15 February 2012

The main "religiously oppressed" people in the UK are kids who happen to be the wrong religion for their local school

In the months since the May 2010 election and the formation of the ConDem government, it has often seemed like every day is "silly season" in the media. There are a number of Tories - both ministers and backbenchers - who specialise in trotting out loony right-wing theories taken directly from the US Christian right, eugenicists, far-right libertarians and other unsavoury sources. One of the worst offenders is Lady Warsi, who yesterday said that "militant secularisation" was taking hold of society.

On the face of it, this is a statement so ludicrous that it is hard to take seriously. Warsi's argument appears to be based on two recent court rulings:
  1. Bideford Council, which was told it can't hold prayers as a formal part of council meetings (councillors are of course free to hold prayers before the meetings start should they so wish);
  2. the Christian B&B owners who weren't allowed to turn away a gay couple.

It's hard to see either of these judgements as evidence for secularisation, militant or otherwise. In the Bideford Council case, it is very hard to see what prayers have to do with council business. In the case of the Christian B&B owners, if the judgement had gone the other way it would have been tantamount to a ruling that anti-gay Christians should be exempt from laws outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. If that were allowed to stand, one might as well say that Nick Griffin should be exempt from laws outlawing discrimination on the grounds of race. But this has nothing to do with religion versus secularism. It's to do with whether the law should be applied consistently or not. Lady Warsi appears to be suggesting that anti-discrimination legislation amounts to "militant secularisation"; the corollary of this argument is that we can only have "religious freedom" if we allow the oppression of gay people, ethnic minorities, women, or other groups. In which case... give me militant secularisation over religious freedom every day.

There is one area in which an element of our society is discriminated against on a regular basis: school choice. But, as Dr Evan Harris (the greatest Lib Dem leader we never had) pointed out on Channel 4 News last night, it is children from non-religious families (and the "wrong" religions) who are discriminated against, not children from the "correct" religious families. A faith school - for example, a C of E school - can refuse an application from a child whose parents are of a different faith, or no faith, solely based on that reason. This is blatant religious discrimination of a type outlawed in most other areas of public services and the private market. For example, a supermarket can't refuse to serve you on the grounds you're an atheist. An employer can't refuse to employ you on the grounds you're from the wrong religion (except, I think, in the case of teachers at faith schools - once again, blatant discrimination). If I have a criticism to make of the National Secular Society, it's that they are picking the wrong targets. Prayers at council meetings is a niche issue at best. Discrimination in the school sector affects millions of children, and could probably be stopped via a test case if a school was taken to court (and if necessary to the European Court of Human Rights). Having said that, disclaimer: my legal knowledge is pretty much zero so I could be talking complete rubbish here.

As things stand, the Mickey Gove education reforms are going to hand over huge chunks of the school system to religious organisations, making an already big problem worse. If I have kids in the next few years, home schooling - or one of the "progressive" schools like Steiner - may be the only viable option. At this point I'd say "God help us" but that would just be playing into Lady Warsi's hands.

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