[Chris Sloggett] Hello and welcome to the National
Secular Society podcast. I’m Chris Sloggett Communications Officer at the NSS. Today
we’ll be discussing why the advancement of religion shouldn’t be a charitable
purpose and why the government should stand up to religious groups who want to
dilute inclusive teaching about relationships, sex and health. In a recent
report we highlighted the harm done by allowing organizations which exists
solely to advance religion to claim charitable status. The report revealed
that over 12,000 charities claim their status only on the basis that they
promote religion, with some using public money to promote extremism and harmful
practices. The report was covered in a variety of press outlets including in
The Observer newspaper and on BBC Radio. I’m joined now by our Campaigns Officer,
Megan Manson, whose research is instrumental in producing this report.
Hello Megan. [Megan Manson] Hiya.
[CS] So, firstly do you mind telling me a little bit about what you found out when you were doing all your
work on this report, during your research? [MM] Okay. This report, which is called ‘For
the Public Benefit: The Case for Removing the Advancement of Religion as a
Charitable Purpose’, and its main finding was, as you said, that over 12,000
charities are set up to do nothing apart from advancing religion, or so it seems,
and the reason for this, is that the advancement of religion is one of the
13 recognized charitable purposes according to charity law. So there’s many
different charitable purposes: there’s the relieving of povert, education, I
think facilitating sports is another one, and advancing religion is one of those
13. So what it means is an organization can set itself up as a charity for
simply holding activities which are deemed to be advancing religion in any
shape or form, even if it’s very, very difficult for most people to recognize
any public benefit to that particular activity [CS] Yeah. So, in some cases, this is
particularly shocking, isn’t it, and you uncovered some examples where
charities are claiming tax breaks despite the fact that they’re actively doing harm.
Do you mind telling us bit about that? [MM] Well, registered charities are exempt from most forms of tax, by the very virtue of
the fact that they are charities, because they are supposed to be serving a public benefit.
But many of the charities we examined didn’t seem to be doing this at
all, and, as you said, some of them, I think you could argue, are causing more harm
than good. We found registered charities which are
promoting facilitating gay conversion therapy. we found charities training people to perform religious,
so non-medical, circumcision on babies. We found charities exist to certify non-stun,
religious methods of animal slaughter, which are generally regarded as cruel. And we found charities promoting extremist political ideology as well. [CS] So these are charities which are
being given the opportunity to benefit from charitable status, simply because
religion is seen as a good thing, and they are religious, therefore what
they’re doing must be good. I suppose that’s the logic that gets applied.
What do you think is the solution to this? [MM] Well, the solution we
proposed is, on paper, quite simple. It’s simply to remove the advancement
of religion as one of the charitable purposes, so if a religious charity is
providing a public benefit, a genuine public benefit, it should be easy for it
to register under one of the other twelve heads of charity, for example
education, helping the poor, or many different charitable purposes which most
of us would recognize and say “Oh yes, that is a definitely a public
benefit”. And I think there are many religious charities that could serve
that and could list as a charity for those purposes. And if it isn’t providing
a public benefit, if that charity finds it quite difficult to justify its
charitable status, if you discount religion, then we should say it shouldn’t
be a charity. So removing the Advancement of Religion as a charitable
purpose would improve confidence in the charity sector, and it would free up more
public money for truly beneficial projects, and it would reduce the burden
on the charity regulators as well. [CS] Yeah, okay. So there’ll be lots of advantages
to actually changing charity law, so that the advancement of religion was no longer seen as de facto, a positive.
I suppose that the solution you are suggesting, that we propose in the
report, is more a government solution, it’s more of a legislative solution.
Obviously, when things go wrong with charities, there’s obviously often a lot
of attention on the charity regulators. What can the charity regulators actually do?
[MM] Well the sad thing is, is that the hands of the charity regulators, like the
Charity Commission of England and Wales, are largely tied by charity law.
So, basically, anything that looks like a charity in its structure and its mission
is obliged to register as one. So, because advancing religion is
considered a charitable purpose, any organisation that in any way advances
religion and otherwise sort of looks like a charity and how its set up has to
be registered as a charity. That’s the law. Another problem is that it is very
difficult for charity regulators to deregister organisations that are
found not to be providing a public benefit. So, if a charity is bringing
about harm in pursuit of its aims, the Charity Commission are quite limited as
to what they can do to stop it. And I think this is a real problem.
It doesn’t have the power, really, to crack down on some of the worst examples we’ve seen.
[CS] Okay. So these legislative changes, that’s the main thing.
I know we’ve we’ve reported some charities to the regulators as well,
particularly the Charity Commission for England and Wales, but it is interestin,
I suppose, that their hands are tied. A possible comeback to this report, just anticipating an argument from our
opponents, it’s actually an argument that we tend to hear quite a
lot, is that many religious charities do good. Obviously a lot of people would say
that religious groups often do alleviate poverty or they provide education.
How does the report actually handle that? [MM] Well, the report acknowledges
that there are many people who are motivated to do charitable work
through their religious beliefs, and we support that. We think that any
organization that is providing a genuine public benefit should be equally
eligible for charitable status, regardless of whether or not it has a
religious ethos. Removing the advancement of religion would create a
better environment for those genuinely beneficial religious charities to flourish,
because if you weed out the non-beneficial, or the harmful charities, this
would increase confidence in the charity sector, so more people are
willing to donate their money, and it would free up the resources of the
charity regulator so they can actually look after these charities more efficiently.
[CS] Okay. I think it’s a quite a comprehensive answer, isn’t it, that we’re not calling for religious charities to be
stripped of their status automatically; it’s just the idea that if you are
promoting religion that should not be de facto, a charitable purpose.
So, it’s essentially religious charities would be subject to a secular public
benefit test. I think that’s really important to stress, isn’t it?
What have we done about this then? Obviously we’ve written this this report. There’s been all this research. What have we done?
[MM] Well, we sent the reports to key stakeholders, to make this case for
removing the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose, and this whole area
has become a new key campaign area for us. We’re proactively monitoring
religious charities to identify potential problems and work with the
regulators in improving this sector. We’ve already reported a number of
problematic charities to the charity commission, and action has been taken as
a result. So, for example, we found several charities running mosques where
their websites were endorsing extremist messages, like calling for the
killing of apostates. We reported these to the charity commission
and they’ve said that they would engage with these charities to remind them of
their particular duties, as a charity, and a lot of that extremist material is now gone
from those websites, I’m happy to say. [CS] Okay. So we’re trying to fight the big fight and several smaller fights at the same time I suppose. [MM] Yeah
[CS] How can people listening to us, who agree with what we’re saying, who think “Yeah, there
should be a secular public benefit test. Yeah, religion isn’t de facto a source of good,
it’s not necessarily a charitable purpose”. How can they help us to make the case? [MM] One of the best ways people can
help is to spread awareness of this issue, because, at the moment, a lot of people wouldn’t even realize that religious
organizations are charities. And I think very few people know that the reason why
they seem to benefit from seemingly unjustifiable tax breaks is because they
have this privilege in charity law, that advancing religion in and of itself is
recognized as a charitable purpose. So we need to get the word out that religious
privilege must be removed from the charitable sector, and that all charities,
whatever their ethos, should be held to the same high standards, and
demonstrating a tangible public benefit. One of the easiest ways you can do
this is to write to your MP about the issue and we’ve got a template email for
you to do this on our website. So, if you just go to our website, which is
secularism.org.uk you’ll find a button that says ‘Get Involved’. If you select
under the menu ‘Write to Your MP’ you can select the letter from there.
Of course, please do read the charity report itself, which you can download from our
website for free, or if you’d prefer a paper copy you can get in touch with us
and we can see what we can do about that. [CS] So the report is called
“For the Public Benefit: the Case for Removing the Advancement of Religion as a Charitable Purpose”
by the National Secular Society. Megan Manson, thank you very much.
[MM] Thanks, Chris. [CS] And now, religious campaigners are
stepping up their efforts to shut down teaching about relationships and sex
which doesn’t conform to their narrow worldview. This week BBC Panorama
reported on mainly Muslim protesters who have gathered outside schools in
Birmingham for months in an attempt to get them to change
their curricula, with some support from reactionary groups among other religions
as well. Meanwhile the government is making it compulsory to teach
relationships and sex education from September 2020, but it’s made some concerning concessions to religious groups. I’m joined to discuss this by our Education and Schools Officer, Alastair Lichten, who has been monitoring these stories and coordinating our response to them. Hi Alastair. [Alastair Lichten] Hi Chris.
[CS] This is a huge topic really which has been in the news
regularly for many months now. There are also at least a couple of parallel
ongoing stories here, as I’ve just been outlining. So just to start with
could you summarise why there are protests in Birmingham and elsewhere, and
what’s going on with regard to that? [AL] For years there’s been momentum behind
making RSE statutory and inclusive in England, Scotland and Wales. Now pretty
near the only opposition to this has been from regressive religious groups.
We’ve seen this opposition take different forms, so, if we were having this
conversation this time last year, we’d probably be talking about mainly reactionary
Christian groups. We happen at the moments to be talking about mainly
reactionary Muslim groups. What has got a lot of press coverage and is
the big thing at the moment are predominantly Muslim campaigns, touring
the country, spreading misinformation and encouraging parents to protest outside
schools and target LGBTQ teachers and allies. This is very nasty and a very dangerous moment.
[CS] So what’s your assessment of the way the government has responded to this?
How could it show the schools more support? [AL] I have to say that the DfE’s response
has been inadequate. And that’s not me just reflexively
bashing the DfE, I can point to good things they’ve done about this, but they
needed to do a lot more, a lot earlier, and a lot louder. When you’ve a mob outside a school shouting homophobic abuse at
teachers, at public servants, that needs to be damn near number one priority for
the Education Secretary. There needed to be a strong public rebuttal of the
misinformation and lies being spread about RSE, there needed to be a message
early, public and loud to all schools that not only is inclusive RSE an
option that schools might select, but is required by this legislation.
By attempting to appease reactionary religious groups elsewhere, the DfE made
it harder to confront these groups, and it just go to show that bullies can’t be
appeased, they need to be confronted. The DfE needs to support Ofsted in making absolutely clear that schools which fail the legal requirements for inclusive RSE will be held accountable.
[CS] So it’s partly about messaging and it’s partly about, I
suppose, legislation and the the more concrete methods of accountability.
[AL] Yeah. Defending what’s there. [CS] So, I’m suppose, that moves us quite nicely to government guidance. So, meanwhile the
government has made it compulsory for schools to teach about relationships, sex
and health in all schools in England from September next year. This is a step
forward, but you’re concerned about dilutions for religious groups.
[AL] Yes I am. I think i’ll just quickly correct my previous answer: I talked about both
legislation and guidance. The legislation requires the government to bring in the
guidance. The guidance is what says what needs to be in RSE, then that filters
down to school policy. But going back to this question, I have to plug our
excellent research report “Unsafe Sex Education”, which which was from last year.
That really showed how discriminatory, inaccurate and
shame-based RSE is still taught in many faith schools.
I guess that’s hardly surprising given the institutional homophobia in every
faith group which run schools, particularly the two largest providers:
the CofE and the Catholic Church. That’s not to say there’s not good practice and
there aren’t faith schools which don’t allow their faith ethos to
dilute or to disrupt RSE. Beyond that, the requirement for all schools, not just
faith schools, to take into account the religious background of pupils, creates
two problems. Firstly it encourages faith schools to try and push the boundaries
to make RSE less comprehensive and less inclusive, so Catholic schools not
wanting to teach about reproductive rights, other faiths schools not wanting
to teach about LGBT issues. And secondly, it encourages religiously motivated parents
to believe that they can restrict RSE in non faith schools. So if we look at these protesters outside schools in Birmingham, who are saying “You’re not taking into account our religious background”.
[CS] Again it is partly about the message that it gives to
people, who seem to be completely set on trying to bully the
government, and indeed individual schools, which is an easier easier thing
to do: to bully individual schools. [AL] The DfE has tried to appease religious
groups, and then, when groups like the National Secular Society have gone and
pointed out this problem, and the really great problems caused by this, their
unclear language about taking people’s religious backgrounds into account, the
DfE then try to appease us and try to appease LGBT inclusive groups.
They say “Oh don’t worry about it. It’s not going to cause this problem.
You’re crazy. It’s not going to cause this problem in schools.”
Actually, you know, the evidence shows it does. [CS] So it’s trying, really, to triangulate
on something, where it really just needs to be a bit more non-negotiable.
So those who disagree with us often say parents have the right to decide what
children learn at school. What’s your response to that argument?
[AL] Parents have the right to raise their children in accordance with their beliefs, but
schools don’t need to kowtow to these beliefs in every instance. The campaign
to make RSE compulsory has gone on, it’s been a decade of consultations, of
progress, parents have had every opportunity to get involved, to respond
to consultations, to put their views across. When schools create their RSE curriculum, they speak to parents. Parents have every
opportunity to put their views across, but a small minority of parents that
basically don’t want certain issues covered, they don’t get to override that whole process . We should also point out that
this inclusive RSE is incredibly widely supported and expected by parents.
So, actually, most parents support this. [CS] You’re particularly concerned about
the way the religious groups misuse the term “age-appropriate” as well.
Do you mind explaining why that is? [AL] Yeah. This is a bit of a bug bear for me, and it’s actually quite simple. In part “age-appropriate” is just kind of a euphemism for people saying we don’t
want to cover these topics. It’s also part of the long running, very
nasty, homophobic narrative that LGBT people are trying to influence children.
It is part of the very nasty history of tying homosexuality to
paedophilia. It’s also part of conspiracy theories and misinformation
around RSE, that it’s teaching explicit LGBT content to young people.
Jewish Orthodox schools, for example, hope to use this “age-appropriate”
language to just completely get around acknowledging that LGBT people exist, by
simply raising the age appropriateness. They say “Oh it can’t cover LGBTQ issues, it’s not age-appropriate till…” – and then set an age
which basically means the school says “it’s not appropriate till sixth form”
and the school happens not to have a sixth form, or students leave at that age
anyway, so trying to use age-appropriateness just to avoid it entirely.
It’s simple: The age appropriateness of RSE content doesn’t change based on sexuality.
At a certain age children are old enough to learn that some people
have a mommy and a daddy. Children that age are also old enough to learn some
people have two mommies or two daddies or one daddy or one mummy. To use an
analogy, and I don’t know how film classifications work, I’m sure the
audience will write in to me how I’m wrong about this process, but in an
analogy, let’s say you have a film and it’s a ‘U’ certificate, and it
has a relationship plot as part of it, you’ve got a man and a woman who are holding hands, you change that to make it two men or two women
holding hands, it’s still a ‘U’. Take the other end of the scale, you’ve got a
film that’s an 18 it’s got a romance or relationship plot which features some
sort of representation of sex. That stays an 18 regardless of
whether it’s between a man and a woman or two men or two women etc.
It’s this treating LGBT issues as something extra, like a controversial subject
that needs to be debated and children aren’t old enough
to learn about it till different age levels. Children actually get on with
this fine. Use diversity examples, just integrate it with
the rest of curriculum. Good teachers, good schools are already doing this and it’s
not actually that controversial. [CS] That also seems to come across
in some of the press coverage actually: newspapers saying LGBT
content or LGBT issues, and it’s quite interesting the way the religious
groups narrative gets pushed in a sort of soft way by just through
the use of language which buys into their narrative, if you see what I
mean. What we talk about is LGBT inclusive education or just inclusive education, if you want to call it that, because
actually a lot of the actual teaching is often not about gay people.
[AL] It’s just basically talking about relationships
and you’ve got a couple of examples, let’s say
I’m illustrating a children’s book about relationships, I wouldn’t draw
all the characters in the book as white, I’d do a mix of different
ethnicities in the characters in my examples, and that’s just
exactly the same but with sexual orientation and gender. [CS] Sexuality is only actually a part of
what’s being taught, what’s being discussed. And yet the discussion
would suggest that these lessons are entirely about gay people or LGBT
people. There’s a danger that people who follow this casually get the
wrong end of the stick and then misunderstand what’s actually being taught.
[AL] I understand that and I think that is a bit of a risk,
because actually we’re doing a lot to respond to this, because there’s a lot
going on. But I would rather not be talking about this, to be honest. I would
rather this was just basically so uncontroversial. This should be the same level of controversy as finding out that you have
a textbook that has pictures of different people with different ethnicities on it.
That’s really how controversial it should be. [CS] So, moving on to our own role on this,
what are we doing to keep the religious groups in check?
[AL] I would say reactionary religious groups and groups who are trying
to impose their religion. We should also say that support for
inclusive RSE is pretty widespread across the religious spectrum, from
atheists to religious groups. I’m really proud of the work the NSS and others are
doing this. We have been right out in front on this. We’ve been
consistently warning of the problems with the RSE guidance, that
vague language, about taking different religious backgrounds into account. We predicted, we said straight away how
this was going to be exploited. Some of the pro-LGBT equality groups and the pro-RSE groups, who had been so focused on building consensus, they wanted
to pretend that wasn’t really a problem. So in some ways, without
taking away from their great contribution, we’ve been ahead of LGBT
equality groups on this. We were the first to expose some of the extremist
content put up behind the anti RSE campaigns. And now we’ve brought public focus to that.
A lot of that information has been deleted from
websites. The fact that we got that information, we archived that,
to expose who is leading these campaigns, was a
really valuablevservice. At the moment the largest, most active groups are Muslim
groups, but there are reactionary religious groups of all stripes. We are even seeing people
who are normally anti-muslim bigots, really say
nasty stuff about Muslims, suddenly coming out the woodwork to work with
these groups. Homophobia has an amazing power to bring people together.
[CS] For anyone listening who thinks that this is worthwhile, any of our supporters
in particular, how can they help us make our case? [AL] I don’t go all emotional here, but
I think we need to defeat this hate by showing a little love. So if your school
is doing inclusive RSE, let the teachers know that you support that, and you
support them. If someone you know is spreading these anti RSE misinformation
messages, you can maybe just gently correct them, maybe
just point out, not necessarily confronting them, but say
“look, actually, here’s the facts, here’s the information about it”. Obviously if
you want to counter misinformation you need to get the facts, and I have to say
again, that our report on this has been fantastic. You can visit secularism.org.uk/rse
for all our work on this topic. I absolutely recommend that you sign the petition
that we have and write to your MP on the campaign’s pages. There’s links to do all of that. [CS] Plenty of stuff on our website for anyone
who’s interested in helping us now on this. And finally, something which our Chief Executive, Stephen Evans, wrote a blog about recently. Secularists have tended to defend sexual freedom,
the right to have sex and relationships with who you want
I was just wondering why you think that is?
[AL] I think as a straight cis dude, I’m best placed to answer this
question! But in all seriousness I think there are multiple reasons.
The fact is firstly that just like non-religious people, LGBT folk have been
most often targeted by religious power, so they gravitate to groups who are opposed
to that sort of religious power. That means that LGBT folk, including those of
faith I have to say, have been very well represented in the secularist movement and
in the history of the NSS, which means that the NSS and the wider secular
movement have been very good at responding to their concerns.
The second part of it is that often secularism is in the position of
responding to theocratic and hardline religious movements and those movements
have in recent years, in a recent decades, had a particular focus on
targeting LGBT people. And, therefore, if we’re challenging the abuse of religious power,
that’s what we’re going to be focusing on. [CS] I suppose secularists ultimately go where religious groups try to impose their
way of life on other people, don’t they? To some extent we don’t really get to pick our battles. Also just another important point to
pick up on there, I think, which is the second time that you’ve
raised it, is the the possible reluctance among some
groups, which do stand for LGBT rights in general, to confront religious homophobia.
[AL} I want to be very careful, because I don’t want to be
bashing LGBT groups who are doing really important work, but there is that
tendency to, for example, I’m not gonna name any names but “Smome Wall”,
they want to work in schools promoting LGBT inclusive education. So they want to try and work around these problems, so when we point out
all these problems – institutional homophobia and
institutional transphobia in faith schools – they’ve taken from what their
perspective is a strategic decision, clearly, that it’s better to try and work
with schools in order to make it more inclusive, and people can legitimately say
that’s a good approach, I’m sure. But because we don’t have that necessary incentive we often just had the ability to speak the truth.
And we saw it with the RSE campaign. NSS was right in the center of the coalition pushing for inclusive RSE, and then we got that.
We got statutory RSE. The law was brought in that required the guidance
being brought in. Then all the other groups wanted to declare a victory. Sometimes celebrating, saying “we won” is important
but they all wanted to celebrate and say “we won” and then the NSS was sort of”Downers”, saying “actually, you’ve still got this sort of thing here, it says that you can use it for this purpose etc”.
[CS] Okay. Alastair Lichten, thank you very much. [AL] Thanks so much, Chris.
[CS] If you’re keen to join the push back against religious groups who are trying to
undermine inclusive education you might consider coming to our Bradlaugh lecture
with Andrew Moffitt, in Manchester on 7th September. Andrew was targeted by
mainly Muslim protesters for promoting inclusive education at a school in
Birmingham. There are more details on our website at secularism.org.uk/events
Alternatively, you can join or donate to the NSS on our website. There are
links to everything that we’ve discussed in the show notes. Thank you for joining
us on the NSS podcast we’ll see you next time.