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they were once granted, trying to squeeze the last drops of devotion out of a populace that increasingly finds them outdated and irrelevant.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, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Nathaniel

    And to make it even worse from a Machiavellian view, if Obama chose to only give to churchs that tend to be more liberal, they would likely be put out by feeling like they were being bribed, rather than give votes for money. Damned if you do…

  • Roger

    The Telegraph probably included the article to get their readers gnashing at the bit. In the UK, the Telegraph seems set on becoming the mouthpiece of the Christian Right, sometimes referred to as the hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade. It may be the first stirrings of a readership war between the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Be nice if the article was true, though this government isn’t known as the Conservative Party for nothing. (Oh, yes, them. Forget the Liberal Democrats; they’ve never been able to make up their minds about anything.)

  • J. James

    “Had enough Government yet?”
    -Roger Hedgecock
    I observe that the larger Government gets the less efficient it becomes. The more corrupt it becomes. The more it wastes with carefree abandon. The more of a drag it becomes on people’s resources, money and morale. The more it inflates a sickening apathy and entitlement complex.
    But what other choice do we have?
    Should we instead shred up, pour Drain-o on, and proceed to ignite every bill of rights amendment barring the right to bear arms by voting Republican? I think not. They are only marginally more effective than their liberal counterparts, and just as corrupt if not more so. Not to mention they remind us every day that they have absolutely zero interest in meaningful environmental conservation and are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Church.
    Just who does that leave? The Libertarians? Ha! Their pure, unfettered Capitalist model is nothing short of dystopian and absolutely terrifying, with disturbingly feeble moral foundations. I hope it never. NEVER. Comes to that. Unless of course you like the taste of Soylent Green.
    Organized “moderates” show a troubling trend of reflecting either highly suspect moderation or the worst of both worlds. This is almost overshadowed by their complete lack of support by unfortunately necessary fringe votes and their foggy-at-best values. You would have better luck herding cats.
    Bah, where is the Bull Moose Party when you need it?

  • Snoof

    “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.”

    So… apparently children aren’t permitted to attend religious services outside of school hours any longer.

    More of that militant atheism, I guess.

  • TEP

    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.”

    Most children also don’t get the opportunity to attend workshops based around the views of David Icke. Will the Church of England be campaigning just as hard to make sure that children won’t miss out on getting to listen to people talk about the great reptilian conspiracy? Or are children only ‘missing out’ when they don’t get to hear the Church’s views promulgated?

  • Zietlos

    I personally think not enough kids get to experience logic. The church should campaign for a logical argument and debate lesson for the kids.

    JJames: The choice? Go bigger government. Small government is easily bribed to adjust things, and one mere official, believing themselves divinely inspired, can crumble the country. Remember, a dictatorship is a government of one. Smallest you can get while its still there. Of the two, I’d say bigger is better. Barring that, if you make it a beaurocratic quagmire… Well, Canada has suffered more than a half-decade under a young earth creationist prime minister, and they have more power inside the country than presidents do in theirs, and yet he couldn’t screw us completely over, because beaurocracy makes undoing anything, or doing anything, friggin near impossible. 5 different parties, minorities large enough to just say “screw you” to the majority meaning they need to all agree to something, you gotta cooperate, and since that will never happen when it comes to trying to send people to religious wars using the draft or to eliminate healthcare plans, since you can’t get sane people to agree with you.

  • J. James

    Ha! You nailed it.
    There is such a thing as too much gridlock and government. Past a certain point, government starts to muck up the economy and grow out of control, simultaneously polarizing the populace who then tend to drastically overcorrect and… Well, viva le depreccion

  • J. James

    Further, government can provide a minimum of service to it’s populace, military and environment without completely toppling it’s economy. Germany would be a solid example of progressive social values and careful regulation of the economy leading to a stable economic powerhouse(whose Achilles’ heel seems to be the Euro, whodda thunk it), proving that the two schools of thought are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts. But for whatever reason people think that only a gigantic money pit of a government can accomplish a social safety net. And please explain how a large, overpaid, vastly inefficient, gridlocked government is less corrupt and more workable than a small, unobtrusive one. Before you say it, though, I will acknowledge that most socialist governments have good protective programs.

  • Wednesday

    I’m disgusted by the degree to which employers in general are allowed to/get away with* religious discrimination. I’m also particularly disgusted by charities that accept federal funds but continue discriminatory hiring practices. Yes, the federal government should set clear guidelines prohibiting this, but I also think it’s unethical for the charities to _accept_ federal funding if they wish to discriminate. That goes for charities that wish to discriminate based on the usual suspect markers (race, religion, national origin, sex and gender identity, orientation, disability status) when it comes to _giving out_ aid as well.

    *I have seen a number of job ads were the employer simultaneously claimed to be an Equal Opportunity Employer (which, according to the DoL website means they can’t discriminate based on protected classes like religion), but if you go to the employer’s website, you learn that there is a religious test for employment. I actually prefer to see job ads that make it clear they only want Their Kind of Christian and don’t claim to be EOE, because then I don’t waste my time.

  • Ruana

    Heard from an acquaintance last night:

    “I didn’t give my children a very religious upbringing – at school Christmas they thought they were singing about the baby Cheeses.”

  • Jane

    I don’t know where this keeps coming from. I went to school in the UK (Scotland to be specific) and never had to do daily worship. We didn’t have daily assemblies and when we did have them, the only time we ever prayed or anything was when there was a religious leader taking the assembly. I don’t know anyone who has had to do daily worship in school. Maybe this only applies to England??

  • Ruana

    No, Jane. I grew up on the Isle of Man – which is a Crown Dependency, not part of England – and had twice-weekly worship. Once some teacher – I forget who – told me that legally it was supposed to be every day.