Remember 20 years ago, when every tabloid newspaper contained some story of a Labour council (especially Camden, Brent, Lambeth etc.)'s 'loony left' excesses - "baa baa green sheep", "council bans 'white coffee'", etc? It was the standard "column filler" of the day, and was probably a factor in the Tory domination of what one might call the "giro" years. They were tough days, of media distortion, fabrication, the poor quality colour reproduction of Eddie Shah's Today, and newsprint that came off on your hands.
Back in the present, it's clear that stories about various aspects of religious expression - or lack of it - have become the new column filler, and the public just can't get enough of them. I've decided to round up a couple of the most recent ones in one go, to save time. First up we have the story of the Muslim primary school teaching assistant in Dewsbury who has been suspended for wearing a face veil in the classroom, on the grounds that the kids cannot understand what she is saying. The teaching assitant has said she will remove the veil but not if there is a male teacher present in the room.
The case is currently with an employment tribunal and I would imagine the teaching assistant has a reasonably good chance. It seems surprising that putting a very thin piece of fabric in front of one's mouth woud make it impossible to hear what one was saying. I think the only grounds on which she might lose is if the tribunal rules that the kids need to be able to see her lips to understand her. Anyway, we will wait and see on that one. Much more extraordinary than the case itself has been the intervention by communities minister Phil Woolas, who accused the assistant of sexual discrimination and said she should be sacked as "she's put herself in a position where she can't do her job." This is one of the most crazy statements I have heard in a long while. On this basis, presumably we should prosecute all parents who choose to send their kids to a single sex school, as they're guilty of sexual discrimination? Tony Blair has now predictably waded into the debate saying that the full face veil is a "mark of separation" and backing the school authorities in Dewsbury. It is most amusing that the prime minister, who makes such a big thing of his religious beliefs, should be speaking out against religious freedom of expression in this way. Unless, of course, he's in favour of Christian, but not Muslim, freedom of expression?
Which brings us on to our second story of religious expression denied - the British Airways check-in worker who has been suspended for wearing a cross necklace. For the first - and hopefully the only - time in my life I find myself in agreement with Ann Widdecombe, who has urged a boycott of BA on this issue. Why the hell should someone have to take off a religious symbol just because their employer says so? BA says the cross has to be worn under the uniform - but WHY?
I'm coming at this issue as an atheist who believes that perhaps the most astute religious commentator we have in this country at the moment is Richard Dawkins. But I also believe that there is no good reason for regulations on how to dress in the workplace to stifle free religious expression. Down with authoritarianism at work! I'm tempted to wear a 3 foot long gold cross wearing 20 kilos to work as a gesture of sympathy. And if anyone tries to take it off me, then watch out... come and 'ave a go if you think you're 'ard enough.