Key Issues

FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND EXPRESSION

There is a tendency for religious ideologies and practices not to be discussed or debated thoroughly. This is often driven by ostensibly good intentions, such as the desire not to be (or to be perceived as being) “intolerant”.

Unfortunately this very silence often perpetuates and compounds much of the harm carried out in religion’s name by insulating that harm from much-needed scrutiny. Protection of free speech and expression is therefore central to the philosophy of the LSS. We believe religious ideologies and religious practices are entitled to no greater protection from debate, scrutiny, criticism or indeed outright ridicule than any other ideologies or practices.

We oppose all forms of religious censorship. We believe all religious ideologies and practices must be debated and discussed freely and safely.

We supported the successful Reform Clause 1 (“Feel free to annoy me”) and Reform Section 5 (“Feel free to insult me”) campaigns.

We proudly supported the brave LSE students Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis on their successful challenge against their university to assert the right to wear “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts, and we proudly supported the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Maajid Nawaz when he faced calls to stand down as a PPC and received numerous death threats for tweeting an image of a Jesus and Mo cartoon.

Our then-Secretary Charlie Klendjian appeared on the BBC’s Big Questions programme alongside Chris, Abhishek and Maajid in January 2014 (it’s on YouTube here) – this was the very first time an image of Mohammed has been depicted on British television.

We unequivocally support the right of the magazine Charlie Hebdo to depict images of Mohammed. In our view the first word we should hear after the statement “free speech is important” is “therefore”. It is not “but”.

We were the only secularist organisation to publicly support the Sharia Watch UK / Vive Charlie Mohammed cartoon exhibition, which was scheduled for September 2015 but was sadly cancelled for security reasons.


EDUCATION

The LSS opposes faith schools, which currently constitute approximately one third of the UK’s state schools. We support the Fair Admissions campaign.

We believe allowing schools to apply religious criteria in the selection of their pupils or staff is fundamentally discriminatory and undemocratic, and that rather than promoting “diversity” and “social cohesion” it does precisely the opposite.

We believe schools should be open to all children and staff regardless of their religious background, if any.

We oppose schools being used as a vehicle to further religious ideologies such as “creationism”, or to promote negative views of homosexuality.

We oppose the legal obligation on schools to hold acts of collective worship and we support the campaign to remove this requirement.


HEALTHCARE

The LSS opposes any physical procedures on children which are not medically necessary, whether for religious or “cultural” reasons, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) or male circumcision. We believe a parent’s right to religious freedom has to stop at the body of a child.

We support the right of women to have safe and legal abortions.

We oppose the state funding of chaplains and other religious ministers in the National Health Service. We believe religious institutions should fund these and that the State should only fund healthcare which is religiously neutral.

We believe religious beliefs, religious individuals and religious institutions carry no more weight in the assisted dying debate than their non-religious counterparts.


EQUALITY

We believe that legal rights and the administration of justice should be based on equality, respect for human rights and objective evidence, and that no weight should be attached to religious doctrine, belief in the supernatural or so-called cultural traditions.

We believe everyone has the right to equal treatment regardless of their religion if any, their gender or their sexual orientation.

We took part in the successful protest that culminated in Universities UK withdrawing their guidance endorsing gender segregation driven by “genuinely-held religious beliefs”. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has since published advice making it clear that it views gender segregation on campus as unlawful.


FAITH-BASED ARBITRATION AND MEDIATION, AND PARALLEL LEGAL SYSTEMS

The LSS opposes any faith-based arbitration or mediation which is not compatible with the fundamental principles of UK law, such as gender equality and equality of bargaining power.

We support the One Law For All campaign against sharia law. We recommend their reports Sharia Law in Britain and Multiculturalism and Child Protection in Britain: Sharia law and other Failuresas explanations of the issues surrounding sharia law.

We support the Sharia Watch UK campaign. We were involved in the launch of the campaign at the House of Lords in April 2014 where our then-Secretary Charlie Klendjian delivered a speech (here), and we contributed to the report Sharia Law: Britain’s Blind Spotwhich was sent to all parliamentarians in the UK.

We support Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill. We recommend the report by Baroness Cox, A Parallel World: Confronting the abuse of many Muslim women in Britain today”, which explains some of the workings of the Bill and describes the problems which it seeks to resolve.

In 2013 we ran a student essay-writing competition jointly with the One Law For All campaign called Sharia: what’s going on? The winning essay, Sharia law: no place in Europe” is here. The author received a prize of £300. The competition was kindly sponsored by the National Secular Society.

We successfully challenged the Law Society’s decision to issue a practice note on sharia succession rules. We were the first organisation to report that the Law Society had issued this practice note, and we were also the first organisation to report that the Solicitors Regulation Authority had endorsed it. We challenged the SRA on the basis it is a public authority for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and therefore fully bound by the public sector equality duty. The SRA promptly withdrew its endorsement.

Following our persistent campaigning the Law Society finally withdrew its practice note, going so far as to say they would not amend or replace it and issuing a clear public apology.

We were (so far as we are aware) the only group of lawyers to challenge this practice note, and certainly publicly.

Our objections to the Law Society’s practice note were as follows:

  1. The Law Society was giving guidance on a subject that was outside of its remit (theology)
  2. The Law Society was giving sharia, which is not only theology but which also has a very poor human rights record, the credibility and respectability of a legal discipline within our jurisdiction
  3. We were not in any way challenging the principle of testamentary freedom under English law but we did not feel it was appropriate for the Law Society to give guidance on how to achieve discrimination: the Law Society was endorsing and encouraging discriminatory behaviour because the practice note contained guidance which explicitly discriminated against women and non-Muslims (at section 3.6 of the practice note). The Law Society would not have given, and should not give, guidance on, e.g., how to achieve racist objectives in a will even though racist provisions would be lawful, and nor should it have given guidance on how to achieve sexist and religiously discriminatory objectives in a will
  4. Anything that undermines or competes with English law, or that is perceived as undermining or competing with English law, is damaging to the principle of equality before the law and the rule of law more generally
  5. The practice note was at odds with the Law Society’s own stated commitment to equality and diversity

Because of our campaign the Law Society even distanced itself more generally from sharia by “delisting” all its sharia courses.

You can see a full chronology of the campaign’s key events, media coverage and blog posts on this page of our website.


CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM

The LSS supports constitutional reform to disestablish the Church of England, and to remove the discriminatory and undemocratic constitutional privilege which currently sees twenty six bishops sit in the House of Lords as a matter of constitutional right.

The LSS is currently campaigning for a separation of the Church of England from judicial affairs, in calling for the abolishment of the religious element of ceremonies to mark the start of the legal year. The nature of this annual event has become increasingly controversial because of its potential impact on the impartiality of judges attending it, and because this custom has not changed despite the higher standards which have been introduced across the rest of the judicial system since its inception. There are various factors to take into consideration now, and since 1997 there have been several important changes:

  1. The Human Rights Act 1998 raised the importance of compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 6 (right to a fair hearing) and Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including non-religious beliefs)
  2. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 changed the role of the Lord Chancellor so that he is no longer the head of the judiciary, nor a judge; he remains a Cabinet minister in the government
  3. The Equalities Act 2010 has established “religion or belief” (which includes having no religion or belief) as a “protected characteristic”
  4. Witnesses may be members of other religions or none, a fact which each is obliged to demonstrate to the court by the operation of the Oaths Act 1978
  5. The number of cases coming before judges requiring resolution of conflicting religious claims has significantly increased; they involve points of difference between one religion or denomination and another, or between religious believers and non-believers
  6. A Guide to Judicial Conduct has been introduced, which advises judges how to avoid the appearance of bias or lack of impartiality as regards many areas of their lives and activities
  7. Senior judiciary have declared that judges today are secular (such as the President of the Family Division, 29 October 2013, and the Lord Chief Justice, 5 November 2013)

Because of our campaign, in October 2014 the annual Judges’ Service was for the first time – so far as we are aware – opened up to journalists.

For the latest on this campaign, see here.


COURT PROCEDURE

We are strongly opposed to permitting face coverings in court in all stages of both criminal and civil trials for anyone, whether a participant (including jurors) or a representative, and whether giving evidence or not. Claimed religious beliefs would not afford any exemption from this. We believe failure to comply should be dealt with as contempt.

The LSS does accept that special measures might be ordered by a judge to protect the identities of individuals in the interests of justice for security reasons (for example, members of the intelligence services).


ANIMAL WELFARE

The LSS supports law reform in accordance with current scientific research regarding the most humane way to slaughter animals.

We oppose existing legal exemptions granted to religious organisations which dispense with the requirement to stun animals prior to slaughter, which minimises their suffering, in order to comply with the religious requirements for kosher and halal food.

Other related organisations opposing ritual slaughter include the Farm Animal Welfare Council, British Veterinary Association, Compassion in World Farming, and the RSPCA.


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