26 December 2013

City of shame if “Leicester is not a secular city”

The open letter of complaint sent to the Mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby, from the President of Leicester Secular Society, about the civic event celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela (which appears in the earlier Blog "Commemoration of Nelson Mandela in Leicester) stated:

“We are very concerned indeed that you chose to endorse a commemorative event that is a religious affair, inevitably dividing us and reinforcing the privileges of the Church of England. Mandela advocated an inclusive and plural society free from discrimination, prejudice and privilege”

The Leicester Mercury reported on this, together with comments from the Bishop of Leicester and Sir Peter Soulsby in its issue of 20/12/13 under the headline

“Row over religious elements of Nelson Mandela memorial in Leicester”

  and published an editorial which can be read  here under the headline

“Leicester is not a secular city”

Gush Bhumbra, President of Leicester Secular Society, has responded with an open letter for publication which reads as follows:

Dear Sir,

The title of your opinion piece of 20 December wears a point of shame as a badge of honour. “Leicester is not a secular city”.

Secularism, in guaranteeing freedom and equality, is a pillar of a just society, which we must be vigilant in defending.

Secularism guarantees everyone's right to practice their religion of choice.

Secularism prevents any government from promoting or persecuting any religion or belief.

Who could be against Secularism? The Church of England certainly seems to wish to protect its privileges. The exclusive privileges of this church are promoted by central government as the established religion.

The exclusive privileges provide by apartheid were promoted by the central government in South Africa.

Being privileged by government is no justification for privilege.

Is the Leicester Mercury advocating that the Church of England should have primacy over all other religions and beliefs, merely tolerating them and being prepared to work alongside them? Or should these be treated as equals?

Leicester Secular Society is against religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination by government and that is why I wrote to the City Mayor to point out the folly of choosing to make Nelson Mandela's commemorative event a religious one. We have a duty NOT to uphold unjust laws providing religious privilege.

So why would I choose to be offended and speak at such a religious event? I can only say it is my civic duty to take offence on the chin in order to be able to publicly proclaim my dedication to the cause that Mandela made his life's work. It was the only show in town where we could honour the man.

As to what could have been a plan for better more inclusive commemoration – how about this? Reminders of what he stood for, what he achieved, the struggle he went through, his famous and moving quotations.

This could be followed by a few words from some of the communities of Leicester who did what they could to promote his cause over the years, unions, political parties, students, and of course religious organisations, including the Church of England.

Secularism protects religion and belief. Let us all adopt it so we can proudly proclaim "Leicester is a secular city".

Yours faithfully,

G. Bhumbra

19 December 2013

Commemoration of Nelson Mandela in Leicester

This issue has produced an article and comment in the Leicester Mercury.

There have also been some letters on 20/12/13 and 25/12/13 .

Following the death of Nelson Mandela an invitation to a “Thanksgiving for the Life & Legacy of Nelson Mandela” was issued by Leicester City Council, Leicester Cathedral, St Philip's Centre and Leicester Council of Faiths to be held on Saturday 14th December. The event consisted of a gathering at Nelson Mandela Park (with readings, singing and a Christian prayer), a procession to the Cathedral and a Church of England Service, where representatives of various faiths and beliefs made short statements paying homage to the life of Nelson Mandela.

Whilst this attempt at an inclusive celebration of Mandela's life by the Church of England was to be welcomed, particularly as it had not always been so strongly supportive of him, it also incorporated the civic celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela. As such the event failed to involve other non-religious groups, such as trade unions, from within Leicester that had worked against apartheid. The City could have organised a fully inclusive civic event at a neutral location such as the Town Hall. A Christian ceremony is uncomfortable for many non believers and those whose strict adherence to their religion prevent them joining ceremonies involving worship by other religions.

This placed members of the Society (and no doubt others)in something of a quandary as many have been life long supporters of Mandela together with the anti-apartheid movement, but were not religious and did not wish to attend a Church of England Service. The Society decided that it would be represented at the event as it would have seemed churlish and devisive to boycott it. Some members stayed away, others just attended at the Park and others attended the whole event, which was well managed.

While the Society has no objection to the Church of England holding such events and inviting all to attend, we oppose the City granting the privilege to a particular religious denomination instead of providing an official civic event.

Our acting President, Gush Bhumbra sent the following "open letter" to Sir Peter Soulsby, The City Mayor.

Dear Sir Peter,

We applaud the decision to mark the ending of Nelson Mandela’s life with a commemorative event in Leicester. The great man is renowned for creating a rainbow nation and he deserves a fitting tribute from our rainbow City.

We are very concerned indeed that you chose to endorse a commemorative event that is a religious affair, inevitably dividing us and reinforcing the privileges of the Church of England. Mandela advocated an inclusive and plural society free from discrimination, prejudice and privilege.

Even in South Africa itself his life is not being marked with a state religious event, so why it was thought appropriate to do so here, where more than a quarter of the population profess no religious affiliation, is beyond us. It is offensive to many of us to have to sit through a religious service in order to be able to make a public show of respect to this great secular leader, who never used religion to justify any of his thought processes or actions.

An opportunity to unite the whole community is lost when religion is touted as the only way to mark significant events in Leicester. A secular society is inclusive of all, providing for freedom of religion and from religion. The Bishop of Leicester has no place leading a civic event such as this. A City Mayor is elected to organise such events for the whole community.

We strongly believe future events that are universal in nature, such as this, should be marked in a secular fashion at a non-religious venue. We have many secular venues here in Leicester, some of which are even owned by the local authority, so there is no excuse to choose Leicester Cathedral for such events.

Yours sincerely,

G. Bhumbra

Before the Society received any response from Sir Peter, the Bishop of Leicester issued his own letter
Dear Peter,
In common with the Leicester Secular Society I am delighted that the life and work of Nelson Mandela has been commemorated in the city.

However, since the Society's Open Letter makes direct criticisms of the role of the Bishop and of our Cathedral, and indeed of religion in general, we feel it important to make a response.

It is sad that an event to celebrate Mandela who did so much to heal wounds should become a cause of conflict in the City. I am sure I speak for Christians and those of all faiths in making it absolutely clear that we believe that no one should be coerced to express a faith or belief at any time, least of all on such an occasion.

However, the Secular Society seems to be implying that religion should be excluded from all forms of public celebration. In Leicester, where the cityscape is shaped by the mosques, temples, churches and synagogues of the great world faiths, our very identity is associated with public respect for each other’s beliefs on a great variety of public occasions. These include the recent visit of Her Majesty the Queen as well as the annual remembrance of the fallen on Remembrance Sunday and on many other similar occasions. 

At the heart of our cities stand cathedrals which embody a faith tradition alongside the story of a local community. In Leicester our Cathedral gathers people of all faiths and none at times of celebration and sadness and when great national or international events touch all our lives.

The Cathedral does this work in partnership with the City and County with a commitment to a vision of the Common Good arising from the Christian faith. This is a faith which seeks to offer hospitality in a city like ours as an expression of the Church of England's role in serving all the people. This task is specifically focussed in the public office of the Bishop and in the role of cathedrals. This is why the hospitality of the Cathedral was offered by the Dean on this occasion. We are puzzled to note that the person who spoke in the Cathedral on behalf of the Leicester Secular Society felt it necessary to write a letter of complaint.

We agree that a secular society should be inclusive of all, but this surely cannot be achieved by excluding the most deeply held beliefs of participants from public events. Anyone who watched the ceremonies in South Africa will have seen formal, public expressions of faith at many points in the proceedings. The people of South Africa appear to take it for granted that faith is a natural context for events of this kind, so that all the leaders of the world faiths prayed publicly at the Soweto memorial.

Lastly, it is simply untrue to claim Mandela as a ‘great secular leader who never used religion to justify any of his thought processes or actions’. In his autobiography, ‘The Long Walk to Freedom‘ he writes that he saw that ' The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.'

Secularists have nothing to fear from Christians. And indeed, in the spirit of Nelson Mandela people of faith and of no faith have nothing to fear from one another. Please let us continue to keep a public space in this City for those of all faiths and none.

Yours sincerely,

The Rt Revd Tim Stevens
The Very Revd David Monteith

We believe that the Bishop has misinterpreted the letter sent to the Mayor.
  1. It is precisely because Mandela was a unifying figure who stood out against privilege for any one group that we felt we had to protest at the Church's pre-eminent position in the celebration of Mandela's life.
  2. We are not, however, directly criticising the Church for wanting to celebrate Mandela's life in their own way with Christian prayers - that is their right and one we defend. But what we object to is the City Mayor making this THE civic event of commemoration. We do not recognise the Church as speaking for us and we doubt whether Leicestershire people who do not profess any religious belief (one quarter of the population) or many believers in other religions would accept that role for the Church either.
  3. The very fact of this debate shows that the Church cannot be a unifying force in our society and the bishop is simply mistaken to think that he can speak on everyone's behalf. That can only be done by the elected civic authority on the basis of a neutral secular approach that treats all beliefs as essentially equal.
  4. It is disingenuous of the bishop to allege that our letter is attempting to silence the views of religious people at public civic events. What we are saying is that all such broad public celebrations should be conducted by the secular civil authority with representatives of all strands of opinion present, not belief or faith groups alone, and the secular civic authority must be seen to be clearly in control. This was clearly not the case in the cathedral and the City Mayor and the bishop are wrong to think that that venue should be acceptable to all as some kind of neutral space.
  5. The Anglican church represents no more than one quarter of the population of Leicester. It is completely wrong that they should insinuate themselves into a leadership role in community affairs.
  6. Finally, in respect to Mandela's beliefs, at no time in his adult life did he make any declaration of religious faith. What he did was to praise the role of churches of various kinds, along with a whole range of other organisations, in the struggle to end Apartheid.
Gush Bhumbra was interviewed by Ben Jackson on this subject on 19th December - the programme can be found here 2 hours 44 minutes in.

01 December 2013

Leicester Secular Society says NO to Sex Discrimination in Universities.

Universities UK have published a guide for its member universities entitled "External speakers in higher education institutions" in which it advocates universities allowing the segregation of audiences by sex in order to meet the religious “requirements” of some speakers.

Leicester Secular Society is opposed to such discrimination. 

This policy is based on exactly the same grounds as used in the “Separate but equal doctrine” in United States constitutional law that justified racial segregation until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the apartheid regime of South Africa. In a university segregation by sex on the grounds of religion and belief is no more acceptable than such discrimination on the grounds of race or religion. Some religions may object to adherents sitting with others with different beliefs. Would it be acceptable to divide an audience in this way by religion or race?

Human Rights relate to the individual and freedom of speech is not promoted in any way by allowing audiences to be segregated. If an individual chooses not to speak to others because he/ she objects to an unsegregated audience, there are many other forums available to express a controversial point of view.

Two of the key reasons for segregation are the subjugation of women, and a throwback to the times when lawlessness and a lack of control by men meant that women were subject to abuse and molestation even in public. Thankfully, we no longer tolerate either of these in our society and segregation is now unnecessary. Surely a primary role for Universities is to educate and promote understanding of these issues and not merely to pander to prior practice and prejudice?

The Society has sent open letters to three local universities (The University of Leicester, De Montfort University and Loughborough University) seeking an assurance that these Universities will not be segregating audiences at any events in this way.


De Montfort University has responded advising that "As a university we therefore take all reasonable actions to prevent forced segregation at our events". 

The University of Leicester response states that "we are tolerant of the views and beliefs of others, we will not accept behaviours "which seek to coerce others into accepting those views or beliefs".

Universities UK (UUK) has withdrawn its controversial guidance that gender segregation could be permitted at UK universities. UUK is now working with lawyers and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to clarify the position and in the meantime, it has withdrawn the case study in the guidance which triggered the debate.

The paragraphs in the document causing most concern are:  

“Assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.” (page 27)

 “Segregation in the context of the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees.” ... “It should therefore be borne in mind that [...] concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.”... (page 28)

"Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.” (page 28)

The full document can be read at:

We are not alone in opposing these guidelines.

BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal has commented that:

 "Universities are secular institutiyesterdayons, not places of worship, and sex segregation should have no place in secular spaces in which we expect to find equality between men and women. It would be completely unacceptable if a visiting speaker tried to segregate an audience along racial lines, so sex segregation should be equally unacceptable. Universities UK have characterised this as a freedom of speech issue, but this is misleading. A visiting speaker’s right to freedom of speech entitles them to express their political and religious views, but not to impose these views on the audience."


NSS Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, has said:

"A commitment to Freedom of Expression does not extend to submitting to speakers imposing their own conditions which are, or should be, contrary to the values of the institution, such as the segregation of audiences, or the refusal to allow questions or challenges."


Sylvia McLain in an article "Segregation on campus is never OK, whoever makes the rules"  in "the Conversation" stated:

"A single speaker – whether hypothetical or not – requesting the segregation of an audience at a public university event should be told no, in no uncertain terms.
In the hypothetical case put forward by UUK, the requester did so on religious grounds. But you could think of any grounds you like. What if a white supremacist speaker demanded that races be separated? How would UUK advise them? What if the speaker demanded the audience be separated by religious belief – Sikhs on the right, atheists on the left, Christians to the centre right, Muslims on the centre left. Would UUK consider this arrangement equal?"


Sara Khan in the Independent writes:

"So let me spell it out for Universities UK, segregation results in ‘less favourable treatment.’  It enables the unequal distribution of power between men and women, resulting in gender based discrimination and inequality.  It manifests itself in few female speakers being invited to speak to a mixed audience, limited decision making powers by female members, and how there have only been a handful of Isoc female presidents. 

Segregation perpetuates discriminatory social norms and practices, shaping male attitudes about women and restricting the decisions and choices of women.  By allowing gender segregation, Universities UK are complicit in the gender inequality being perpetuated by Isocs whose advice will only make it easier for Isocs to treat socially unequal groups, in this case women, even more unequally."yesterday


Louisa Peacock in the Telegraph has written:

Universities UK has effectively decided that institutions' duties under law, not to bar anyone on the grounds of their beliefs or views (the Education Act) outweighs other duties under law to help eliminate unlawful discrimination, and advance equality of opportunity between men and women (the Equality Act). 

As Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, claimed earlier this year, universities are pandering to extreme religious beliefs before considering what is morally right from wrong.


Nick Cohen in the Spectator has written:

....academics are using a perveryesterdayse notion of freedom. In normal language, you restrict my freedom if you stop me from speaking or writing. According to Universities UK, you are restricting the freedom of an extreme religious believer if you sit next to someone from the opposite sex, even if he or she is your husband or wife. Your behaviour is so outrageous it silences the believer and deprives him of his right to speak. This is akin to me demanding that everyone who hears me speak must agree with my sentiments. If they politely disagree or ask hard questions, I am a victim. I am at liberty to walk out and perhaps sue the event organisers for attacking my freedom of speech. 


An excellent analysis of the law relating to sex discrimination and religion entitled "University segregation guidance – manifesting, not imposing, beliefs" can be read at http://www.halsburyslawexchange.co.uk/university-segregation-guidance-manifesting-not-imposing-beliefs/

Chuka Umunna, the Labour Shadow Business Secretary, recently made the following comments:

"A future Labour government will not tolerate segregation in our universities, it offends the basic norms of our society. People should, of course, be free to practice their religion privately, at places of worship and religious events, but universities are publicly-funded institutions of teaching, learning and research and state-sponsored segregatioyesterdayn would be utterly wrong."

Jon Ashworth MP Member of Parliament for Leicester South says:
"I agree that people must be free to practice their religion, but as universities are publicly-funded institutions it would be wrong to promote segregation in these arenas."

A legal note has been submitted to Universities UK (UUK) in the name of Radha Bhatt, a student of Cambridge University, against their Guidance condoning gender segregation. The legal note can be found here: