Monday, 8 July 2013

On the Separation of Church and State - EWTS Session Three

Notes and thoughts on session 3 of the EWTS conference, which was about Separation of Church and State. Speakers were Ann Brusseel, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Elida Radig and Michael Nugent.

Ann Brusseel is a Flemish parliamentarian for the Open VLD (Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats) party. 

There is no, one European model for a secular state, though many European states are somewhat secular. France has a total ban on all religious expressions (clothes, jewelry  etc.) for civil servants, even those who have no contact with the public. Belgium, on the other hand, has no guidelines. Some Catholic schools aren't even particularly Catholic, but the tax payer still pays for them. In Germany, there is a system in place by which you can choose which religious organisation (or a non-religious organisation or charity) you want the allocated portion of your taxes to go to. 

However, even with reduced religious influences, secular services are still needed. Despite being largely secular, many hospitals in Belgium are Catholic and won't perform terminations. As such, many women* seeking terminations have to travel to another town or city. Brusseel notes that many women* may not have the courage, knowledge or money to travel for an abortion. What Belgium needs is a Minister for Health who is not afraid to insist that all hospitals implement the law (which allows for terminations up to 12 weeks on request, and in certain circumstances after this point). However, Brusseel notes that she is often called a fanatic for trying to get the law upheld. Because abortion is legal (although not always accessible), many people have become complacent, and renewed activism is needed to prevent people from "falling asleep". 

The anti-choice is active in Belgium. They offer free sex education lessons (sex ed is mandatory in Belgium) to schools, but they don't always provide students with factual information. One point which is reiterated is that homosexuality is wrong because only men and women 'fit together'. This is meant regarding the act of sex (which is an erroneous statement at best) as well as in relation to body shapes of men and women. The idea is that they 'fit' because men* tend to have broad shoulders and smaller hips, while women* tend to have broad hips and smaller shoulders. Clearly the anti-choice groups in Belgium believe that there is only one body type for men* and women*... 

Optimism is a moral duty for humanists - we must always hope that there are better things and better times to come. Although the move towards secular states is slow, it is happening, and the separation of church and state is becoming something that more and more people are calling for around the world.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is the co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and editor of Freethought Today.

The United States' constitution contains no mention of a god or deity, yet 'In God We Trust' is printed on all paper money and the pledge of allegiance contains the phrase 'one nation under god'. The Founding Fathers were, in fact, secular and meant for their new republic to have a separation of church and state. 

One way in which the link between church and state exerts itself over day to day life in the US is through the Obamacare mandate that contraception be covered by the employee's work health insurance, unless the employee works for a church or religious organisation. Based on a person's employer's religious beliefs, they can be denied coverage to pay for contraception. While this currently only extends to churches, the religious right are campaigning for any employer to refuse contraception coverage due to religious beliefs. 

In 1973, Roe vs Wade legalised abortion nationwide, and anti-choicers and religious groups have been on the defensive ever since. There have been few improvements in the arena of reproductive rights, with the vast majority of legislation seeking and succeeding in reducing access to services. There is a proposed bill in Arkansas which would only allow abortions up to 6 weeks gestation. Considering that many people don't find out they're pregnant, especially if it is a crisis or unplanned pregnancy, until after this point, this is a massive step back and a huge restriction on women* and their right to choose. The aim seems to be to overturn Roe vs Wade, or at least to take back the decision to state level, meaning that each state would decide whether or not abortion would legal and under what circumstances. Judging by the all proposed legislation seeking to severely limit access to abortion at the moment, this would likely mean that many states would have similar abortion laws as Ireland. However, if something is a constitutional right, it shouldn't matter where you live - you should be able to access and avail of that right. This is also relevant to states where legislation has impacted so severely on clinics that there are only a few left, meaning that people have to travel great distances to access abortion services. If you are poor, young or cannot travel due to family or work commitments, you are out of luck. 

Elida Radig is an Australian feminist and former councilor for the Shire of Flinders. She is also one of the most amazing people I've ever met. 

After the horrors of the child abuse carried out by Roman Catholic priests around the world, many people looked to sue the church for compensation. However, because one of the ways in which abuse was covered up or 'dealt' with was to move the offending priest to another parish (where he often re-abused and so was moved again, and so on), there is a huge amount of difficulty in tracking abusers down and getting compensation. Money trails are almost non-existent because many countries allow churches and religious organisations to purchase land, etc, tax-free. This is because they have charity status, as a charity they 'advance religion'. The issue over where the compensation money is going to come from is a big issue in Australia at the moment. 

Many of the children abused in Australia were from the UK. They were sent there for 'safe keeping' during the war and many ended up in Roman Catholic orphanages, where they were told their parents and families at home in the UK were dead or didn't want them back. Many people who underwent abuse in these circumstances are only coming forward now with their stories. 

There are many campaigns run which say that feminists hate men, and this notion is a common misconception. Many atheist men talk about science and equality, yet they remain completely ignorant of women*'s issues. Many men are aware they have male privilege and they love it - they're not about to give it up so easily. There are very few women who are active in the atheist community because of this - they are not encouraged, yet the men seem confused when women leave. (See my posts (x, x) on what happened at this conference which shows that this can even happen in a secular space which is promoting women).

And so the message is this: women, get in there, don't leave secularism to the men. The feminist agenda is intrinsically linked to the secular agenda. Sisters, don't leave it to the men.

Michael Nugent is the chair of Atheist Ireland.

The Roman Catholic Church have recently stated that ordaining women to the priesthood is just as bad, if not worse, than pedophilia. That alone should show how little the Catholic Church thinks of women. The Vatican affects policies in Ireland, and this is clearly seen through our laws, but also in the way that TDs who were going to vote in favour of x-case legislation (you know, to ensure pregnant women* don't die as a result of their pregnancies) were threatened with excommunication. Nugent describes the Vatican as a themepark, and basically the opposite of Amazonia. They are not technically a state - they weaseled their way into the UN through issuing their own stamps, having their own radio stations (take note, People's Republic of Cork), and were given special observer status. This means that while they cannot actually vote on issues in the UN, they have all the other privileges an actual state does. The Vatican also has alliences with Islamist states, as they share similar beliefs regarding opposing human rights for women and LGBTQAI* /QUILTBAG people. The Vatican even has embassies, although Ireland just closed theirs down.

It is important to break church relations at state level. The UN Convention on elimination of discrimination against women was signed by many states who had the option to not comply with a number of clauses due to conflicts with the state's constitution. Most reservations were about Article Two, which begins "States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms...", under the argument that it didn't comply with Sharia Law. This reservation, which allowed Islamist states to sign the convention, taking Article Two into consideration with due regard to Sharia Law, makes it effectively redundant. It completely negates the convention, and nothing changes for women in these countries. But, these countries can say that they have signed and implemented the convention. 

We need to ensure that all people, citizens and non-citizens alike, are recognised and treated with dignity and respect, and have human rights. Human rights are for everyone, they should not be dependent on where you live or the majority religion of your state. 

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