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!