18 August 2016
Safe Space v Freedom of Expression
11 July 2016
Kinky Sex, Education & Human Rights
John is a gay comedian and an advocate for sexual liberty. He grew up in a religious family that was part of a strict Baptist Church which could not accept that homosexuality was anything more than a life choice. When he declared that he was gay, but intended to remain celibate, he was still expelled from the Church.
He gradually moved into the Gay community and found he had a propensity for leather, becoming involved in that scene. He won the Mr Hoist title in 2003, the prize being that he was sponsored to enter the 25th annual International Mr Leather contest in Chicago in May 2003, which he also won. It turns out that the contest is about finding the person most able to act as an ambassador for those who like to indulge in leather. John took the year off work travelling to events full time from July 2003 to June 2004, covering 100,000 miles and visiting 28 cities in the US, Europe and Canada, while raising money for charities.
John emphasised that the sado/masochistic (S/M) scene was very much based on consent and he felt that this was an area that was not sufficiently covered in what most schools teach within sex education. He put great emphasis on the need for everyone to understand that consent is always provisional, can be revoked at any time and must always be respected. Many people (including just about all who produce pornography) seem to regard initial consent as sufficient. This is something we need to change.
The point was made that S/M sex is just a part of the spectrum of what, in the final analysis, is rather weird human behaviour. He pointed out that much of this behaviour either produces an endorphins rush (such as that experienced from strong physical exercise such as running, cycling or swimming) or an adrenalin rush caused by undertaking what are perceived as high risk behaviours, such as riding on a roller coaster or bungee jumping. Why do we regard slightly weird sex as being unacceptable while accepting running or bungee jumping as being perfectly normal? Why can indulging in sex outside the normal range of behaviours be considered a mental illness when other equally strange hobbies are not?
John also highlighted how the law discriminates against those who wish to indulge in unorthodox sex. In the early 1990's sixteen gay men were prosecuted for private, consensual S/M play under the "Offences Against the Person Act 1861" (R v. Brown). None had required medical treatment and all believed that they were innocent as they had consented throughout. However, the judge decided that "sexual pleasure" was not a good enough reason for people to be able to consent to an assault, and so he wouldn't allow consent as a defence. Consequently the men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to up to four and a half years in prison.
The police investigation was called "Operation Spanner" and a defence fund was set up and trustees appointed to what became the Spanner Trust. An appeal resulted in reduced sentences but the convictions were not overturned. The convictions were upheld by both the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights. The trust now has the task of trying to change the law.
Currently it is illegal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to engage in any activities for sexual pleasure which result in an injury other than "transient or trifling". Even a love-bite is technically illegal. This means that S/M players are still at risk of arrest and prosecution. It restricts S/M education (increasing the danger that people will injure themselves during play) while making it difficult for S/M players to get medical attention if there is a problem. It also enhances the prejudices against those in the S/M community, driving the scene underground and making it harder for essential safety information (such as the difference between S/M and abuse) to be disseminated widely. S/M activities can also be used against people in custody court cases, or lead to blackmail or the loss of jobs.
In addition, bad laws spread from country to country. The Spanner verdict has been quoted in trials in at least three other countries as an example of where a government can over-rule your right to consent. In America it was quoted during the Texas sodomy trial as evidence that it was acceptable for a government to stop people having the kind of sex they wanted - even if the sex was private, consensual and caused no harm.
Currently the law appears to be anomalous. In the court cases seen to date there have been three different types of verdicts:
- For S/M play within a heterosexual married couple, only the male (active) partner was prosecuted and he was acquitted. The judge said that a man branding a woman with a knife was "acceptable behaviour within marriage".
- For S/M play between an unmarried heterosexual couple, only the male (active) partner was prosecuted and he was found guilty.
- For S/M play between gay men both the active and passive participants were prosecuted and ALL were found guilty. The passive players were prosecuted for "aiding and abetting an assault against themselves"!
John hopes that the Spanner Trust will be able to use the 1998 Human Rights Act to pursue a claim in the High Court that the Spanner decision (R v Brown) is contrary to the Human Rights Act, thereby forcing a change in the law. To do that they will need claimants (people willing to come forward and say they are at risk of prosecution) and money.
15 December 2015
Christianity under attack - Mercury Mailbox
20 November 2015
Open Letter to Keith Vaz regarding blasphemy law for the UK
Dear Mr Vaz,
I write to express deep disappointment at your support for blasphemy laws to be re-introduced to the UK.
I write this as an open letter to encourage clarity on the matter.
It is outrageous that someone, as senior within the Labour party as yourself, would put forward the outdated, regressive, and oppressive concept that faith and belief need legal protection. They do not. These ideas must be subject to as rigorous questioning, criticism, ridicule and offensive comment, as any other idea.
Just because someone sincerely believes an idea does not give the person nor the idea any special privilege in being immune from normal human interaction, even if offensive criticism is offered. The line we draw, and it is a reasonable one, is that we do not permit the incitement of hatred nor violence. Everything else must remain within the law.
It is the duty of everyone to be prepared to take offence on the chin rather than demand special privilege to avoid facing unpleasant truths about their cherished beliefs. To give religious ideas special protection would be to give succour to the despicable regimes around the world who are happy to murder blasphemers. Take a look at Pakistan where even to allege that someone has blasphemed is enough to bring out the vigilante death squads. Why would you want to take our legal system in that direction or in the direction of Saudi Arabia where it is a terrorist offence to not believe in Allah?
I sincerely hope that you will reconsider your position and make it clear that a blasphemy law is not appropriate for this liberal democracy of ours.
Leicester Secular Society
75 Humberstone Gate
03 April 2015
Secular schism and dogma
Our strapline demonstrates the problem - “for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination”. Some Secularists prefer to concentrate on promoting “an inclusive and plural society”, leading to accusation of appeasing the religions by those who prefer to concentrate on campaigning for freedom from “religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination”.
Going back in our history this dichotomy was the cause of a split in the secular movement in the 1860s when many of the secular groups formed in the 1850s disappeared. To quote from “A Chronology of British Secularism” (G.H. Taylor 1957):
“Is the theoretical attack necessary or advisable? That was the problem which did more than any other single factor to split the ranks. Roughly speaking Holyoake said No, Bradlaugh Yes. The former, in his earlier career, often broke his own rule and attacked theology, but as time went on he became more concerned with the fruits of secular philosophy than with its theoretical basis. In his (unpublished) reminiscences Sidney Gimson, son of Josiah Gimson of Leicester, has referred to Holyoake's readiness to placate liberal clergymen for the sake of advancing on common ground.”
N.B. George Holyoake defined “Secularism” in 1851 and Charles Bradlaugh was the founder of the National Secular Society (NSS) in 1866. Both spoke at the opening of Secular Hall in 1881.
Today, at the national level, this difference is demonstrated in the differing priorities of the NSS and the British Humanist Association (BHA) – Leicester Secular Society being affiliated to both. The BHA is overtly atheist and secular, yet includes in its objectives “The promotion of understanding between people holding religious and non-religious beliefs so as to advance harmonious cooperation in society”.
The NSS by contrast is indifferent as to religious belief but campaigns energetically for a secular state, concentrating on opposing religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination.
Currently there has been some controversy over whether or not members should have been involved with the King Richard III re-internment (which can be seen as a community event) or support the reform of the hospital chaplaincy service to make it fully inclusive. My personal preference was to ignore the Richard III hullabaloo and I think that the NHS chaplaincy service should be replaced by properly qualified pastoral support workers. If organisations (including the religions) want to encourage volunteers to act as hospital visitors (subject to proper guidelines) I would not have a problem. However I accept that other secularists can have a perfectly valid differing view.
Some members advocate setting out the “doctrines” of secularism in motions to special meetings and accepting the decision of the majority. Democracy (the worst form of governance apart from all the others, to paraphrase Churchill) means that the majority dictate to the minority. Within a country this works as it is very difficult to leave. In a voluntary society, if you set down narrow requirements that your expect all members to adhere to, many will simply not renew their membership and others will decline to join. Consensus is a much better way to move forward.
Many members take pride in our opposition to fascism. The word derives from the ancient Roman “fasces”, which consisted of is a bound bundle of wooden rods, sometimes including an axe with its blade emerging. This represented the authority of the civic magistrate and was used for the corporal and capital punishment of those who failed to conform with the rules of those in authority. The point being that whilst an individual rod was weak, a tightly bound bundle or rods is strong. In its modern political incarnation it represents enforced control and conformity of a population (and in some cases, such as the Nazis, racial conformity) which is deemed to give such a society strength.
It would be ironic if Leicester Secular Society were ever to adopt such an approach. I'd suggest that we should welcome diversity and debate within the Society, uniting around our core principals, but not being too prescriptive as to the way in which we expect members to behave or the ideas they espouse.
09 January 2015
As a result of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations Leicester Secular Society has issued this press release.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Leicester 9th January 2015
We are not unique in stating our disgust at these brutal attacks and we all unite in strongly urging people and Governments to remember the crucial importance of the right to free expression.
Following these unprecedented attack carried out in the streets of Paris, we would like to express our sympathies to the victims and condolences to those who knew the murdered.
Gush Bhumbra, President of Leicester Secular Society, said:
“We must stand for our right to free expression or we will lose that right. The only rights we can ever have are those we are prepared to take a stand over. Totalitarian ideologies will take for themselves the right to rule our lives, to tell us what we can do or say or even think, if we let them.
This barbarous attack on the free press deserves only our contempt and commitment to maintain freedom of expression.
The passive acquiescence of our media and politicians in self-censorship has been part of the problem. We must not be afraid to criticize, parody or ridicule any organization or ideology we disagree with (from whatever our perspective) and oppose ignorance, superstition and pompous behaviour.
This is particularly important in such a religiously diverse city as Leicester. The claims and images of one religion are regarded as blasphemies by another.
Unless we accept the right of others to express their views in the public square, no matter that we find them offensive, then we cannot have freedom of religion and belief.
Those who advocate further censorship of cartoonists and writers in the wake of tragedies like this will only embolden the murderous outrages of these criminals.”
In that same spirit of solidarity, the Society has republished some notable Charlie Hebdo cartoons which can be viewed together with this press release here.
- creating a civil society that is for everyone equally, that promotes respect for individual human rights and encourages trust and co-operation between those sharing these values;
- opposing policies that emphasise religious identity and allow religious discrimination or indoctrination in education and social services;
- opposing religious privilege and the promotion of any religion by the state.
Images from the BHA press release https://humanism.org.uk/2015/01/08/humanists-united-condemnation-charlie-hebdo-assassinations-support-free-expression/
20 December 2014
Government Blocks Proposals for Humanist Marriages
The Government has published a report declining to allow Humanist marriagesdespite a public consultation which showed over 90% of respondents to be in favour. It is reported that this is the result of their election strategist Lynton Crosby decreeing that nothing "promoting initiatives that are not central to the party’s key election themes of crime, the economy, immigration and welfare" should be taken forward before the General Election.
The reasons given for not agreeing to Humanist Marriages were in summary:
- Location (listed as the key difficulty)
Humanists want the freedom to hold ceremonies anywhere, a right enjoyed by the Quakers and Jews since 1753.
However the Church of England and others entitled to undertake registered marriages are restricted in that they have to use their own buildings and they wish to apply the same restriction to Humanists. The simple answer is to remove the restriction on all the marriage providers and allow them to choose as to whether or not they restrict themselves to their own buildings.
The report states "There is already a difference in treatment between couples professing different religions and no religion. Allowing non-religious belief marriages might reduce this to some extent but not solve the problem."
So rather than improve on the existing situation and then initiate further reform, the government prefers to retain the existing greater level of inequality.
The Church of England (CoE) is opposed to belief marriages taking place at both unrestricted locations and premises approved for civil marriage, on the basis that either option would create an inequality for the majority of religious groups and couples, who are restricted to their registered place of worship.
This is blatantly the Church of England attempting to protect its market position. There is no reason why the churches need to be restricted in the locations where they perform marriages. This should be their own decision.
- Sham Marriages
The existing religious provision has been shown to be wide open to abuse. The BHA celebrants are vetted much more thoroughly than most religious celebrants. The government needs to bring in relevant regulations relating to all registered marriages and this has nothing to do with whether or not Humanist marriages should be recognised.
- Other groups would want to perform marriages
Yes. But there should be no problem authorising the BHA (which is a registered company and charity) by giving them exactly the same rights as the Quakers and then reviewing the legislation.
There are well known problems. The Cohabitation Bill is almost attempting to reinstate Common Law Marriage. The argument against this is that people should not be forced into what is effectively a marriage contract without committing themselves to it.
However one of the most powerful arguments in its favour is that it would provide some protection to Muslim women who enter into a Muslim religious marriage without realising that it is not recognised in English Law.
I suggest that the best solution would be to reform the marriage law so that any organisation that meets laid down criteria for recognition can license celebrants to perform registered marriages. In turn it would be made illegal for anyone else to claim that they were preforming a marriage ceremony.
All aspects of the Marriage Law need review, but this should not prevent Humanist marriages being recognised on the same basis as Quaker and Jewish marriages in the meantime.
- Commercial Marriages
The Government report claims that "Change would open up the solemnization of legally valid marriages to a potentially large number of independent celebrants who may still be paid directly by the couple and able to benefit financially".
This is a bit rich from a Conservative government. Opening up provision would increase choice and competition, normally the mantra of Conservative policy.