Monday, 30 January 2012

Event report: Keith Porteous Wood - 'Religious Threats to Equalities'

Time: 12 January 2012, 19:00-21:00
Place: Harry Massey LT, 25 Gordon Street, University College London

UCLU ASHS welcomed Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society (NSS) to give a talk on the special privileges and exemption from laws given to religious people in society. Having been in his current position since 1996, Wood leads the NSS in lobbying the UK government and Parliament, focusing on universal equalities and human rights. While his job description is to promote equalities and human rights, Wood began his talk saying he is actually fighting religion all of the time, 'so often it's religion that's the problem.'

Wood gave several examples of cases he had dealt with in his work throughout his talk, to illustrate the manner in which religious bodies claim exemption from various codes of conduct. These include the disadvantages faced by teachers in faith schools, the vast majority of whom are not religious, yet work in schools whose authorities can legally employ and dismiss qualified teachers on the basis of their religious beliefs. Similarly, the NSS has been involved in cases of individuals being discharged from job positions on the basis of their sexual orientation. While such instances angered Parliament, the Blair government at the time (2003) let these cases pass  - which 'gives an idea of exactly how much influence religion has in government.' The cumulative effect of having had religious Prime Ministers almost exclusively for the past 30 years is huge.

To further illustrate the kind of fights and their scope the NSS has to encounter, Wood described a case under the Brown government, whereby it was stated there should not be any concessions in VAT for religious places of worship. Wood and the NSS wanted this to be generalised to all public places - however, this request was rejected. It was not until Wood wrote an appeal to Brussels, that the UK government finally gave in. The work of the NSS spans broad horizons, then, as there interventions at a European level and occasionally in the UN. Although the Fundamental Rights Agency has been set up under the EU to look into human rights issues around Europe, tied to e.g. immigration and homophobia, Wood argued that a fundamental problem is the immense power of churches: their historical roots coupled with well-developed and well-funded networks of people part of a large hierarchical organisation, make the fight for human rights and equalities particularly challenging. To illustrate this, he described an episode during one of his visits to the headquarters of the European Commission - purposed to be a secular organisation - where he witnessed a male secretary greet a visiting bishop by kissing his ring.

Another fundamental problem, is the heterogeneity of the religious population: as many religious people are rather liberal and secular, there is a huge mismatch of democracy that religious representatives have so much power. This illustrates a worrying misrepresentation of the religious population. Indeed, in his conclusion of his talk, Wood argued that the entire religious make-up of the country is changing. Roughly 7% of the population go to church on a regular Sunday, at a rate that is constantly dropping, while the average age of church-goers increase at a meteoric rate. Considering this, it is 'absolutely bloody terrifying what they [religious bodies] can do because of their noddy religious status.'

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