Archive for the ‘United Nations’ Category

Local Campaigners meet with UN

June 15, 2007

Two representatives of the Marches Secularists were among ten secularists and humanists who met with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ms Asma Jahangir. The two-hour meeting took place in London on the 5th June. The two were given the opportunity to present their views alongside the President of the National Secular Society and the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association as part of Ms Jahangir’s two week visit to the UK.

Dr Antony Lempert from Bishops Castle, the human rights officer for the Marches Secularist group said that it was an honour to meet with Ms Jahangir. With her proud record of human rights activism in Pakistan, she is ideally placed to understand the iniquities of a country tied to one religious denomination. She listened attentively to our concerns and agreed with much of what we had to say. She reflected that making the necessary changes to basic civil liberties might be a slow process due to religious sensibilities.

The topics discussed in the meeting ranged from the Establishment of the Church of England, through education, and non-democratic consultation with religious groups, to the refusal of the government to follow the Scottish example of legalising humanist weddings. The group expressed their views that the formal and informal influence given to the church is inimical to equality and real freedom of belief. The group recognised that the more secular a state is, the greater freedom there is for everyone to follow their own beliefs. A secular state would protect all people, irrespective of their belief or lack of it.

Mr. Connor Birch, the Secretary of Marches Secularists, introduced the various speakers to Ms Jahangir. In his introduction to the session, Connor said “We are here today because we are concerned about human rights abuses, lack of cohesion in society, terrorism, and war caused by governments who give preferential treatment to one or more religious interests at the expense of everyone else.

Ms Jahangir was told, for example, that most faith schools are wholly funded by the taxpayer whilst having special dispensation to discriminate against teachers, parents and children on the grounds of their religion or lack of it. Even in community schools the law requires all pupils to attend daily acts of religious worship of a broadly christian nature unless their parents withdraw them. Few schools inform parents that they have this right, so many children are forced to endure worship that is meaningless to them.

Ms Jahangir was reminded that there are 26 bishops with an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords wielding undemocratic and unrepresentative influence particularly on contentious moral issues such as abortion and the right to die. This is despite approximately two thirds of people in the UK having no religious affiliation, with at least one third who not believe in any god. Less than 10% regularly attend any religious services.

The bias in favour of the Church of England encourages those of other denominations to ask for similar rights. This leads to a ‘levelling-up’ of the influence of all religious groups. This privileges and empowers self-styled ‘faith leaders’ who are often more extreme than those they claim to represent. Handing disproportional influence to these people can damage social cohesion. Similarly, those without religious belief are frequently and undemocratically excluded from legitimate debate.
Religious groups have certain exemptions from employment law and from goods, facilities and services law which allow them to discriminate against those of other religions and the non-religious. Since Government is encouraging the contracting out of public services to religious groups, the scale of this discrimination is set to increase.

The blasphemy law serves to stifle legitimate criticism and artistic expression, usually of the troubling topics that would most benefit from open and honest debate. It was recognised that our blasphemy law no longer carries the death penalty as it does in Ms Jahangir’s home country.

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