their policies. At present, parliamentarians have an opportunity through the Localism Bill to make legislative changes that will rule out discrimination by religious organisations when they are working under public contract to provide services. Such moves would finally treat civil society groups equally and fairly in practice.’

Mr Kunzmann said: ‘Public services should be available to everyone who needs them – whatever their beliefs.

‘Ordinary Liberal Democrat members have given their party’s MPs an unambiguous mandate to press for changes to the law, ensuring that religious groups who bid for public services cannot discriminate against service-users or their employees.’

The BHA works with groups across the political spectrum and the Labour Humanists, HSLD and the Conservative Humanist Association (CHA) are all affiliated to the BHA

Creationism/ID proponents cry discrimination, but heartened by UK “free” schools

An unintended consequence of the coalition government’s decision to permit “free” schools to be set up in England and Wales is that the teaching of creationism and Intelligent Design (“ID”) is once again in the public eye. The Department of Education recently made clear that teaching ID in science class is prohibited on the grounds that it is unscientific. However this prohibition will not apply to free schools.

Why does the DoE believe that ID is unscientific? ID concludes that some biological systems (such as the blood-clotting and immune systems) are so complex that Darwinian evolution cannot explain them; instead an “intelligent designer” must have been responsible. For many scientists it is outside the role of science to rely on a supernatural intelligent designer.

Dr Michael Behe is the biologist whose theory of Irreducible Complexity forms the so-called scientific basis of ID. He told me that during the many years in which he has worked as a biologist, no one ever asked him about the definition of science.

He continued, “The only time the definition of science comes up is when you discuss matters like this. Philosophers have been trying to define science for a number of years and they’ve given up, so far as I understand. That’s because they can’t find a definition which excludes what they want to exclude and includes what they want to include.” Behe went on to claim that even Isaac Newton’s law of gravity was originally believed to be unscientific, as was the Big Bang theory when it was first proposed.

According to Behe, the definition of science should not restrain an investigation of nature, or it will not serve a useful purpose. He offers a definition of science sufficiently loose to embrace his theory of Irreducible Complexity: “. . . just using physical evidence and reasoning to come to a conclusion about nature.” Yet, as he was forced to admit under oath in the infamous Pennsylvanian court case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area Schools Board, even astrology would fall within his definition.

It is common to hear advocates of ID claim that the scientific community is biased against them, and that this bias prevents them getting a fair hearing. For instance, according to Behe, scientists who apply for funding to carry out research to test Darwinism, will always be refused – especially if they say that they would like to investigate whether ID offers a better explanation. “And if you send an article with the words Intelligent Design in it to a major scientific journal, it’ll arrive back to you in the next day’s mail rejected.”

Professor Steve Fuller is a sociologist in the field of science. His recent ID-supporting book Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinismwas – perhaps predictably – panned by atheist philosopher AC Grayling in the New Humanist as being “silly and irresponsible.”

Fuller told me, “I think the way to think about ‘discrimination’ [against ID] is as a form of bigotry, a bit like anti-Semitism or (in the US) anti-Communism.”

Fuller went on to tell me that he personally experienced a version of this.

During late 2010 a scientific magazine in America, which had previously reviewed one of his books positively, contacted him about writing an opinion piece on the impact of the mid-term congressional elections on the US science policy agenda. He explained, “The editor and I agreed most of the details of the assignment, and everything seemed fine – until he was told 30 minutes later that I could not be commissioned because of my ID support (even though we never even discussed ID as part of the piece’s contents).”

Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, London, accepts that it is difficult for someone advocating ID to get funding from a scientific establishment. “It’s like homeopathy – your average scientific funder will think that this is just a waste of money.” However he pointed out that charities will sometimes fund this kind of research.

But are ID proponents unjustly kept out of respected scientific journals? Michael Reiss, who serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Science Education, told me: “I’m quite confident that if anybody comes up with a well-argued scientifically rigorous article on ID, journal editors would be prepared to publish it.”

However, whether ID is able to find an outlet in scientific journals is perhaps missing the point. According to Behe, “Nobody in the ID movement has to publish anything. The evidence of intelligent design is in the mainstream biology literature already. It’s been published by biologists simply investigating how life works.”

The possible problem with that approach is that without the support of rigorous science (as opposed to pseudo-science), many scientists will surely continue to regard ID as, at best, wrong – and at worst, wrong and unscientific.

Even so, Fuller believes that ID will become more important in British schools as the state exercises less control over the funding of schools, allowing more independent schools to exist. He even added, “Schools teaching ID have good track records in students passing science exams and then majoring in science.”

Similarly Behe is heartened by the situation in Britain. Towards the end of 2010 he gave a lecture tour of Britain. He accepts that “people often use teaching ID in schools to children as some kind of bogeyman to scare people away, saying that somebody will be indoctrinating your child.” But he believes that there is more tolerance in discussing issues concerning religion in Britain than there is in even America.

What’s more, Behe believes that although the scientific community is presently “allergic” to ID, this will change. That’s because: “As scientists retire, the ones who are very antagonistic to ID will be replaced by those other scientists who have grown up hearing and wondering about it.”

Michael Reiss’s response was abrupt. “I think that’s very unlikely to happen and it would not be a good thing.”

But that’s not so much a debate about Origins, as a debate about the future.


AHA files Supreme Court amicus brief opposing employment discrimination law exemption for religious organizations

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center has filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the American Humanist Association and other allied organizations with the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court is hearing an appeal of a case that turns on the question of whether religious organizations have a constitutional right to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, age or disability in violation of employment laws.

“The Supreme Court has made clear that the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution does not give religious defendants a special right to violate any law that they feel infringes in some way on their freedom of religion,” said Bill Burgess, attorney and legal coordinator of the American Humanist Association’s legal arm, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “We are all equally required to comply with the law, secular and religious alike, and this includes federal statutes banning employment discrimination. These laws embody and protect a critical and hard-won democratic value: equality for all Americans.”

The special religious exemption at issue in this case, called the “ministerial exception” by those lower courts that have adopted it, has never been considered by the Supreme Court. The right of religious employers, such as churches and related institutions, to require that employees to be of the same religion as their employer is not at issue in this case.

The amicus brief argues that recognizing the ministerial exception would place religious institutions above the law, unjustly denying to their employees their day in court when they have been subject to illegal discrimination by their employer. The brief also argues that courts themselves violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the laws to all, when they act to throw out an employment discrimination case against a religious institution because in so doing they become complicit in the employer’s discrimination by denying its victim any legal remedy.

“Our courts should have no role in protecting illegal discriminatory conduct. Their purpose instead is to act as a fair, secular tribunal to determine whether an employee has had his or her legal rights violated and to provide the justice due if they have been,” said Burgess.

Arguments in the case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will be heard by the Supreme Court in early October.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center is a project of the American Humanist Association that provides legal assistance to defend the constitutional rights of secular Americans by challenging violations of the separation of church and state guaranteed by the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and seeking equal rights for humanists, atheists and other freethinkers.

Atheist former Boy Scouts say ‘Shame on BSA’

Two atheists active with their FFRF chapters who are former Boy Scouts have had it with Boy Scouts of America. They are encouraging other former Boy Scouts to speak out, return medals to BSA or otherwise protest BSA bigotry.

William Dusenberry, a retired professor who helped found FFRF’s Tulsa chapter, is sending his BSA shirt and three merit badges, “none for bigotry,” to Jimmy Carter, a member of the BSA Advisory Council. He sent a letter on July 4 asking Carter to publicly resign. He encourages all former Boy Scouts who are nontheists or who are disgusted by BSA’s most recent repudiation of gay members, to do likewise.

Dusenberry says he’s “miraculously” kept the BSA paraphernalia with him through moves in seven states. He was “the only non-Roman Catholic in my troop. I had to stand quietly while the opening ‘Holy Marys’ were recited,” he recalls.

William van Druten, M.D., who founded Lake Superior Freethinkers, a chapter of FFRF in Duluth, Minn., was part of Troop 88, San Francisco. He sent a photo of himself to BSA pictured with his Eagle Scout medal and the words “ashamed.” Van Druten called BSA’s stance against nonbelieving members and its recent decision to reaffirm its stance against gay membership “a gross disgrace.” For van Druten, it will not be “once an Eagle, always an Eagle” after BSA‘s reaffirmation to ban openly gay members. The discrimination against nontheists is apparently so entrenched BSA didn’t even bother to reaffirm it.

Van Druten recalled being “proud” when he earned his badge. “Nobody bothered us with what superstition we had or did not have, whether we were straight, gay, black, white, yellow or grey. We learned lashing, tenting, knotting, truth telling. We hiked the Califonria coastal mountains, learned the trees, shrubs and birds. We backpacked the High Sierra. Yet now I discover that my youth’s delight is captured by bigots. So I am now ashamed of my badges and of my Eagle award, too.”

Van Druten’s daughter, a high school teacher, wrote BSA that she will no longer be writing “recommendations for young men who are pursuing an Eagle Scout Badge. I will be telling them that there is nothing wrong with being gay, there is nothing wrong with being an atheist, and there is nothing wrong with being black. Yes, I equate them all. It is a hateful policy, and I refuse to help you perpetuate it.”

Dusenberry said he was inspired by Tulsa World’s Mike Jones’ June 22 column, “It’s not the Scouts I remember.” Wrote Jones:

“All of my fond memories are somehow tainted by the decision of the BSA to exclude a part of our society that has suffered enough discrimination over the decades.

“The Scouts had the chance to live up to their code. To set a good example for the youth of this country. Instead it chose the wrong path. It ought to turn in its hiking merit badge.”

FFRF is creating a “Badge of Shame on BSA” webpage to house photographs of FFRF members with their rejected BSA paraphernalia, etc. Send large JPEG photos with identification, etc., or other responses to: FFRF News. 

The Creationists are Coming . . . to New Hampshire?

Republicans in New Hampshire have introduced two new anti-evolution bills for the 2012 session. One insists evolution be taught ‘as a theory’ and include the politics and religion of the scientists quoted, and the other requires teachers to instruct students not to accept an accepted theory as fact.

HB 1148: Theory of Evolution

The first bill, HB 1148, is introduced by Jerry Bergevin (R-District 17). The very short bill says:

Theory of Evolution. Require evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists’ political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.

In other words, Bergevin hopes to avoid discussion of evidence in support of or against evolution, and resort to ad hominem attacks on evolutionary theorists.

While a science teacher who truly wants to teach science could easily skip through the requirements of the law — say, by teaching the theory of gravity the week before, and explaining what a ‘theory’ is to a scientist, compared to common misuse of ‘theory’ to mean ‘hypothesis’ — those teachers wanting to inject their religious and political views during science class would have a green light to do so:

“Today we’re going to talk about the THEORY of Evolution. Theories aren’t proven yet. There are many THEORIES about how life developed on Earth, but the THEORY of Evolution is the only one I’m allowed to talk to you about. Certain PEOPLE will not allow me to discuss God with you. They say it’s against the law, and un-American to talk about God in school!

“The inventor of the THEORY of Evolution was Charles Darwin. He was raised Unitarian. Unitarians think that all paths lead to God, even Islam or Hinduism! Isn’t that ridiculous?

“Darwin considered becoming a clergyman in the Church of England, but then he went and studied island creatures and decided to turn his back on God. He even described himself as an agnostic, and said he thought all religions were equally valid. Back to that Unitarianism again!

“We know too that Darwin was sexist, and thought men’s dominance over women was the outcome of selection. He also thought that European colonization and extermination of native peoples was a natural thing.

“We don’t know much about his politics, but since he was English, it’s safe to assume he was a socialist. Darwinism has been used to justify eugenics — that is, selective breeding of humans toward a master race, as practiced by the Nazis, and also the basis of Planned Parenthood’s campaign of genocide against poor minority people in America.

“For your essay question, explain how Darwinism has damaged American society.”

HB 1457: Scientific Inquiry

The second bill is introduced by Gary Hopper (R-District 7) and John Burt (R-District 7). It is also short, and reads as follows:

Scientific Inquiry. Require science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes.

This doesn’t seem so bad on the surface. It is important to investigate new evidence. So these gentlemen want students to keep an open mind. Great, right?

Well, that’s not really what they want. According to the Nashua Telegraph, Hopper initially sought a bill “requiring instruction in intelligent design in the public schools.”

Why, you ask? Because, according to Hopper, “Darwin’s theory is basically antiquated,” involving lightning striking primordial ooze to create amoebas. As the Telegraph columnist notes, current evolutionary theory has amoebas evolving from prokaryotes, after about 2 billion years of evolution. Looks like Hopper doesn’t really understand the theory he claims is antiquated.

A far more modern theory, Hopper believes, appears to be “a being or beings” creating everything out of nothing. Gee, sounds a lot like that really old hypothesis found in the Bible, doesn’t it?

But is Hopper concerned about getting at the truth? Not really. He wants children to feel ‘created’ and ‘special’:

“[At 17,] I had been filled with this theory of evolution, which if you really boil it down, is a theory that we are here by accident, that there is no purpose. The conclusion is that we’re a bunch of accidents … you really have no purpose for existence,” he said.

“Teaching a child that it’s very possible that they were designed would infer that they actually have a purpose. There’s some purpose they were created, so that is a reason to live. Right now, we’re teaching children that basically they’re animals.”

This is surely the most disturbing reason people give to reject evolution. It has nothing to do with the evidence for or against; they don’t like it because it means they weren’t created ‘special’.

It means they have to take responsibility for their own lives, and decide what meaning their lives will have . . . instead of having a meaning handed to them by a 2,000-year-old book.

It is also the most common refrain from the Religious Right. They know that the evidence is solidly stacked against their Creationist/Unintelligent Design viewpoint, so instead they resort to emotional appeals. “Evolution means you’re not special, you’re just an animal! Was your daddy a monkey? Of course not!”

No, of course not. According to the Bible, humans are descended from dirt.

I’m sorry that Mr. Hopper prefers to live in a fantasy in which he’s a special, individual creation simply popped into existence by magic, instead of the product of an amazing, complex, multibillion-year evolutionary process.

I think it’s a shame Mr. Hopper is unwilling to remove his own blinders for fear of seeing his own responsibility for his life’s meaning.

I find it inexcusable, indeed abusive, for him to try to put those same blinders on New Hampshire’s children, and bind them to the same terrified, powerless, pathetic worldview to which he so desperately clings.

Has Herman Cain peaked?

Over the last couple of weeks, Herman Cain has rocketed to the top of the GOP polls. But popularity brings scrutiny. Will he stand up to it?

Two weeks back, Herman Cain cleverly managed to bring up his “9-9-9 Plan” in response to nearly every question at a GOP debate focused on the economy. Following the debate, his plan fell under greater scrutiny.

Cain simultaneously insisted two points: That his plan would not increase taxes on the poor, and that it would expand the tax base.

The way to expand the tax base is to add more people to it. Which people? The nearly 50% of Americans presently not paying income taxes because they earn too little. Thereby increasing taxes on the poor.

Analyses of his plan confirmed that it would be highly regressive in nature. The 9% national sales tax on all new goods — including food and medicine — would disproportionately affect lower-income households, who spend a greater percentage of their incomes than higher-income households. In states with their own sales taxes in place, sales taxes could total 16 or even nearly 20%.

Cain suggested families could stretch their dollars by choosing to buy used goods, which would not be taxed. Used food? Used medicine? Thank you, no.

While Cain insisted that a household earning $50K per year would see little change in taxes paid, an analysis by the Romney campaign showed more than a doubling in taxes paid by that hypothetical household. The Tax Policy Center shows that up to 98% of households earning less than $75,000 per year would see a tax increase under Cain’s plan.

Even Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation has slammed former Tea Party favorite Cain:

Last Tuesday, every other Republican slammed his plan. They understand something Cain is not getting. This is a tax hike on many people, including those in states that do not have a state sales tax. People in states that have state sales taxes are now looking at those taxes doubling or even more. In some parts of Illinois, people pay 11.5 percent in state and local sales taxes. Adding another nine percent to that is not a winner.

Cain finally realized his plan has a problem and on Friday said his plan for poor people is now a 9-0-9 plan. 9-0-9? Is that the name of Boeing’s new jet airliner?

Cain claims now the poor will pay no taxes under his new plan. What about those right above the poverty line? They can pay taxes and be shoved into a net income that is now below the poverty line.

The Nein! Nein! Nein! Plan isn’t Cain’s only problem. He seems not entirely sure of his position on abortion. Seems he thinks it should be outlawed, but that government shouldn’t have a role in outlawing abortion.

Huh?

Phillips provides a convenient summary:

Cain first erred on abortion. He first said on CNN on Wednesday, that women should have the right to have an abortion in cases of rape or incest. Then on Thursday on Fox, he said, “I am pro-life from conception and I don’t believe in abortion.” Then he said, “”Abortion should not be legal that is clear. But if that family made a decision to break the law, that’s that family’s decision, that’s all I’m trying to say.”

As Right Wing Watch points out, more than Phillips find this waffling disturbing. Leaders throughout the religious right, even the infamous Bryan Fischer, are slamming Cain. Says Fischer:

Herman seems to be saying that he is pro-life with no exceptions for rape and incest — unless the family wants an exception, and then it’s none of his business . . . In other words, Herman’s position on conceived-in-rape is virtually indistinguishable from the typical liberal position: personally pro-life, politically pro-abortion.

Can Cain survive his incoherent positions on social issues and his inept tax plan?

I’m thinking Cain has peaked. He’s top of the poll averages this week, but don’t bet on that lasting long.

Perry Now Prefers Dead Women to Medical Abortions

Tanking GOP Presidential hopeful (hopeless?) and Texas Governor Rick Perry, in a desperate attempt to shore up his religious conservative base in Iowa, has declared himself suddenly opposed to all abortion, including cases of rape, incest, or saving the life of the mother.

You heard that right. Perry has announced that he would rather let a pregnant woman die from an ectopic pregnancy (which will kill her fetus, too), horribly, painfully, and wholly unnecessarily, rather than allow an early-term abortion to save the mother’s life.

Perry, who recently met a woman whose mother had been raped, had his self-described “transformation” only one week before the Iowa caucuses. He has joined Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum in signing Personhood USA’s pledge, which states that “abortion and the intentional killing of an innocent human being are always wrong and should be prohibited.”

The woman had been featured in an anti-choice film screened by pundit Mike Huckabee. The Washington Post reports Perry’s comments:

“When the lady who was in it was looking me in the eye and saying, ‘You need to think this through,’ she said, ‘I am the product of a rape’ and she said ‘my life has worth,’” Perry said. “It was a powerful moment for me.”

Is that all it takes?

Maybe a child needs to look Perry in the eye and say, “You need to think this through. My Mommy died from an ectopic pregnancy, because the hospital refused to help her. Her life had worth. My brother and sister and I no longer have a Mommy.”

Maybe that would be another ‘powerful moment’ for Perry. But probably not until after he realizes that his Presidential campaign is already over.

Perry currently places fifth in the Iowa caucus polling, behind Romney, Paul, Gingrich, and (surprise!) Santorum. Does he really think his cowardly, unprincipled casting of women under the bus of political expediency will advance him from fifth place to first?

I wouldn’t be surprised if it knocks him to sixth.

Evangelical leader joins Religious Institute in supporting family planning, opposing proposed cuts to Planned Parenthood

As a reminder that not all Christians–nay, not even all evangelical Christians–are liberty-hating, theocracy-promoting members of the Religious Right, I’m bumping this article from March of 2011. Finding people we can work with, such as these folks, is a key element of building successful coalitions. And we all want successful coalitions, right?

A former VP of Government Affairs for the National Evangelical Association has joined with a network of more than 5,200 religious leaders to denounce the proposed Federal cuts to family planning and basic healthcare services — in particular, Planned Parenthood.

In a joint op-ed piece in the Washington Post’s On Faith column, the Reverend Richard Cizik and the Reverend Debra W. Haffner speak out in favor of family planning, and against the House of Representatives’ proposed cuts to basic health services.

“Both of us are committed to helping create a just and equitable world where no woman will die giving birth to the next generation,” said Rev. Debra W. Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute. “I am delighted to be joined by a leading evangelical religious leader in supporting family planning services here in America and overseas. Although we hold differing moral values about abortion, we share a commitment that because life is sacred, it should never be created carelessly or unintentionally. That is why we both support the Title X family planning program, which helps avert nearly one million pregnancies in the United States annually.”

The Religious Institute’s website comments on reproductive justice:

Our religious traditions affirm that life is sacred. Our faiths celebrate the divinely bestowed blessings of generating life and assuring that life can be sustained and nurtured. We support responsible procreation, the widespread availability of contraception, prenatal care, access to abortion services and intentional parenting.

“Evangelicals need to seriously consider the merits of family planning, and see these federal programs as pro-life,” said Rev. Richard Cizik, co-founder of The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a partnership of progressive evangelical organizations. “The victims of defunding these programs are the poorest of the poor, here and around the globe, whom we say as Evangelicals we care about. This is what being ‘pro-life’ is all about.”

The Religious Institute, based in Westport, CT, is a nonprofit, multifaith organization dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society including sexuality education, reproductive justice and full inclusion of women and LGBT people in the life of each faith community. More than 5,200 clergy, seminary presidents and deans, religious scholars and other religious leaders representing more than 70 faith traditions are part of the Religious Institute’s national network.

Leading Illinois governor candidate supports Creationism in classroom

State Senator Bill Brady, Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois, announced last week that he would not prevent the teaching of Creationism in publicly-funded schools. This week, he holds the lead in the four-way race.
In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Brady commented that he would not stand in the way of a public school board that wished to teach Creationism as science. “I believe knowledge is power, and I believe local school districts should establish the curriculum when it comes to those things,” said Brady.

When quizzed further on his views on Intelligent Design, Brady responded with what is rapidly becoming the safe answer for politicians. “My knowledge and my faith leads me to believe in both evolution and creationism,” explained Brady. “I believe God created the earth, and it evolved.”

Within the wide-ranging interview, Brady also explained that he opposes civil unions for gay/lesbian people, opposes legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, opposes any expansion of abortion freedoms, and would like to lift an existing moratorium on executions.

The full interview, in streaming video, may be seen on the Chicago Sun-Times’ website.

While his major opponent, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, thinks that Brady’s views are not what the majority of voters in Illinois want, this week’s poll results seem to paint a different picture.

A Rasmussen Reports poll of 750 likely voters, conducted October 12, found Brady leading the four-candidate pack with 46% of the vote. Quinn comes in second at 40%. The remainder is divided between Independent Scott Lee Cohen (4%), Green Party candidate Rich Whitney (2%), and “other/undecided” (8%).

Pentagon Poll: Most US soldiers don’t object to gay servicemembers

For over a decade — since well before 1993’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was enacted — we have been told that allowing openly-gay servicemembers would damage unit cohesion and readiness. The religious right has relied upon this claim as its primary reason to promote a continued ban on gay servicemembers. A new Pentagon poll yanks the teeth from the argument.

This July, the Pentagon distributed a survey to over 400,000 troops and 150,000 spouses of troops. The survey asked whether the respondents had served with openly-gay servicemembers, how they would behave if they needed to share barracks or shower rooms with gay people, etc.

While some respondents were strongly against allowing homosexuals to serve openly, the majority reportedly don’t care, and think the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy should be dropped.

The report is due to President Obama on December 1, at which time the Pentagon will announce its own plan for repeal of the policy. Full details of the report, including the breakdown of the responses, will be available at that time.

If unit cohesion is truly not an issue, as this appears to indicate, what argument will the Religious Right rely upon next? Will they finally turn to the one that they meant all along . . . “It’s against my religion, and therefore I must force my beliefs upon all others”? Or will they come up with something new?

Westboro Baptist Church Called Out in Arizona

Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of America. It pretty much boils down to freedom to exist in a way not regulated or legislated against: to be who we want to be without fear of governmental reprisal. We could not be Americans without our First Amendment rights. We would not be America.

But there exists in this country a group that believes its right to free speech is more important than the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness granted to others. They believe their right to demonstrate supersedes the rights of everyone else to live their lives unmolested, and the rights of a grieving family to attend the funeral of their precious nine-year old daughter, cut down before her life could even begin, without having to hear screams of protest and see brightly-colored signs bearing messages of hate.

Brainwashed children of the Phelps cult.
This group is Westboro Baptist Church, and if you’ve been following the atrocities fueled by religion in the past decade or so, you’ll know them as the group led by Pastor Fred Phelps out of Topeka, Kansas responsible for picketing at funerals with messages such as “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” They have shown up for funerals of homosexuals such as Matthew Shepard (a 21-year old man who was tortured and murdered for being gay), soldiers who died in the line of duty, notable public figures such as Michael Jackson, Fred (“Mister”) Rogers and the widow of Martin Luther King, jr., and victims of national disasters like the Sago Mine collapse in West Virginia and this past Saturday’s shootings in Tucson.
Thursday, January 13th is the funeral of Christina Taylor Green, the nine-year old girl killed in the Tucson shooting spree held by Jared Lee Loughner against Representative Gabrielle Giffords. The beautiful little girl was attending Gifford’s meet and greet at a local Safeway grocery store with a neighbor to learn more about politics, and had recently been elected as her third grade class president. She wasn’t even old enough to understand the demands made by Westboro for America to turn from its “Fag-enabling” ways.

Westboro has plans to attend with their signature colorful signs and accusational screams that God allowed Christina to die to punish America for being accepting of homosexuals. The immediate response of a Facebook group that plans to wear oversized angel wings and guard the funeral from picketers isn’t enough. Luckily, an emergency law has been passed barring demonstrations within 300 feet between an hour before and an hour after any memorial service.

Good for Arizona. They join Indiana, South Dakota, Michigan, and Illinois in the small group of states that have taken notice of the abominable church’s actions and have taken a stand against it. George W. Bush also signed a law prohibiting picketing at military funerals. All of this took place mostly in 2006, but Westboro has still managed to remain in the news pretty consistently, and according to their own count, picket an average of six locations every day.

So the question remains: how long are we going to tolerate hate crimes under the banner of free speech? We do have laws criminalizing slander and libel, and it’s illegal to practice the fine art of lying while under oath. So why is it that groups like Westboro are winning lawsuits against people whose rights have been violated? Westboro’s right to free speech has taken precedence over their unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Why does hatred win out over a family’s right to grieve in peace?

I believe wholeheartedly in the First Amendment. It’s the foundation that free thought, skepticism, and balanced journalism are built on. To change it even in the slightest would jeopardize any number of things without which we cannot better ourselves as individuals, as a community, as a country, or as a species. However, it’s time to stop using it as an excuse to protect the religious faithful from the natural consequences of their intolerance and hatred. The targets of their abhorrent use of their rights have rights too.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is challenging Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear’s use of state resources to promote a prayer breakfast March 13 at the Frankfort Convention Center.

In a March 3 letter to the Democratic governor, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that a press release about the so-called “nondenominational” event “leads one to believe that the government is the sponsor of the breakfast and not a private individual or organization.”

The release also includes a prayer breakfast link on the governor’s portion of kentucky.gov. The governor’s home page includes a tab at the top promoting the breakfast.

Markert added, “While elected officials may of course attend private functions on their own time in their personal capacity, it is a misuse of office for the governor or his staff to promote, organize or cosponsor activities such as prayer breakfasts or to lend the governor’s name to a “Governor’s Prayer Breakfast.”

FFRF, a national state-church watchdog with about 20,000 members nationwide and 168 in Kentucky, last contacted Beshear in 2012 about his sponsorship of annual prayer breakfasts.

“By sponsoring or co-sponsoring a Prayer Breakfast, which calls Kentucky citizens to prayer, you abrogate your duty to remain neutral,” Markert wrote. “The event sends a message that the governor of Kentucky prefers and endorses religion over nonreligion and more specifically, the Christian faith. Moreover, these actions exclude and offend a significant portion of the population, which is non-Christian or nonreligious.”

Using recent polling data, FFRF estimates about 400,000 Kentuckians are nonreligious.

FFRF has good reason to believe that Beshear sent prayer breakfast invitations, which included the official state seal, to the bulk of state employees from his state email address, an apparent violation of the Internet and Electronic Mail Acceptable Use Policy, which states, “Internet and E-mail resources, services and accounts are the property of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. These resources are to be used for state business purposes in serving the interests of state government.”

Markert added, “We urge you to cancel this event immediately and to remove anything indicating official government sponsorship from the website, reservation forms, media packets, décor, etc. . . . If you wish to be a part of this event you may do so only in your capacity as a citizen, not as governor. In addition, FFRF filed an open records request for financial records for prayer breakfasts from 2011-14, copies of any correspondence from state employees related to the four events and copies of invitations or other correspondence to and from breakfast speakers.

This year’s scheduled keynoter is Jacob Tamme, tight end for the National Football League’s Denver Broncos and University of Kentucky graduate. “Off the field, Jacob is outspoken about the important role his faith plays in his life,” the governor’s website says.

GOVERNMENT GRILLED IN HOUSE OF LORDS ON MOVE TO BAN ORGANISATIONS FROM REPORTING ILLEGAL SCHOOL ADMISSION POLICIES

During questions in the House of Lords this afternoon, peers from a range of parties quizzed the Government on its controversial move to ban civil society organisations from formally challenging school admission arrangements where they are not compliant with the School Admissions Code. Raising the issue, Shadow Education Spokesperson Lord Watson expressed his concern at the lack of oversight and enforcement within the admissions system, especially in light of evidence that a large number of schools are failing to comply with the law. Attention was also drawn to the findings of the report published by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) last year, revealing that almost all religiously selective school in England are breaking the law, with Baronesses Meacher, Barker, and Massey all commenting on the lack of transparency in the system and the seriousness of the violations that many schools have been found to commit.

In addition to the oral questions asked today, almost 60 written questions have been tabled in both Houses of Parliament opposing the Department for Education’s move, and the BHA has once again called on the Government to consider the concerns of peers, MPs, and parents alike before it goes ahead with the proposals.

The ban, which has been proposed essentially in response to the BHA’s and FAC’s report, has been roundly criticised by a range of prominent figures since it was announced last month. Just yesterday Lord Watson wrote that the move was ‘a clear case of shoot the messenger rather than address the problem’, and the Chief Executive of Mumset, Justine Roberts, said that the ban ‘is likely to add to parental dissatisfaction’. Further, Director of the Institute for Community Cohesion Foundation Ted Cantle said it would ‘reduce scrutiny’ in a system already ‘very open to manipulation and abuse’, and one education campaigner also commented in a blog for the Local Schools Network, ‘imagine a world where only the victims of a crime could complain to the police and where witnesses to a crime would be banned from reporting the incident. That’s the world Education Secretary Nicky Morgan wants to create.’

Bizarrely, and despite the continued insistence that they plan to go ahead with the ban, the Government appears to have acknowledged the important role played by organisations in improving the school admissions system for parents. Last month, in response to a parliamentary question tabled by Baroness Meacher, Lord Nash conceded that the overwhelming majority of objections submitted by the BHA and FAC had revealed illegality, and just two weeks ago the Education Secretary wrote to the BHA about the issue, saying ‘I am grateful for the work that you and your colleagues on the Fair Admissions Campaign have put into highlighting examples of non-compliance with the School Admissions Code’. She also stated that she was aware of the support the BHA has provided in the past to parents who have concerns about the admission arrangements of their local schools.

BHA Director of Public Affairs and Policy Pavan Dhaliwal commented, ‘We’re glad that this issue is getting the attention it deserves in Parliament, not just in the form of Lord Watson’s oral question, but also in the form of the 50 parliamentary questions that have been tabled in both Houses so far, by MPs and peers from a range of different parties. Like us, they recognise that an opaque and unaccountable admissions system in which schools choose pupils rather than the other way round is fundamentally a broken one, and they know, as we do, that far from redressing this imbalance, the Government’s proposal will only serve to entrench it. The level of opposition we’re seeing is therefore unsurprising, and we will continue to urge the Government to reconsider so the right of parents and children to fair access at local schools can continue to be defended.’

Terrorism and the West’s obsession with oil

I think most people are pleased the authorities captured the suspects for the Boston Marathon bombing – and got one of them alive. There are a lot of issues raised by the Boston events over the last week, and I think this video about the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centre is of at least tangential relevance.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and the Imam.

We won’t know for some time what the motives of these bombers were, what international links they had and if they received help. But, in other cases involving acts of terrorism in the West by young men from immigrant families, one scenario appears common:

Genuine problems for immigrant communities offer a breeding ground for discontent.
This can cause radicalisation of some young men in the community.
In some Muslim communities there are militant and fundamentalist Imams in the mosques whose teachings help inflame discontent and feed the radicalisation of the youth.
Many, if not a large majority of Muslim Mosques in western countries, have relied on financial support from Saudi Arabia – particularly for their establishment. This is certainly true for New Zealand.
Sometime support is also provided by importing Imams and teachers from Saudi Arabia – often members of fundamentalist sects themselves.
I suspect that more moderate members of the Mosque may tolerate fundamentalist Imams because they respect older conservative members of the community who see value in criticism of western values, etc.
So we can have a quite inflammatory situation. Genuine discontent, radicalisation of youth and militant religious leaders feeding the radicalisation. In some, yes just a few, cases this can lead to terrorist activity. With the ironic aspect that finance to feed this problem comes from the western obsession with oil which has made Saudi Arabia very rich. It has also made the country immune to criticism for the export of militant Islam.

I realise some commenters might accuse me of “Islamophobia” for the above. But isn’t that part of the problem – the denial of criticism? After all, I am not criticising all Muslims, even all disaffected Muslims. I am not criticising the religion (not in this post anyway – but the ability to do so is part of living in a democratic, pluralist society). I am only criticising a situation which has an effect in only a small number of cases – but a dramatic effect.

Yes, I am also aware we have other disaffected communities in our society. We have fundamentalist, radical, priests and ministers in other religions. That combination can also sometimes lead to terrorist activity, such as the bombing of clinics or murder of doctors. In the past non-religious groups have also promoted terrorism. Let’s not limit our concern just to Islamic terrorism.

But also, let’s not limit our ability to confront such problems by a naive form of multiculturalism which prevents any criticism and sweeps real problems under the carpet.

BHA EXPOSÉ: UNREGISTERED ‘FAITH’ SCHOOLS ENJOYING CHARITABLE STATUS DESPITE OPERATING ILLEGALLY

An investigation carried out by the British Humanist Association (BHA) has revealed that a number of unregistered strictly Orthodox Charedi Jewish schools in north London – which the Government is aware are operating illegally – are nonetheless officially registered as charities. Working with former members of the Charedi community, all of whom were pupils at illegal schools themselves, the BHA cross-referenced a list of names of suspected unregistered schools, obtained through FOI from the Department for Education (DfE), with the Charity Commission’s database, finding that a significant proportion are not only on both lists, but are registered with charitable objects that make it clear they are providing education. The BHA, which has frequently raised concerns about unregistered religious schools in the past, has called on the DfE to shut these schools down immediately, and on the Charity Commission to investigate the registrations.

In total, eight illegal Charedi schools were identified during the investigation as being registered as charities. The education provided at these ‘yeshivas’ is essentially entirely scripture-based, and the incredibly limited teaching of any other subjects often leaves pupils unable to speak English and unprepared to exist in the outside world. Indeed, the education is explicitly designed to maintain segregation with the rest of society, and any teaching that does take place about other religions or cultures aims to encourage a negative opinion of those outside the immediate community.

The findings lead to a number of new concerns about these institutions, not least of which is how the yeshivas could be deemed by the Charity Commission to merit charitable status despite operating illegally and below these minimum standards. The BHA has also questioned how these schools have been allowed to continue operating for so long, despite being known to a variety of government bodies. Indeed, in almost all cases, the listed activities of the charities, which are written by the charity trustees themselves, explicitly state that they are providing education, variously describing their purpose as ‘the provision of Orthodox Jewish education’, ’to provide education facilities’, and for ‘the furtherance of authentic Jewish religious education’.

One of the eight schools is Talmud Torah Tashbar, which the BHA revealed earlier this year had been allowed to remain open for 40 years whilst teaching a ‘culturally and ethnically insular’ curriculum, despite repeated Ofsted inspections identifying these failings and deeming that Tashbar does not meet the minimum standards for private schools. It therefore comes as a fresh shock that the school had also been enjoying charitable status, but perhaps more alarmingly, it has also been reported that Tashbar continues to remain fully open despite the DfE announcing that it had ordered it to close following the BHA’s exposé.

The BHA has repeatedly met with the Department for Education to bring their attention to problems within the illegal schools serving the Jewish community, and has been working with former members of that community to highlight both the plight of the children trapped in these institutions, and the long-standing failure to resolve the issue.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: ‘It is simply unacceptable that institutions that exclusively operate to indoctrinate, isolate, and control children are availing themselves of all the benefits that charitable status brings. There is nothing charitable about these places, and the inaction of successive Governments in allowing them to stay open for decades, never seen more clearly than in their face-saving, half-measure approach to closing down Tashbar, is a scandal.

‘We have written to both the Department for Education and the Charity Commission to demand that these schools’ charitable status is investigated, the schools are shut down, and the people responsible for running them are prosecuted. The children in these yeshivas are entitled both to a broad and balanced education and the opportunity to engage with the society that exists outside their closed communities, and the closure of these schools is an important first step in achieving that.’