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Secularists need to vigorously oppose human rights backsliding

Secularist news from the UK

Whatever one’s view about the monarchy, it is nonsensical for a head of state to swear to uphold a Catholic-free monarchy and protect the unjustifiable privileges of the Church of England. Or for the head of state to be ex officio the Church’s Supreme Governor to whom the prime minister has to answer weekly.

An unsustainable mix of Church and STate

It is also unsustainable, given the increasing majority of the population identifying as non-religious, religiously unconcerned or non-Christian – and with the Union coming under increasing strain – for a coronation to be conducted by a church of only one country of the UK.

Despite all of this, and the UK being the only country where anything like this absurdity survives, the coronation will go ahead.

It is unrealistic to expect the coronation to be much different from that in 1953 – except perhaps with the addition of some bystanders to give the illusion of religious diversity. While there is precedent for an incoming monarch modifying the oaths, it seems unlikely Charles will. However, a secular accession ceremony in parliament where the incoming head of state vows to act equally in everyone’s interests, rather than just those of faith, would be a worthwhile gesture.

It is clear that Charles is no less religious than his mother and will resist any alienation of religion from his role, despite the many arguments against a head of state also being a religious leader. Maybe we will have to wait for a constitutional crisis, as may happen one day, when a successor refuses even to pretend to be an Anglican.

Religiously-motivated threats to Human rights

While we were proud of our role in the abolition of the blasphemy law in 2008, fear of violence or even causing offence has created a de facto blasphemy law, particularly for topics seen as blasphemous by reactionary Muslims. The attack on Salman Rushdie was a case in point, as was the failure – despite our appeals to the government – to support the teacher in Batley who showed cartoons of Muhammad to his class as part of a discussion on freedom of expression.

The recent sectarian conflict in Leicester is another example of minority religion extremism that is becoming ever more apparent. Yet another is the rapidly growing sabre-rattling threats to the government from ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups over long-overdue attempts to regulate unregistered schools that deny pupils the very basic tools to be functioning citizens. In the US and even in Europe, Christian nationalism and more extreme Christianity is on the rise, threatening reversals of women’s and LGBT people’s human rights that would have seemed inconceivable just a few short years ago. We all need to be vigilant and vigorously oppose these generally religiously-motivated erosions.

human rights need effective enforcement

We also need to guard against any weakening, however disguised, of the mechanisms that enforce human rights. The UK equality laws are the most advanced in the world and the UK played a leading role in the establishment of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1949. Were we to withdraw from it, as is increasingly touted, we would be joining Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Vatican City.

The many tributes paid to the achievements of Terry Sanderson, my predecessor as president, particularly his repositioning the NSS as a human rights organisation, have been touching.

The preoccupations of Brexit, Covid, Ukraine and the cost of living have made it tougher to get our message across. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic of our ability to maintain a strong secularist voice, both in the UK and at the United Nations as an antidote to the many challenges.

Keith Porteous Wood, President of the National Secular Society