Rolling Back Religious Privilege

Last week, I came across this story from the Telegraph. In the U.K., a coalition of liberal churches, educational and secular groups including the British Humanist Association are calling on the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to scrap a law which forces British schools to hold mandatory religious services for all their pupils.

The 1944 Education Act and its amendments require British secondary schools to hold a daily assembly of all students for Christian worship. A student’s parents can choose to opt them out, but students can’t opt out on their own. At least, this is the letter of the law; the article notes that many schools already ignore the rule because they don’t have the time. And good for them, I say – why should valuable educational time be wasted on mandatory religious instruction when there are important subjects to teach?

Under these circumstances, the call for repealing the law is largely a fait accompli. Even so, the U.K.’s churches are adamant about not giving up their special privileges:

Any move to scrap the rules would be strongly resisted by the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church.
A CofE spokesman said: “To get rid of the act of worship is to deny children the opportunity to experience something they wouldn’t experience elsewhere in their lives.”

This is a telling admission, isn’t it? It’s basically saying that the church wants to get its hands even on children whose parents haven’t decided to give them a religious upbringing. This should be the decision of the family, not the state. If a student’s parents didn’t choose to raise their child with religion, what makes the church think it has the right to step in and demand that the child be forced to attend church services anyway?

This is the start of a trend we can expect to see throughout Europe in the coming decades. As church attendance plummets, religious organizations will cling even more tightly to the special privileges they were once granted, trying to squeeze the last drops of devotion out of a populace that increasingly finds them outdated and irrelevant.

In the U.S., meanwhile, defenders of secularism still have to battle even the politicians who should be our allies. This editorial from the Times points out that President Obama has conspicuously failed to keep one of his most important campaign promises regarding church-state separation:

President Obama has issued an executive order revamping the rules covering religious-based and neighborhood programs receiving federal dollars….. But the revisions have a glaring omission. Ignoring one of Mr. Obama’s own important campaign promises, and a large coalition of religious, education and civil rights groups, the new decree fails to draw a firm line barring employment discrimination on the basis of religion.

Federal funding for church-run charities was once reserved to well-organized, experienced organizations that both hired employees and served the needy without regard to religious beliefs. But the Bush administration, in a thinly disguised vote-buying scheme dubbed the “faith-based initiative”, threw open the floodgates to every storefront church with its hand out. Worse, Bush administration lawyers advanced the ludicrous claim that these groups could take public money, then turn around and discriminate against people who didn’t share their religion – a total reversal of decades of progress in civil rights. Even worse, a right-wing Supreme Court then slammed the door in freethinkers’ faces by ruling that no one has the right to sue over how this money is distributed, even if it’s done in ways that violate the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, in American politics, it’s much easier to prevent an entitlement from passing than to dismantle it once it’s passed. I’m sure that Obama is continuing the program for the same reason Bush started it, as a means of bribing churchgoers to vote for him and distributing favors to cooperative pastors. The biggest problem with this is Obama’s misguided belief that he’ll ever win anything from the right-wing lunatic sects. The fundamentalists will never support Obama; even if he buried their churches in federal dollars, the only reward he’d get would be their continued undying hatred. They’ll continue to do everything in their power to oppose and undermine him, and American taxpayers will continue to be on the hook for these wasteful and illegal giveaways.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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