Britain’s 10 worst violations of religious equality

Religious equality — the idea that people should not be treated any more or less favourably because of their religious opinions — is a fundamental principle in any modern liberal democracy. It is written into the American Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Everyone is agreed on it. Aren’t they?

Well no, unfortunately not. Owing to Britain’s long heritage of religious privilege there are still many instances of the state treating the non-religious less favourably. Here are the ten worst violations of religious equality in the United Kingdom today:

(1) Admission to taxpayer-funded schools: Even though the non-religious pay the same taxes as the religious they have worse access to taxpayer-funded schools. This is actually deliberate and legal. The government put special exemptions into the 2010 Equality Act enabling “faith” schools to treat pupils unequally according to their parents’ religion. About a quarter of state schools are “faith” schools, and often a non-religious family can only send their children to one if it is undersubscribed, even if they live next door.

The government’s excuse is that such schools do well and are popular. Well yes, schools that get to pick their pupils can indeed do well (as private schools show). Study after study has found that “faith” schools use their power of selection to pick middle-class pupils with strong parental support. Parents want such a peer group for their children, so these schools tend to be oversubscribed, and that gives the school more choice in selection, and hence the feedback produces popular schools with good exam results. Being oversubscribed also means that such schools can both expel problem children and not have to take children expelled from other schools. When corrected for the differences in pupil intake, “faith” schools do not do any better.

The non-religious family doesn’t get to play this game since non-”faith” schools don’t get to pick pupils. This is a racket that only the religious can take advantage of. It even extends to provision of school transport. Even worse, religious discrimination is now spreading to non-”faith” schools!

Being “popular” (with those who can gain entry) is hardly a justification. If we had state schools only for kids of higher-rate taxpayers, or only for kids of university-educated parents, you can be sure they’d be popular among those families who qualified, and you can bet they’d produce above-average exam performance. But those are banned for good reasons of social cohesiveness. Why do the religious alone get such privileges? And why on earth does anyone think that handing over state schools to be run by Islamic groups is a good idea?

The majority of the public oppose any state school being a “faith” school, and yet the government is so in thrall to the religious lobby that it is increasing the proportion of “faith” schools! This is not a small issue, it concerns the spending of tens of billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money. The new Archbishop has already stated that the Church of England should “grasp the opportunity” to proselytize presented by so many school children being handed over to the control of the church.

(2) Employment in state schools: It is not only kids who are unfairly treated by state “faith” schools. The schools can also use their “religious ethos” and their exemptions from the 2010 Equality Act to discriminate against non-religious teachers. We’re talking about thousands of taxpayer-funded schools that are legally allowed to refuse to employ a teacher simply because they don’t worship the right god in the right way.

The Catholic Church even considers that it has the right to dictate the private lives of teachers in “its” (taxpayer-funded) schools, thus discriminating against teachers who are divorced or in non-married relationships or who do anything else outwith a Catholic “ethos”.

(3) Freedom of worship: You thought that freedom to choose whether to worship a god was absolute? You thought that governments passing laws telling you to worship a god was something out of medieval history? Not if you’re a pupil in a British school, because by law “each pupil … shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship” where the worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. No kid younger than sixth-form has any right to opt-out, and is thus compelled by the government to worship the Christian god. It’s amazing that Christians, for whom the idea that their god grants them free-will is a central part of their theology, should see nothing wrong with compulsory religion.

Parents do have the right to exempt their children, but only at the cost of depriving them of the community and social aspects of school assemblies that are mixed in with the religious stuff. 60% of parents do not want this law enforced, and thankfully many headmasters don’t comply with it. Think about that: this is a law so bad that many headmasters — among the most upstanding of citizens — simply ignore it.

(4) Bishops in the Lords: Why are we the only nation other than Iran that has special places in our legislature for religious clerics? The House of Lords is of course a historical hodge-podge that would be hard to defend in any case, but the idea of Church of England bishops having 26 places in the Lords where they can vote on our laws is about 300 years out of date. They use this privilege to oppose moral advances, for example voting against civil partnerships and gay marriage, and then pretending that they didn’t.

They’re still helping to block the legalisation of assisted suicide, against the wishes of 71% of the nation. Scare believably, when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg proposed Lords reform in 2012 he advocated elected members … and the retention of some unelected bishops!

(5) Tax exemption: Paying taxes is a moral duty; we all want good schools, hospitals and a welfare state and they need to be paid for. If someone gets a tax break then others have to make up the difference. I seriously object to corrupt crank cults such as Scientology getting tax exemption just because they are “religious”. But then most other religions have notions that are just as daft, and I object equally to them getting tax exemption. Your golf club is not tax exempt, your local cinema is not tax exempt, why should your church be? I’ve no objection to people spending their leisure time in church, or playing at being Druids, rather than on the golf course, but why should it be subsidised by others?

Yes, some congregations do organise charitable activity around their church, and yes their actual charitable activities should be tax exempt, but the vast majority of a church’s expenditure (over 90% in the case of the CofE) is spent on themselves, their clergy and buildings, not on others. With amazing chutzpah, some in the Church of England even argue that they deserve such tax breaks because they do such sterling service educating (with taxpayer’s money) the nation’s children!

Big corporations get criticised for not paying appropriate tax and we should demand the same from churches. I don’t know of figures for the UK, but in the US this tax avoidance costs the taxpayer $71 billion a year.

(6) Lack of legal protection for minorities: Such is the deference paid to religion that many British citizens don’t get the legal protection to which they are entitled purely because their families and communities are religious. And this lack of protection mostly affects — no surprises — women and girls.

Female genital mutilation has been illegal in the UK for 27 years. Yet there has not been a single successful prosecution for the offence. Is this because immigrant communities are so englightened that none of them would dream of inflicting such a thing on a child? Unfortunately not, an estimated 66,000 girls have been subjected to it. And yet “… no prosecutions have yet been brought”. What? Tens of thousands of these criminal offences and not one criminal prosecuted?

An estimated 24,000 girls … are thought to be at risk”. Why are these children, among the most vulnerable of British citizens, not being given the protection that everyone else expects for themselves? Is it because the issue is bound up with religion, and society thinks that children are owned by “their” religion, so that the state is reluctant to intervene? Does society really think that religion is something that men are entitled to impose on their wives and children?

If you answer “no, it shouldn’t be”, please then be consistent and say that (the vastly lesser affair of) male circumcision is also something that should not be stamped on a child as a religious identity mark.

Then there is forced marriage. “An estimated 8,000 young women a year are forced into marriages” against their will, either by social pressure in the UK or being taken abroad “on holiday” and then being held captive and forced to marry. Again, reluctance on the part of the authorities to investigate and intervene can be put down to the idea that such things are accepted in “their” religion and culture.

A similar issue is the spread of extra-judicial Sharia courts to rule on disputes. The fact that British law allows parties in a civil dispute to appoint an adjudicator is acceptable, but only if both parties willingly agree. For many women in some religious communities the social pressures are such that it is impossible for their consent to be un-coerced and genuinely free. And since Sharia law is blatantly unfair to women its use results in British citzens being explicitly treated as second class and inferior.

(7) Promotion of religion by the BBC: The BBC has a whole department dedicated to promoting religion, costing over £10 million a year, and putting out hundreds of hours of religious programming. Despite this “The BBC’s own research shows that interest in religious programmes is so small it often cannot even be measured”.

The views of religious figures are often reported in news and current affairs programs out of proportion to the number of people attending their churches, and religious leaders are not questioned critically, as politicians and others would be, but are treated with deference. When the Pope visited Britain in 2010 the BBC went into over-drive, giving massive all-day coverage to the Pope and his supporters, and only very minimal coverage to those critical of him. This would have violated the BBC’s impartiality rules had it concerned a political figure, so why is it acceptable with regard to a religious figure?

The BBC’s “Thought for the day” is deliberately confined to religious speakers, as though only the religious can be thoughtful, and when it comes to moral questions the BBC automatically gives special prominence and weight to religious leaders. A prime example is the undue standing given to religious opinion on matters such as gay rights and assisted dying. Someone should tell the BBC that only about 5% of the population attend a church on a typical Sunday, and even church attenders don’t necessarily agree with the views of religious “leaders”.

We all pay for the BBC and it has a major influence on our culture. There are as many non-religious people in the nation as religious ones, and the BBC should strive to be neutral on this topic.

(8) Taxpayer-funded chaplains: Handing over vast sums of public money to churches to impose religion on school children is bad enough, but taxpayer-funded promotion of religion extends to adult life. Many state-funded organisations — hospitals, prisons, the military — employ chaplains with the specific intent of promoting religion. A modern secular state should stay neutral and leave promotion of religion to private bodies. If churches want to send chaplains into hospitals and prisons to minister to people then that should be allowed, but the taxpayer should not be paying tens of millions to fund it.

(9) Ceremonial religion: One might expect that a nation with a long religious history would still have religion entwined with much of the national ceremony. Does this matter? I think it does. Ceremonial religion and the establishment of the Church of England sends the message that the non-religious are outsiders, second-class citizens, tolerated but not fully valued and welcome. Yes, in the past Britain was overwhelmingly Christian, but then Britain used also to be overwhelmingly White, and no-one would argue that non-Whites should therefore be excluded from ceremonial or be relegated to second-class roles.

Thus it matters if, for example, members of all religions are invited to lay wreaths at the offical Remembrance Day ceremonial, but humanist organisations are told that they are not welcome and cannot attend. Plenty of non-religious soldiers have died for their country, and there are far more non-religious soldiers currently serving than there are members of the minority religions that do get invited to the ceremonials.

And yes it does matter if councils include Christian prayers as part of their formal business. It matters even more if these are not merely relics from the past, but are actively promoted by politicans too insensitive to care what the non-religious think.

And while we’re on, can we please have a National Anthem that is not a prayer to a deity that half the nation no longer believes in? Afterall, only 36% of young adults consider themselves to be Christian and only 7% of the population consider that being Christian is an important part of being British.

(10) Equality of conscience: Lastly, but not least, is the idea that the religious person’s conscience matters more than that of the non-religious person, and thus that the religious are entitled to special dispensations.

If someone asks to wear a particular item of clothing, saying that it is to comply with their religion, the request will be treated with great respect. The courts would place great weight on that request, and one would need a very good reason not to grant it.

Now suppose that a kid says that, because he is a fan of Manchester United, he wishes to wear his replica Man Utd strip. The request would be treated as trivial, and no court would place any weight on it, let alone uphold the request as a human “right”.

Why is this? It would be easy to find 14-yr-olds who care about football just as much as typical 14-yr-olds care about religion, so why would a 14-yr-old’s request be treated as much more important if the reasons were religious?

People often regard it as “obvious” that the religious request is more important, and they will talk about “religious freedom”. But that is a basic misunderstanding: religious freedom does not mean that a religious person has greater rights and freedoms than a non-religious person, it only means that they do not have fewer rights, that they cannot be restricted from an activity purely because of its religious content.

Thus if the Man Utd strip were allowed but a religious badge prohibited then that would be a violation of religious freedom. The only justification for giving the religious person greater freedom to depart from common rules is the idea that the feelings of the religious person matter more than the feelings of the non-religious person.

Special privileges for the religious are common. Some of these are trivial, some less so. A trivial example is that Sikhs are allowed to ignore the requirement to wear motorcycle helmets; non-Sikhs are not, however much they might like wind in their hair. A more serious example is animal slaughter. The law requires that animals be stunned before being slaughtered; except if you are religious, in which case medieval methods of slaughter are allowed. A third example is the opt-outs that allow religious pharmacists to not do their job, elevating their personal opinions above those of the customer. A fourth example is that a prisoner can ask for special food owing to their religious beliefs, but if a non-religious prisoner asked for the same food they would not get it.

A similar insidious idea is that of “religious hatred” laws, promoting the idea that the religious are either entitled to more protection than others or that offence to them somehow matters more and should be punished more severely. Thankfully our blasphemy laws have been abolished (though only as recently as 2008!), but there are still continuing moves world-wide to have “defamation of religion” recognised as a “crime”.

There are bodies campaigning against all of these injustices, notably the National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. The Accord Coalition campaigns against religious discrimination in schools and has a dossier of evidence on faith schools. Please support them!

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45 Responses to Britain’s 10 worst violations of religious equality

  1. Pingback: Britain Violates the Idea of Religious Equality, Too!

  2. merlynleroy says:

    10 out of 10. Would it be any use to see if e.g. the Guardian would reprint it?

    • Coel says:

      Thanks for the score Brian! (And kudos for your long-standing service of atheist advocacy.) I could see if the Guardian CiF would repost it, but they may not be interested in anything already posted elsewhere.

  3. chidy says:

    this was an awesome post. your sister in the US raises her fist in solidarity and agreement.

  4. The ‘collective worship’ thing is annoying but a) it does not specify the Christian religion (it just says an act of religious worship so any religion counts) and b) many schools who are not faith schools actually do what they can to avoid this within the legal framework. I have seen assemblies which basically come down to head makes some announcements then everyone sings a hymn’ and the hymn singing counts as the school’s ‘collective worship’ for that week. And sometimes the hymn is not even a real hymn but the ‘school song’ or even a ‘school prayer’ which has been written to be as secular and ecumenical as possible while still mentioning ‘god’

    The curriculum on religion is somewhat mired in the 1950s, though. It does need to be updated.

    • Coel says:

      The law does specify the Christian religion. The Education Reform Act 1988, section 7(1), requires that the worship be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. A “faith” school of some other religion (Jewish or Moslem) can apply to their local SACRE for permission to change this to their own religion, but the default is Christianity.

      You are right that many schools water down the content so that it is not “Christian” or anything else except vague theism, but this is disobeying the law.

  5. Solid article! We do take for granted the special privileges afforded the religious.
    Similarly, the non religious are often regarded as simply lazy or immoral rather than as people who have taken the trouble to think about what they do or don’t believe.

  6. Asica604 says:

    Amazing article – it should be printed in every newspaper.

  7. Contrarious says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    A brilliant dissection of religious privilege

  8. Mike Simpson says:

    Lots of generalisations, sweeping statements and selective use of statistics; you should really consider becoming religious yourself.

  9. Walter Mitty says:

    I agree with the spirit of what you’re doing but I gave up reading when I saw your referencing of facts was extremely poor. Some examples:
    - “Study after study has found that “faith” schools use their power of selection to pick middle-class pupils with strong parental support.” You don’t demonstrate ‘study after study’. You cherry pick two studies and suggest that this is evidence of study after study.
    - “70% of parents do not want this law enforced”. This is an entirely made up figure. The hyperlink points to a NSS news report which cites 70% (http://www.secularism.org.uk/uploads/collective-worship-briefing-18.pdf). That report is based on a BBC article which cites a figure of 60% Sigh.
    - “When corrected for the differences in pupil intake, “faith” schools do not do any better.” This is based on a hyperlink to a databank containing articles on a range of topics. Which one do you mean? This referencing is equivalent to making an assertion and then saying “oh, you’ll find that fact in the library somewhere. Go and have a look”.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Walter,
      On looking into it, you are right that the “70%” figure that I quoted from the NSS paper seems to be 60% in the original, so I’ll change that.

      You cherry pick two studies and suggest that this is evidence of study after study.

      Two studies showing it is indeed evidence. Those two were not “cherry picked” in the sense that they are not out of line with other findings. In an article like this that covers a lot of ground there is always a balance between how much to give evidence, citations and details, and keeping it short enough.

      On “When corrected for the differences in pupil intake faith schools do not do any better”. for example the Gibbons and Silva 2006 study from the LSE says in its summary that: “All of the apparent advantage of Faith school education – particularly for Church of England schools — could be explained by unobserved differences between pupils who apply and are admitted to Faith schools and those who do not”.

      [Edit: I've changed the 70% figure to 60% and changed the link it points so; I've changed the link on the "don't do any better" to make it more specific. Note that the link under "pick middle-class pupils" was a third cite supporting the "study after study" claim. See comment below for more. Thanks for the feedback on these issues.]

  10. Calculating the amount of tax the church should really be paying is not easy, but the estimate for Australia is about $21 Billion per year.
    Think about that figure, that works out to about $954 per person per year in Australia.
    The USA figure is about $226 per person per year.

    Australian figures are from:- http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/rich-men-in-the-tax-free-kingdom-of-god/

  11. Walter Mitty says:

    I agree that two studies is evidence. I see your point that this is not cherry picking because You argue that the findings are not out of line with other studies. However, you do not evidence that either. Overall though, you don’t provide evidence of “study after study”. It would be more accurate to say “we have found two studies” which is all you evidence here. “Study after study” suggests a systematic review.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Walter,
      If I’d been writing purely on that one item I’d have documented all of this more. But the “study after study” claim really comes from the Accord coalition “Databank of Independent Evidence on Faith Schools (June 2012)”. http://accordcoalition.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Databank-of-Independent-Evidence-on-Faith-Schools-Jan-2013.pdf

      Tim Butler and Chris Hamnett (April 2012) “Trojan horse whereby the middle class of all ethnicities gain privileged access [to the school] because their ethos is perceived to equate with that of the school.”

      Jessica Shepherd and Simon Rogers (March 2012) “Some 73% of Catholic primaries and 72% of Catholic secondaries have a lower proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than the average for the local authority.”

      Tearfund (January, 2009) on Church going: “C2 social class (21%); DE social class (22%); single people (19%) and council tenants (19%)” among those underrepresented.

      Accord Coalition (March 2011): “As can been seen, faith schools perform better overall in exam result league tables than they do in the CVA league tables. This serves to back up the claim that their better exam results are due to profile of their pupil intake and challenges a misconception held by some that faith schools are inherently better than other types of schools.”

      Chief Schools Adjudicator, Dr Ian Craig (November 2010) “benefits the white middle class area … but our view is it has been skewing the intake.”

      Dr Rebecca Allen and Dr Anna Vignoles (April, 2009) “It finds significant evidence that religious schools are associated with higher levels of pupil sorting across schools”

      (March, 2009) by the House of Commons Library: “Overall faith schools have a lower proportion of pupils with SEN [special educational needs]. In 2008 1.2% of pupils at mainstream state faith schools had statemented SEN and 15.9% unstatemented. This compares to 1.7% statemented and 18.9% unstatemented [at] schools with no religious character.”

      Stephen Gibbons and Olmo Silva, London School of Economics (March, 2009) “It appears that most of the apparent advantage of faith school education in England can be explained by differences between the pupils who attend these schools and those who do not.”

      Prof. West and Dr Allen (March, 2008) “religious schools have higher ability and lower free school meal intakes compared with the neighbourhoods in which they are located. … We can show that there really is a direct correlation between the number of potentially selective admissions criteria that schools use, and the extent to which their intakes are advantaged.”

      IPPR, by Sarah Tough and Richard Brookes (June, 2007) “Faith schools which are their own admission authorities are ten times more likely to be highly unrepresentative of their surrounding area … ”

      Barnardo’s Policy and Research Unit (August 2010) “newly arrived eastern European families … are often devout Catholics … they can struggle to meet the priority admissions criteria for local Catholic secondary schools.”

    • Walter Mitty says:

      Thank you Coel. That’s helpful. It’s extremely difficult to find your sources because you don’t say where they come from and your hyperlink is dead. So the reasoning is this. Faith schools wish to remain faith schools and so try to recruit a critical mass of people of a particular faith in order to maintain the ethos of the school. To do this they only recruit students of that Faith (it’s not clear whether they select on the basis of other characteristics such as academic performance). But if they really were only recruiting on the basis of faith, this inadvertently results in a middle class student profile. This is an intriguing finding partly because I can’t accept that Christians are mostly middle class (there must be data on this though). The alternative interpretation is that parents aiming for Faith schools are the “sharp elbowed” types Cameron criticised and clued up/motivated enough to work the system to access an enclave of privilege. Hadn’t thought of that. I’m not sure what the implications of this are. But does this mean:
      - that if a parent wants their child to have a Christian education, they should not have this option?
      - anyone should be able to join a faith school as long as they are willing to practice that faith within school hours?
      - anyone should be allowed to join a faith school but not practice the faith there and do their own thing? Does that mean that anyone should be free to do their own thing in any school and not follow its ethos and practices.
      - Or are you saying that state schools are fine as long as they don’t receive state funding?

      The inadvertent privilege aside, I’m not sure that it is wrong to select on the basis of particular characteristics to maintain an ethos. Does this mean that the Scouts should find alternative activities for children who don’t want to play games or do cook outs? Service organisations allow people who don’t like helping and just enjoy the social life?

    • Coel says:

      Sorry about the duff link, I’ve now fixed it.

      Faith schools wish to remain faith schools and so try to recruit a critical mass of people of a particular faith …

      True, but other factors are that schools also want to do well in exam results and league tables. Therefore they use their control over admissions to select more “middle class” children with better parental support. To be clear, the evidence is that they take pupils from religious middle class families in preference to religious children from poorer backgrounds.

      Then, as you say, there is the “sharp elbow” effect that, once you have hurdles to get into a schools, the pushy middle-class parents win out. Both of these effects lead to “faith” schools taking more middle class children and fewer children with SEN or eligible for free school meals or other deprivation indicators.

      Then that produces a feed-back with the school being more over-subscribed and more popular, and thus able to be more picky in which children they take.

      that if a parent wants their child to have a Christian education, they should not have this option?

      In my opinion, no they should not have that option, at least not funded by the taxpayer. Schools should be secular. Schools should be about education, not about reinforcing the religious opinions of the parents. There’s nothing to stop parents taking their children to church on Sunday.

      Does that mean that anyone should be free to do their own thing in any school and not follow its ethos and practices.

      Yes indeed. These are taxpayer-funded schools. Any pupil should be able to attend one without losing their freedom of religion, and thus any participation in any religious “ethos” or practice should be entirely opt-in and voluntary.

      I’m not sure that it is wrong to select on the basis of particular characteristics to maintain an ethos.

      State schools are banned from selecting on race or parental income or parental education level or the child’s IQ and all sorts of things. This is for good reasons of social cohesion and fairness. I don’t see why religion should get a privilege such that one is allowed to select on that.

  12. Willi says:

    There are similar things ongoing in other european countries. Bavarian Bishops payment is done by the state (they just changed it recently from a direct pay to indirect – which means the state give the payment to the church, not to the bishop personally anymore). Schoolkids start and end the school year having a worship, which they formally are allow to leave, but as an atheist in lower bavaria you probably don’t like to be one of the few who stand outside…There are professorships – paid by the state but given to the church to decide who takes the chair and what the topics are – even worse: it is not only about “religion” proffesorships.Churches have the right to get a defined budget of minutes and newspaper space by law to provide us with their mission statements. Many (conservative) politicians still think that (christian) religion is the base fundament of our (“leading”) culture – and so there is no major interest to change things. Nevertheless the church is still loosing members or – what I also experienced in lower bavaria: there are members of the catholic church (as a “cultural commitment” and for social integration) who are atheists.. So the base is not such big as statistics would report…But still the government ist supporting the whole story a lot. For some finance reasons it is also easier for the state to give some community tasks (e.g. education, health care) away to churches. They have an exceptional employers rights, can pay lower wages and can easier lay-off people. So at the end, a non-religios education discriminated by that fact as well. Sometimes the church is advertising those “big” social tasks, but the finance base of that is >95% given by the state in many cases 100%.

  13. jumeirajames says:

    The head of families where female mutilation is carried out should be hung up by the balls.

  14. Frogger says:

    Interesting points. I always wondered how much this daily worship in schools law was taken seriously. My secondary school completely ignored it, having assemblies now and again but no reference to any deity or religion whatsoever. And that was in the early 90s!

  15. waheera says:

    1) I’m curious to know where the “facts” concerning middle-class intake comes from. As a teacher who has taught in a number of state schools including these supposedly middle-class faith schools, I have yet to see any practical evidence of this. See the quote below, taken directly from an Ofsted report into one of these “middle-class” schools. Except in its attainment, I struggle to see how any of this description gives credence to your claim.

    “St Edward’s is larger than the average primary school. There is Early Years Foundation Stage provision in two Nursery and two Reception classes. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals is higher than average. The proportion of pupils from minority ethnic groups, including those who do not speak English as their first language, is much higher than average. There are currently over 37 languages spoken in the school. The proportion of pupils who have learning difficulties and/or disabilities is higher than average, with the majority having moderate learning difficulties. The school has achieved many awards, including Investors in People in 2008 and Artsmark Silver in 2009.”

    I will not pretend that one school counts as a universal truth nationwide, but nor will I accept such a ridiculously flawed suggestion about faith schools being reserved solely for the middle classes.

    As a general comment, it seems like a lot of your comments are a touch sensationalist if not facile, which negatively impacts on a lot of the points you make. Examples might include:
    6) Legal Protection: There have been numerous instances of atrocities committed within religious minorities, which have been deliberately kept away from the established British authorities and legal system. Just as you highlight the fact that 24,000 girls are very likely to be at risk in these minorities, you fail to contextualise it against other social and economic factors, all the while appearing wilfully ignorant of the safeguards that local and national government bodies have already been bringing in and are continuing to do so.

    8) “employ chaplains with the specific intent of promoting religion.” Is this really their “specific intent”? I suspect many of them would take no small offence at your discounting their hard work for others in areas of their work that do not include evangelising.

    10) I don’t see how this comparison of a Man Utd kit vs a religious item would ever be relevant, except perhaps in the case of an exceptionally stupid footballer. Whilst I can fully appreciate that this particular example is probably for comic effect, you continue to make sweeping statements throughout this paragraph and others which tar each and every religion with the same indiscriminate brush. I suppose in the interests of fairness this is laudable, but it is nonetheless grossly inaccurate.

    • Coel says:

      Hi waheera, thanks for commenting:

      I’m curious to know where the “facts” concerning middle-class intake comes from.

      They come from the Accord Coalition dossier of evidence on faith schools, which is linked to at the bottom of the article. Three of the studies are linked to in the piece.

      … nor will I accept such a ridiculously flawed suggestion about faith schools being reserved solely for the middle classes.

      The claim is not that they are “reserved solely” for the middle class. The claim is that, because of their powers of pupil selection (which most state schools don’t get) faith schools on average tend to be unrepresentative of their surrounding community, that they tend to have a higher proportion of middle-class pupils, and tend to have a smaller proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals, and of pupils with special educational needs, and of problem children. Many studies show this effect (see the Accord Coalition dossier).

      … all the while appearing willfully ignorant of the safeguards that local and national government bodies have already been bringing in and are continuing to do so.

      Well maybe the authorities are beginning to get their act together (I hope so), but I’ll simply re-iterate the estimates that 66,000 British girls have been subjected to FGM and so far there has not been one successful prosecution for it. That certainly indicates a lack of interest and/or action on the part of the authorities. Many in the mainstream media are saying similar things (see the links in the article).

      “employ chaplains with the specific intent of promoting religion.” Is this really their “specific intent”?

      The first hit from a Google search on “prison chaplains” (http://www.justice.gov.uk/jobs/prisons/on-offer/chaplaincy) gives this quote: “When I first began as a Prison Chaplain the Bishop who preached told me that I had a responsibility … to demonstrate God’s love wherever and whenever I could.” That seems a clear intent to promote religion. I’m not accusing every individual chaplain, but I am saying that that’s part of the intent of the system. If it weren’t they could set up a secular counseling service.

      I don’t see how this comparison of a Man Utd kit vs a religious item would ever be relevant, …

      That you don’t see the comparison as relevant is exactly the issue. No, the comparison wasn’t for comic effect. I’m serious. Why should a request to wear certain clothing for religious reasons be treated as more important than a request to wear certain clothing owing to being a fan of a football club?

  16. hilleletv says:

    Reblogged this on Hille Le and commented:
    Is Britain really the modern liberal democracy it claims to be?

  17. philip says:

    I cant for the life of me find a non religious school in northern ireland for when i have children and want to send them to school

  18. waheera says:

    Wasn’t actually that fussed about being drawn in, but since you’ve taken the effort to reply I suppose it’s only fair I do too!

    I’ll skate over the faith school aspect for now – I get the impression that the Accord dossier is constructed very well to meet its own agenda but as previously mentioned I’m not sure that its national generalisation is quite fair to reality. Sticking with the example used in my last post, I don’t see how I can find fault with a school that is rated as Excellent by Ofsted can be viewed as a bad institution solely because it is a faith school. It is not exclusive, as evidenced by the diversity of ethnic backgrounds and although I would have to check this, I suspect that many other faith schools would either choose to be or would have to be as welcoming.

    “That certainly indicates a lack of interest and/or action on the part of the authorities.”

    In the politest way possible, that statement appears rather ignorant to me. Several foreign countries are reputed to have rates as high as 90% of their young women being forced through the ordeal of FGM. A large part of the problem, and one that was highlighted in the dreadful case of Victoria Climbie, is that on coming to the UK these communities often continue these dubious activities without involving any UK authorities. The problem is not that people are religious, it is that the societies and cultures which commit these things (which I believe we rightly consider to be atrocities) often operate in such a way as to prevent the authorities from becoming involved.

    Similarly there have been reports posted on prominent news sites (such as BBC) on the phenomenon that is shamanism and spiritual healers, with immigrant cultures preferring to turn to these people, whose ways they are familiar with, for help than a fully qualified Doctor. If I choose not to visit my GP when I get the flu, he will not know I have the flu. In the same way if a minority group, regardless of its religious or secular standing, choose to behave in a way that negatively impacts their own community then it is difficult for those outside it to discover such things.

    To say that these are benefits afforded to religious people seems to be missing a wider point for the sake of rubbishing religion. Also, if you really think people don’t care, I would be fascinated to know your reaction to some of the training I’ve received as a teacher specifically for the purpose of helping to identify and monitor children who are at risk. It is harrowing to know what has happened and indeed is happening, but it is simply not true to suggest that all people don’t care and the reason for any disinterest is therefore tied to religious “privilege”.

    “When I first began as a Prison Chaplain the Bishop who preached told me that I had a responsibility … to demonstrate God’s love wherever and whenever I could.”

    It may be an inconvenient observation, but demonstrating God’s love does not mean preaching and evangelising, or telling inmates that their only way out is through God. It does however mean that just as a Christian would believe that God’s love can overcome even the greatest obstacles, so a chaplain must behave in such a way as to bring comfort or guidance to those in need of it. In that way, they are expressing God’s love yet may not even have mentioned it in so doing. Again it seems that rather than focus on the good work that these people do for unselfish reasons, certain facts are being overlooked or misinterpreted for the sake of once again rubbishing religion as an easy target.

    “Why should a request to wear certain clothing for religious reasons be treated as more important than a request to wear certain clothing owing to being a fan of a football club?”

    In some cases I would agree, but I still don’t think a football kit is really a great comparison point. As funny as it might be to see someone turn up to work in their long socks and short shorts I think you might have a hard time persuading a judge that it was appropriate and suitably professional clothing if you had just been sacked as an office worker, classroom teacher, supermarket worker, etc! If you are merely referring to the Burka then say so, because that might make the comparison stand up to slightly better scrutiny and I would probably agree. If, as I have assumed from its ambiguity, you also have a problem with small religious icons (such as the ever popular item of dispute, a crucifix on a chain) then clearly the two are incomparable, hence my original point.

    If you are referring to items of clothing which render an entire uniform defunct, such as a burka, then I can only point back to the earlier mention of it being as much a cultural problem as a religious one. If you do in fact mean clothing as any kind of worn item with a religious background then it is not a question of whether it is more important because it is religious, but whether it is simply less ridiculous than turning up to work in something wholly inappropriate for the task (which a football kit would be for the vast majority of the working populous, I suspect)!

    • waheera says:

      I felt uncomfortable just reading this, but perhaps it might shed some light on the issue for you and help to explain why there’s no simple quick-fix here?
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/femalecircumcision/femalecirc_1.shtml

    • Coel says:

      Hi waheera,

      On faith schools: The Accord dossier mostly just compiles independent evidence. It is saying that the system is wrong, not that every school is doing it wrong. Pointing to some schools that are exemplary, especially if they are so by ignoring the law, doesn’t refute the overall criticism.

      On FGM: yes it can be hard for the authorities to intervene. However, there is a still a reluctance on the part of the authorities to put genuine effort into this area, and that is partly because of a deference to religion and an attitude that perhaps such things are acceptable in some religions/cultures.

      On clothing: I still don’t get why you think my comparison is not valid. There are plenty of jobs where a replica football shirt would be just as appropriate or inapporpriate as religious dress. Why would the two be treated differently? If you think a crucifix should be treated differently from a Man Utd lapel badge, why?

  19. matt says:

    Although “in principle” the points are valid and I probably agree with them all, the article just feels ‘bitter and twisted’. I practice life just doesn’t feel like this. My life doesn’t feel constrained by any of the issues raised. Some people have a nice time at church and it brings them some comfort, and occasionally I like to go because I like the singing. The law allows me to shoot a welshman with a bow and arrow in hereford on the third saturday of the month on a february in a leap year (or something like that) but I probably won’t. There are some other religions that I don’t understand, but their teachings seem to be mostly about being nice to people. I’ll never be a great orator or writer, so no doubt someone will be able to rip this to shreds, or it will get ignored. Life is really defined by what most people do most of the time, not by extrapolating theoretical facts from history, and in my experience, most people are trying to make the best of their lives and bring up their children to be the best they can. Eg lots of people go to church schools and just ignore the god stuff, taking the stories in the spirit that they were intended (eg., good samaritan, thou shalt not steal etc) and ignore the silly stuff.

    Maybe that just makes me average. Do I have a rose tinted view of the world, or am I in the (normally silent) majority?

    • CJ says:

      Matt – I wondered who’d been letting all the Welshmen through – get a grip! I am often astonished by the gaps between the leadership of the major religions and the adherents. For example organised religion is capable of wilfully causing real harm, (condom use and AIDs, planned parenthood in the Philipines, women’s equality and self-determination in all theocracies, the list is a long one) but many or most of the brightest and kindest people I have personally known have been deeply religious. I think organised religion is good at piggy-backing on the altruistic impulses of the many nice people in all societies in the same way they do the holidays and festivals, making it all about them when they would have happened anyway. Maybe it is my rose tinted view of the world that the major religions will decline and the altruistic impulses will be far more effectively channelled through Doctors Without Borders etc.

      I think this is the same for the teachings you mention. If you read them cover to cover both testaments of the Bible and the Koran are mad and bad, hence the very selective sampling and helpful interpretations forcibly provided (for example I’ve never heard any sermons based on Judges 19 or Malachi 1). The teachings are not about being nice to people, the fact that so many people interpret them that way is the most optimistic thing I can think of – and an enormous relief to anyone who works on a sabbath.

  20. John O says:

    A decent article, but I would take exception to the “State Funded Chaplains”, when talking specifically about the Armed Forces. If you remove them, where would someone of a religious mindset go to see one, (for whatever reason), if they were stationed overseas? Or in the Navy, onboard a ship? You can’t just pop into town, to see the local Vicar in Afghanistan…

    I was in the Army for 9 years and didn’t have one single Chaplain “promote” their religious views, they were there for the people that wanted them, gave the service on Rememberance Day and one particularly Chaplain, (ex RUC), would hold a Christmas Carol competition between the squadrons, conducting them from a lofty position, by standing on 4 crates of beer, which went to the winner.

    They do also serve as medics or dispatch riders, thus serving a purpose other than just that of Chaplain. So whether you need them for your religious guidance or not, they do serve a purpose and are good for morale…

    • Coel says:

      I don’t object to the Armed Forces providing counsellors and pastoral care for soldiers. They could have a secular service in which the counsellors are from both religious and non-religious backgrounds. However, currently the Chaplains are all ordained ministers their on behalf of churches.

      “Chaplains hold a unique place in the army. They wear the army uniform but, although employed and paid by the Ministry of Defence, they are sent by their churches and their churches retain spiritual authority over them. [...] Padres do not think of themselves as army officers at all: they are clergy, first and foremost, who happen to work in the military. At the end of their chain of command is God.” (Quote from here.)

      Why should the taxpayer be paying for that? Your comment suggests that the religious troops have more special needs in this regard than others. I don’t really accept that; not having a priest of your religion to hand on a tour of Afghanistan doesn’t seem much of a hardship, no worse than many other things troops would be missing.

      Your comment also points to the amount of ceremonial religion still present in the Armed Forces, a default Christianity which suggests that religion is expected and thus that the non-religious soliders are not fully part of things.

  21. I agree with you Coel. It seems to me, good people of any persuasion can be hired to serve the same purposes.

  22. waheera says:

    “On faith schools: The Accord dossier mostly just compiles independent evidence. It is saying that the system is wrong, not that every school is doing it wrong. Pointing to some schools that are exemplary, especially if they are so by ignoring the law, doesn’t refute the overall criticism.”

    Your statement sets out to vilify every single state-funded faith school in the land, indeed possibly the world. Is your issue merely with the cherry-picking that some of these schools may employ, or is it purely because they are called faith schools? What then is your opinion on other state-funded schools, comprehensive or grammar, which likewise do their best to cherry-pick? If it is similarly aggressively anti then it would suggest to me that you have singled out faith schools for the wrong reason: to form a counter-productive argument based on personal prejudice. If it is not, why not?

    “On FGM: yes it can be hard for the authorities to intervene. However, there is a still a reluctance on the part of the authorities to put genuine effort into this area, and that is partly because of a deference to religion and an attitude that perhaps such things are acceptable in some religions/cultures.”

    There does not seem to be a “perhaps” in regard to its acceptability in some archaic cultures. It is deemed acceptable by some and in order to change that perception it would be inflammatory and rather stupid to use an authoritarian battering ram. It would achieve little but to drive such practices deeper underground, making it even harder for any potential victims to find the justice they deserve which, as you have rightly mentioned earlier in this blog, is already a big enough problem. I would be very interested to see what sources you are basing this concept of disinterest on.

    “On clothing: I still don’t get why you think my comparison is not valid. There are plenty of jobs where a replica football shirt would be just as appropriate or inapporpriate as religious dress. Why would the two be treated differently? If you think a crucifix should be treated differently from a Man Utd lapel badge, why?”

    Can you prove to me that they are treated differently in a way that benefits religions? If anything I can only think of examples in which religious dress has been discriminated against, rather than favourably. I cannot think that I have ever been made aware of a case being brought against someone wanting to wear a football kit to work, however ridiculous the situation. Similarly, I am not aware of any cases of ardent football supporters being forced to remove their lapel badges, or other fan merchandise. There have been a large number of cases in the UK and abroad where those wishing to wear religious clothing or accessories have been told they must not. Please correct me if I am wrong, and perhaps explain why any such discrimination stands in line with the definition of religious equality you gave in one of your other blogs?

    “What it means is that someone does not have fewer rights to do something owing to its religious content.”

    • Coel says:

      Hi waheera,

      Your statement sets out to vilify every single state-funded faith school in the land …

      I’m not intending to vilify every single faith school, I’m more criticising the faith-school system and the typical consequences of it. I do, though, think that faith schools are bad in principle (regardless of their discrimination against potential pupils and their coercion of pupils to be religious). We don’t have state schools for children of left-wing parents and other schools for children of right-wing parents, each trying to promote and reinforce the parents’ views. Instead, education should be about teaching the child to think for themselves and to form their own opinion on the evidence.

      If anything I can only think of examples in which religious dress has been discriminated against, rather than favourably.

      Really? Have there been cases where, say, Man Utd jewelry would be allowed but a crucifix forbidden? Or a football scarf allowed but religious dress not allowed? It seems that most people accept that it is sensible for a school or employer to be able to set a dress code, and the only people who don’t accept this and go to court about it are people wanting to depart from the dress code for religious reasons.

  23. waheera says:

    Hi Coel, apologies for the delay as it’s been a busy few days.

    “We don’t have state schools for children of left-wing parents and other schools for children of right-wing parents, each trying to promote and reinforce the parents’ views. Instead, education should be about teaching the child to think for themselves and to form their own opinion on the evidence.”

    While I would dispute (and have already) the validity of the claim that the selection process tends to target middle-class students, you are right that the schools tend to attract positive attention from parents and tend to achieve well. However, having witnessed first-hand the diversity within a number of these schools I find myself once again questioning parts of your argument. Many parents of different ethnicities, cultures and religions choose to send their children to Christian schools, for example, purely because of the quality of the teaching in such schools. Admittedly my experience of faith schools does not really include the most prestigious faith schools in already wealthy and well-educated areas, but my thinking here is that in the most deprived areas where inclusion is so vitally important, my experience is that these schools deliver well.

    In continuation, nothing else in the evidence suggests that the quality of education leaves much to be desired or that there is a disregard for “evidence” in faith school teaching. Admittedly there are certain moral and ethical dilemmas which will be discussed and presented differently where a faith school slant may be presented, but depending on which specific elements you are referring to, it is quite possibly a lack of irrefutable evidence which causes the differing opinions. This does of course depend on your specific issues.

    “Really? Have there been cases where, say, Man Utd jewelry would be allowed but a crucifix forbidden? Or a football scarf allowed but religious dress not allowed? It seems that most people accept that it is sensible for a school or employer to be able to set a dress code, and the only people who don’t accept this and go to court about it are people wanting to depart from the dress code for religious reasons.”

    I suspect there is an element of facetiousness in that question, as to the best of my knowledge there have never been concurrent court cases for or against football paraphernalia and religious items…? With regard to dress codes I think you do have a perfectly valid point, but your initial point asserted as “fact” that religious clothing and other accessories would be given some sort of override privilege where dress codes apply. This has been proven in courts in the UK and abroad not to be the case.

    Where a dress code is applicable, my own opinion (which I don’t expect you to agree with) is that religious items can often be less obviously inappropriate than a football kit would be. I suspect, though neither of us has any proof based on legal precedents, that a football tie/lapel pin or similar items would receive little negative attention and would be highly unlikely to result in the threat of dismissal. Certainly if this is not the case then I will be happy, if extremely surprised, to be corrected.

  24. Stefano Pavone says:

    I’ve never, ever understood why religion has to play such a big part in school. OK, it’s a topic to teach (Religious Education), and that’s fine and dandy – but that’s as far as it should go. Christian or non-Christian, each pupil, no… HUMAN BEING – should be allowed to believe in whatever they wish. I was forced to say grace at lunch in school. Every. Single. Time … and I’m not into the whole Christianity thing – not as much as my family. More to the point – why is this even part of the National Curriculum? Why make this mandatory? I’ve got three words for those in power – the education board, the Government, whoever: Freedom. Of. Choice!

  25. Stefano Pavone says:

    PS: Encourage homeschooling – and don’t say it’s “too American”, that’s BS – in the long run, it could very well be a better system.

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  29. Daniel Ortiz says:

    “(7) Promotion of religion by the BBC: ” hahahahahaha… come on now…. the BBC is not promoting religion… it actually does it a dis-service. Having 1 hour a week showing songs of praise is not promoting religion.

    • Coel says:

      Well, if the BBC’s promotion of religion is doing religion a dis-service then let’s end it. And it’s way more than 1 hour a week; the BBC has a whole religion section dedicated to religious programming.

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