UK has “Systemic Discrimination” against freethinkers

Indi at Canadian Atheist brought the IHEU’s 2013 Freedom of Thought Report to my attention and has already done a brilliant summary of the issues facing Canada. Very shortly he’ll also be posting a commentary on the broader report.

I encourage you to download and read the entire 244 page report online and support your local IHEU Affiliate.

I thought though, given my current country of residence, that I’d focus on the United Kingdom’s status, which coincidentally to Canada is Systemic Discrimination.

While it’s quite easy to live your life as an atheist in Britain – up to two-thirds the country may be non-religious – the report focuses on laws and state institutions, which the UK does quite poorly on. Specifically, they list the following issues that are a bit more extensive than those in Canada.

  • There is an established church or state religion
  • Systematic religious privilege
  • Discriminatory prominence given to religious bodies, traditions or leaders
  • State-funding of religious schools
  • Religious schools have powers to discriminate in admissions or employment
  • Religious groups control some public or social services
  • Official symbolic deference to religion
  • State-funded schools offer religious instruction without secular alternatives but it is optional

Bold points are the “Systemic Discrimination” tests while the other two are merely “Mostly Satisfactory”

It’s very similar to the issues facing Canada – religiously privileged school systems – plus the existence of the Church of England/Scotland as state churches and the seats reserved for Bishops in the House of Lords.

What’s particularly troubling is that after years of meddling by the government of England and Wales, the education system is in such a mess that further “reforms” are being pushed by the Coalition government to bring in more Free Schools – most of which are run by religious organizations. Whereas a few years ago most schools were either state of Church of England run, an increasing number are being run by different religious groups, including Muslims, Evangelical Christians, and Orthodox Jews.

Scotland is the brighter point, where the fewest state-funded schools are religious (still 14%) and they are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion. Perhaps Scottish independence wouldn’t be such a bad direction?

The report also notes that schools in England and Wales are required to hold daily prayers. I’m not certain that this law is followed closely but, as in Canada, it likely means that rural and more conservative areas are able to enact greater pressure on those who don’t conform with the dominant religion.

Additionally, a concern is raised about government funding for the Church Conservation Trust charity. This organization works to preserve historical churches across the country. Most of those churches are still property of the Church of England but at the very least are made accessible to the broader public and as a secular charity, the CCT allows any group (even the Sunday Assembly!) to rent their spaces.

A note about libel reform – which was championed after the British Chiropractic Association’s vindictive lawsuit against science writer Simon Singh – concludes the report. While the situation has improved with the new laws, Northern Ireland still lags the rest of the UK and maintains onerous requirements for defenders of free speech.

Two cases are highlighted to conclude the report. The first notes that a Christian charity receiving public funding was discriminating against non-Christian employees and that similar organizations are likely permitted within the law to do the same. The second discusses an atheist who was threaten with arrest for an anti-religious sign in his window.

Overall most countries don’t fare very well on the report. Of the roughly 200 nations in the UN, only 15 receive a grade of “Free and Equal”: Belgium, Kosovo, the Netherlands, Fiji (tentatively based on its new constitution), Kiribati, Nauru, São Tomé and Príncipe, Benin (with broader concerns about human rights), Niger, Sierra Leone, Jamaica, Uruguay, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Many of the “atheistic” Northern European nations fail for perpetuating state religions or for keeping blasphemy laws on the books.

It’s also worth noting that a survey that covers the entire world is bound to have limits. Many local conditions are impossible to document by a lone, underfunded NGO. In some cases this will mean missed discrimination (the Canadian section is missing a few examples) and in others, they may have overestimated the effect of unused laws that remain on the books.

Nevertheless, it’s a valuable report and hopefully it inspires other secular groups to produce similar documents and to act in favour of secular human rights.