- November 2014 : Trojan horse scandal leads to debate about faith schools and religious education
A number of faith schools in Britain are currently being questioned and downgraded by school inspectors for not teaching pupils about different faiths or warning them of the dangers of extremism. This follows a recent series of events known as the “Trojan horse” scandal in which schools in Birmingham were accused of promoting Islamist ideology.
In March 2014 a letter was leaked, in which Islamists claimed responsibility for installing new headteachers in Birmingham. The letter, which authenticity has since been questioned, raised allegations that several schools in Birmingham and elsewhere were being run by Islamists systematically trying to spread an extremist ideology. This alleged campaign became known as “Operation Trojan horse” and led to a large government investigation of five schools. While the government found no evidence of terrorism or violent extremism, the inspectors did report weak management, mistrust among staff, active promotion of conservative Sunni Islamism by some teachers, and intolerance and intergroup tensions on religious lines within the schools. There had also been a number of complaints from parents that participation in Christian worship was required from the largely Muslim student body.
The schools involved in the original scandal in Birmingham were not faith schools. However, the Office for Standards in Education has since become more critical of religious influences and religious teaching, and this includes questioning how faith schools operate. A Jewish secondary school and a Catholic school have already both been placed into special measures after the new rules came in place. The new education secretary, Nicky Morgan, is launching a consultation suggesting that those taking religious education at secondary level should have to study more than one faith.
Read more about the debate in the Guardian.
- 24 April : Prime Minister’s comments about Christianity sparks debate about the separation of Church and State
In his Easter reception in Downing Street, Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron has spoken about his Christian faith, and how it helps him make moral decisions. His speech, and particularly his description of Britain as a “Christian country”, has sparked much reaction among the press. A letter signed by 50 public figures claimed that the UK was "a non-religious" and "plural" society, and that Cameron’s claims could foster divisions. Nick Clegg, leader of the other party in the Coalition government, the Liberal Democrats, has argued for a separation of Church and State. Archbishop Justin Welby on the other hand has backed Cameron’s claim, and said, he is right to state that Britain is a “Christian country” regardless of the number of Christian believers due to the historical and current influence of the church.
- 29 March : First gay couples are wed in Britain, but Anglican clergy are told to avoid doing so themselves
The Marriage (of same-sex couples) Act came into force in July last year, but the first wedding ceremonies took place on Saturday, 29th March 2014. The law in England and Wales has also been changed to recognise for the first time same-sex marriages performed overseas. In preparation to the change in law, a recent letter from the house of bishops discourages Anglican clergy from marrying partners of the same sex. However, at least seven clergy couples are preparing to marry in defiance of their bishops, although none of them are known to be planning a public ceremony. The bishop of Salisbury issued a statement just before the new law took effect, praising the couples who will get married and assuring them of his prayers and good wishes. His supportive remarks echo the views of a significant body of dissent within the Church of England, who are unhappy with the formal position taken in the church against gay marriage.
Read more about this in the Guardian.
- 22 March : British solicitors encouraged to write Sharia compliant wills
New guidelines for solicitors on drawing up “Sharia compliant” wills represent the first time Islamic law could be implemented in the British legal system. Under a new guidance policy produced by The Law Society, solicitors can write Islamic wills that exclude unbelievers and deny women an equal share of inheritances. Children born out of wedlock, and spouses married in non-Muslim weddings could also be excluded from succession under Sharia principles.
The new guidance has been met with many negative reactions. The Law Society defended the guidance as responding to the demands of a multifaith society, but other lawyers are sceptical of encouraging the growth of a “parallel legal system”. Many are also worried about the implications for gender equality and human rights. Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, was quoted in the Telegraph saying : “This guidance marks a further stage in the British legal establishment’s undermining of democratically determined human rights-compliant law in favour of religious law from another era and another culture”.
The protests have led to calls for a Parliamentary inquiry into the current scale of Islamic law in the UK. Sharia principles have so far not been formally included in Britain’s legal system, but a network of approximately 85 informal Sharia bodies exist. They deal with commercial and family disputes between Muslim families.
Read more about this in the Telegraph.
- 6 March : Head of British vets demands change in ritual slaughter legislation
The new head of the British Veterinary Association, John Blackwell, has said the ritual slaughter of animals should be adapted to prevent animal suffering. UK legislation allows traditional Jewish and Muslim practice of slitting the animal’s throat and allowing them to bleed to death, to produce kosher and halal meat. More than 600,000 animals are bled to death in religious abattoirs in Britain every week.
Mr Blackwell said that sheep could remain conscious for up to seven seconds after having their throat cut, while for cattle it was two minutes. He argued that animals should be stunned at the time of death to prevent unnecessary suffering. He also suggested to ban the practice if Muslims and Jews refuse to adopt more humane methods of killing. Pressure for a ban on religious slaughter without stunning is supported by animal welfare charities.
Jewish campaigners argue these methods of slaughter do preserve animal welfare. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also disagreed with the views of Mr Blackwell, saying that a ban on ritual slaughter would breach the rights of Jewish and Muslim communities.
- 14 January : A 23 year old Afghan man is believed to have become the first to be granted asylum in the UK on the basis of his non-religion.
The man, who was brought up as a Muslim, arrived in the England in 2007, and was given temporary leave to remain. Since then, he has become an atheist, and feared that if forcibly returned to his homeland he would face persecution for having renounced his faith. With help from a free law clinic for students, he submitted his claim to the Home Office under the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, arguing that if he returned to Afghanistan he would face persecution on the grounds of religion, or in his case, lack of religion. The Home Office’s decision to accept denial of the existence of God as grounds for protection could set a significant precedent in asylum and immigration cases.
Read more in the Guardian.
- 5 January : The Church of England is testing a new version of the baptism service omitting references to “sin” and “the devil”.
In the new version ; parents and godparents are instead asked to "reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises". The new wording of the service was devised in response to requests to couch the ceremony more accessible language and is being piloted in 400 parishes until April. It is not been formally approved by the church’s governing body, the General Synod. Nonetheless, it has already been criticised by former bishop Michael Nazir-Ali for “dumbing down” the Church’s teachings.
Read more in the Mail on Sunday.