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  • 11 December 2006: Rate relief for Church of Scientology

The Sunday Telegraph reports, through documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, that the Church of Scientology is benefiting from relief from the national non-domestic rate (local business rates) to the tune of £274,000 per year. This mandatory relief of 80 per cent of the tax liable is intended for charities or buildings used as places of public worship. However Scientology, on the Charity Commission’s decision of 1999, does not qualify as an eligible religion. The City of London, the responsible local authority, twice refused rate relief before granting the relief, after the Church of Scientology claimed that a similar decision had been overturned in Sweden.

  • December 2006: Last rites and consent of patient

The Roman Catholic church lobbied the Scottish Executive to request a change to the Data Protection Act 1998, so that priests are informed of the religious identity of patients for the purpose of giving ’last rites’ to the seriously ill. At present chaplains are unaware of the religious identity of patients unless explicitly informed beforehand by the patient. In 2002 the Information Commissioner had ruled that, as chaplains were not registered healthcare professionals, they could only access data with the ’explicit, informed consent of a patient’.

See ’Dying patients denied last rites’, Sunday Times (Dec. 3, 2006), p. 8.

  • 8 November 2006: Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland)

The Government laid down the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 to come into force from 1st January 2007. Some church and political groups in Northern Ireland have objected.

  • November 2006: Charities Act 2006

The Charities Act 2006 received Royal Assent. Its implementation over 2006-2010 will have implications for the charitable status of religious organisations.
The Charity Commission hitherto defined a religion for purposes of charity law as requiring a belief in, and Judeo-Christian-style worship of, a Supreme Being. Such a test would be inappropriate in light of the clarification of the definition of religion in the Charities Act 2006, and would result in religious discrimination. More than 400 groups registered as religious organisations, including 144 Buddhist organizations, several groups of Jains, Hindu groups, Christian Scientists, Unitarian Churches and Quakers, did not meet the previous definition of religion test used by the Charity Commission, for example when it ruled that the Church of Scientology was not a religion in 1999.
Section 2(3) of the Charities Act 2006 states that:
"religion includes:
(i) a religion which involves a belief in more than one god, and
(ii) a religion which does not involve a belief in a god"
Additional draft supplementary guidance provided by the Charity Commission states that a religion must incorporate
 a personal creator god or gods;
 a supreme being; or
 a divine or transcendental being, entity or principle’.
The Charities Act 2006 also removes the presumption of public benefit for associations concerned with poverty, education or religion. Religious organisations will henceforth be required to demonstrate that they provide public benefit to be recognised as charities.
In addition, religious organisations previously exempted from registering as charities will now have to register if their income is over £100,000 a year. This requirement will apply to individual congregations of religious denominations.

  • 27 October 2006: clergy wins the right to claim unfair dismissal

The clergy has won the right to claim unfair dismissal, with full rights as workers recognised. Ministers of religion were hitherto regarded by the courts as appointed to a holy office and not as employees. A London pastor had claimed unfair dismissal after losing his post, which the church resisted on the grounds that he was not an employee. An employment tribunal rejected this: ’the relationship between church and minister has many of the characteristics of a contract of employment’. The union Amicus (now known as Unite) has 2,500 members among faith workers, and had been campaigning for such rights for over a decade.

’Churchman wins right to fight dismissal’, The Guardian, (28 October, 2006), p. 7.

  • 26 October 2006: legislation for faith-based schools to admit pupils from other or no faiths abandoned

Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, abandoned plans for legislation allowing local authorities to require faith-based schools to admit at least 25 per cent of pupils from other or no faiths. Catholic and Jewish organisations had been most vocal in opposing the proposal. The Church of England had agreed to introduce the quota voluntarily but advised that it might be impractical for other denominations. Instead, it was announced that church schools would have a ’duty to promote community cohesion’.

See ’Johnson backtracks in row over faith schools. Minister will not go to law to enforce 25% quotas: religious groups welcome change of heart after talks’. The Guardian (Oct. 27, 2006), p. 5.

  • 6 October 2006: face-veil

Jack Straw, Leader of the House of Commons, stated in a radio interview that he would prefer that nobody wore the face-veil, or niqab. He said that while he did not wish to be prescriptive, he believed that wearing the veil was ’bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult’, and that he made it clear to women attending his constituency consultations that he would prefer them to remove the facial garment, because face-to-face conversations were of ’greater value’.

  • 29 September 2006: case against the Gay Police Association

The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to bring a case against the Gay Police Association under ’hate crimes’ legislation. The GPA placed an advert in a ’Diversity’ supplement of The Independent in June 2006 to coincide with London’s Europride event, which stated: ’In the last 12 months the Gay Police Association has recorded a 74 per cent increase in homophobic incidents, where the sole or primary motivating factor was the religious belief of the perpetrator’. It depicted the Bible in a pool of blood. The Metropolitan Police, following complaints by Christian groups, began an investigation that was run by the unit set up to investigate hate crimes such as homophobia.

See ’No charges for advert which blamed homophobic attacks on religion’, The Independent (Sept. 29, 2006).

  • 18 June 2006: Recognition of Paganism

It was announced that paganism would receive official recognition at St Andrew’s University, Scotland’s oldest university. The decision was made in order to comply with equal rights legislation. In return for providing space for festivals and access to the Mansefield Building, predominantly used by faith and cultural societies, the Pagan Society had to agree not to use incantations or spells which might be viewed as harmful to followers of other faiths; raise spirits or to call up dark forces; or engage in ritual nudity.

  • 5 May 2006: Minister for Women and Equality

Ruth Kelly was appointed Minister for Women and Equality as well as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, which raised debate about her ability to defend women’s and gay minority rights, given her devout Catholic views (and possible though unconfirmed membership of Opus Dei).

  • January 2006: Government defeated on religious hatred legislation

The government of Tony Blair suffered a Parliamentary defeat on 31 January 2006 on legislation to make inciting religious hatred a criminal offence. It was only the second time since Labour came to power in 1997 that the government had lost a vote in the House of Commons.
As members of a religious rather than an ethnic minority, Muslims are not protected by existing laws outlawing racial abuse. The effort to extend protection to religious groups has been controversial because of concerns that unfavourable comment on religious beliefs or practices by comedians, critics or evangelists might result in a prison sentence. The opponents of the new law had therefore inserted an amendment limiting the scope of the offence to ‘threatening’ (and not merely insulting or abusive) language. Another amendment requires prosecutors to prove that the accused intended to incite hatred. The government’s attempt to overturn these amendments was defeated and the bill will therefore become law in its altered form.

For further details, see on the BBC website the BBC reports on the vote, the background and legal implications, and BBC.

D 28 December 2006    ADavid Voas ASiobhan McAndrew

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