National Secular Society report on freedom of and from religion

On 26 December, the National Secular Society published a report, Rethinking religion and belief in public life: a manifesto for change – which we missed at the time. In the Executive Summary, it argues that the purpose of its proposed reforms is not to drive religious people out of public life, but simply to establish a level playing-field for all:

“While we are of course particularly concerned with the privileges afforded to one denomination of Christianity, the Church of England, many of the points we make apply to some degree to other denominations and religions. The iniquity of having the Church of England favoured now could easily be used as a precedent for seats in the legislature to be distributed to other religions too, even more than they are in practice now, which we would see as a serious mistake. The levelling should take place by the withdrawal of any ex officio religious seats in Parliament.

There is a particularly urgent need for secular political values today. Others will seek to claim proportionate privileges to those enjoyed by the Church of England, as their faiths grow in size and possibly overtake the following of the Anglican Church. This is already happening in education, where other religions had their case for their own faith-based schools strengthened by the existence of Church of England and other Christian schools. This has worrying implications for cohesion, too.

The NSS argues for a secular state where there is no established state religion and where everyone is equal before the law, regardless of religion, belief or non-belief. This means that citizens interact with the state as equals, not as members of religious communities through a group identity. In a society as irreligious as the United Kingdom, where religious belief is declining and simultaneously diversifying, this is a vital principle.”

The report’s recommendations are as follows:

1: Our changing society

Multiculturalism, secularism and group identity

  1. The Government should continue to move away from multiculturalism and instead emphasise individual rights and social cohesion. A multi-faith approach should be avoided.
  2. The UK is a secularised society which upholds freedom of and from religion. We urge politicians to consider this, and refrain from using “Christian country” rhetoric.

2: The role of religion in schools

Faith schools

  1. There should be a moratorium on the opening of any new publicly- funded faith schools.
  2. Government policy should ultimately move towards a truly inclusive secular education system in which religious organisations play no formal role in the state education system.
  3. Religion should be approached in schools like politics: with neutrality, in a way that informs impartially and does not teach views.
  4. Ultimately, no publicly funded school should be statutorily permitted, as they currently are, to promote a particular religious position or seek to inculcate pupils into a particular faith.
  5. In the meantime, pupils should have a statutory entitlement to education in a non-religiously affiliated school.
  6. No publicly funded school should be permitted to prioritise pupils in admissions on the basis of baptism, religious affiliation or the religious activities of a child’s parent(s).
  7. Schools should not be able to discriminate against staff on the basis of religion or belief, sexual orientation or any other protected characteristics.

Religious education

  1. Faith schools should lose their ability to teach about religion from their own exclusive viewpoint and the law should be amended to reflect this.
  2. The Government should undertake a review of Religious Education with a view to reforming the way religion and belief is taught in all schools.
  3. The teaching of religion should not be prioritised over the teaching of non-religious worldviews, and secular philosophical approaches.
  4. The Government should consider making religion and belief education a constituent part of another area of the curriculum or consider a new national subject for all pupils that ensures all pupils study of a broad range of religious and non-religious worldviews, possibly including basic philosophy.
  5. The way in which the RE curriculum is constructed by Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs) is unique, and seriously outdated. The construction and content of any subject covering religion or belief should be determined by the same process as other subjects after consultation with teachers, subject communities, academics, employers, higher education institutions and other interested parties (who should have no undue influence or veto).

Sex and relationships education

  1. All children and young people, including pupils at faith schools, should have a statutory entitlement to impartial and age-appropriate sex and relationships education, from which they cannot be withdrawn.

Collective worship

  1. The legal requirement on schools to provide Collective Worship should be abolished.
  2. The Equality Act exception related to school worship should be repealed. Schools should be under a duty to ensure that all aspects of the school day are inclusive.
  3. Both the law and guidance should be clear that under no circumstances should pupils be compelled to worship and children’s right to religious freedom should be fully respected by all schools.
  4. Where schools do hold acts of worship pupils should themselves be free to choose not to take part.
  5. If there are concerns that the abolition of the duty to provide collective worship would signal the end of assemblies, the Government may wish to consider replacing the requirement to provide worship with a requirement to hold inclusive assemblies that further pupils’ ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural education’.

Independent schooling

  1. All schools should be registered with the Department for Education and as a condition of registration must meet standards set out in regulations.
  2. Government must ensure that councils are identifying suspected illegal, unregistered religious schools so that Ofsted can inspect them. The state must have an accurate register of where every child is being educated.

3: Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression, blasphemy and the media

  1. Any judicial or administrative attempt to further restrict free expression on the grounds of ‘combatting extremism’ should be resisted. Threatening behaviour and incitement to violence is already prohibited by law. Further measures would be an illiberal restriction of others’ right to freedom of expression. They are also likely to be counterproductive by insulating extremist views from the most effective deterrents: counterargument and criticism.
  2. Proscriptions of “blasphemy” must not be introduced by stealth, legislation, fear or on the spurious grounds of ‘offence’. There can be no right to be protected from offence in an open and free secular society.
  3. The fundamental value of free speech should be instilled throughout the education system and in all schools.
  4. Universities and other further education bodies should be reminded of their statutory obligations to protect freedom of expression under the Education (No 2) Act 1986.

4: Religion and the law

Civil rights, ‘conscience clauses’ and religious freedom

  1. We are opposed in principle to the creation of a ‘conscience clause’ which would permit discrimination against (primarily) LGBT people. This is of particular concern in Northern Ireland.
  2. Religious freedom must not be taken to mean or include a right to discriminate. Businesses providing goods and services, regardless of owners’ religious views, must obey the law.
  3. Equality legislation must not be rolled back in order to appease a minority of religious believers whose views are out-of-touch with the majority of the general public and their co-religionists.
  4. The UK Government should impose changes on the rest of the UK
    in order to comply with Human Rights obligations. Every endeavour should be made by to extend same sex marriage and abortion access to Northern Ireland.

Conscience ‘opt-outs’ in healthcare

  1. Efforts to unreasonably extend the legal concept of ‘reasonable accommodation’ and conscience to give greater protection in healthcare to those expressing a (normally religious) objection should be resisted.
  2. Conscience opt-outs should not be granted where their operation impinges adversely on the rights of others.
  3. Pharmacists’ codes should not permit conscience opts out for pharmacists that result in denial of service, as this may cause harm. NHS contracts should reflect this.
  4. Consideration should be given to legislative changes to enforce the changes to pharmacists codes recommended above.

The use of tribunals by religious minorities

  1. The legal system must not be undermined. Action must be taken to ensure that none of the councils currently in operation misrepresent themselves as sources of legal authority.
  2. Work should be undertaken by local authorities to identify sharia councils, and official figures should be made available to measure the number of sharia councils in the UK to help understand the extent of their influence.
  3. There needs to be a continuing review by the Government of the extent to which religious ‘law’, including religious marriage without civil marriage, is undermining human rights and/or becoming de facto law. The Government must be proactive in proposing solutions to ensure all citizens are able to access their legal rights.
  4. All schools should promote understanding of citizenship and legal rights under UK law so that people – particularly Muslim women and girls – are aware of and able to access their legal rights and do not regard religious ‘courts’ as sources of genuine legal authority.

Religious exemptions from animal welfare laws

  1. Laws intended to minimise animal suffering should not be the subject of religious exemptions. Non-stun slaughter should be prohibited
    and existing welfare at slaughter legislation should apply without exception.
  2. For as long as non-stun slaughter is permitted, all meat and meat products derived from animals killed under the religious exemption should be obliged to show the method of slaughter.
  3. In public institutions it should be unlawful not to provide a stunned alternative to non-stun meat produce.

5: Religion and public services

Social action by religious organisations

  1. The Equality Act should be amended to suspend the exemptions for religious groups when they are working under public contract on behalf of the state.
  2. Legislation should be introduced so that contractors delivering general public services on behalf of a public authority are de ned as public authorities explicitly for those activities, making them subject to the Human Rights Act legislation.
  3. It should be mandatory for all contracts with religious providers of publicly-funded services to have unambiguous equality, non- discrimination and non-proselytising clauses in them.
  4. Public records of contracts with religious groups should be maintained and appropriate measures for monitoring their compliance with equality and human rights legislation should be put in place.
  5. There should be an enforcement mechanism for the above, which would for example receive and adjudicate on complaints without complainants having to take legal action.

Hospital chaplaincy

  1. Religious care should not be funded through NHS budgets.
  2. No NHS post should be conditional on the patronage of religious authorities, nor subject directly or indirectly to discriminatory provisions, for example on sexual orientation or marital status.
  3. Alternative funding, such as via a charitable trust, could be explored if religions wish to retain their representation in hospitals.
  4. Hospitals wishing to employ staff to provide pastoral, emotional and spiritual care for patients, families and staff should do so within a secular context.

6: Institutions and public ceremonies


  1. The Church of England should be disestablished, beginning with the removal of the Bishops’ Bench in the House of Lords.

The House of Lords

  1. The Bishops’ Bench should be removed from the House of Lords. Any future Second Chamber should have no representation for religion whether ex-officio or appointed, whether of Christian denominations or any other faith. This does not amount to a ban on clerics; they would eligible for selection on the same basis as others.


  1. The Remembrance Day commemoration ceremony at the Cenotaph should become secular in character. Ceremonies should be led by national or civic leaders and there should be a period of silence for participants to remember the fallen in their own way, be that religious or not.

Monarchy and religion

  1. The ceremony to mark the accession of a new head of state should take place in the seat of representative secular democracy, such as in Westminster Hall and should not be religious.
  2. The monarch should no longer be required to be in communion with the Church of England nor ex officio be Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and the title “Defender of the Faith” should not be retained.

Parliamentary prayers

  1. We believe Parliament should reflect the country as it is today and remove acts of worship from the formal business of the House.

Local democracy and religious observance

  1. Acts of religious worship should play no part in the formal business of parliamentary or local authority meetings.

Public broadcasting, the BBC and religion

  1. The BBC should rename Thought for the Day ‘Religious thought for the day’ and move it away from Radio 4’s flagship news programme and into a more suitable timeslot reflecting its niche status. Alternatively it could reform it and open it up to non-religious contributors.
  2. The extent and nature of religious programming should reflect the religion and belief demographics of the UK.”
Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "National Secular Society report on freedom of and from religion" in Law & Religion UK, 6 February 2017,

19 thoughts on “National Secular Society report on freedom of and from religion

  1. May I, as a Member of N.S.S. thank the Law and Religion site for bringing this report to the notice of its correspondents. I believe it raises many interesting issues and I look forward to contributions to the Law and Religion site.

    • Then I simply missed it first time round: not unsurprising, given that it was published on Boxing Day. I’ve just changed the first sentence to make that clear. Evidently, a lot of others missed it as well: so far today the post has had 61 page-views.

  2. I find the tone and direction of this paper divisive and positive discrimination against holding or expressing a religious faith. I’m sure that isn’t their intention, but to reduce a religious faith, which affects your world view and how you conduct your life to a purely private matter is wrong headed and without any logical explanation.

    The fact that I believe in a supreme, divine being, God who have provided guidance on how to live a good ethical Christian life, should be the cause of celebration, not penalised or denied. It is my identity and it is what makes me tick, it guides my attitudes toward relationships with others, of tolerance and acceptance of difference, which are upheld by the current situation in British Law.

    If the secular society want non-faith schools, let them open them and have them funded in the same way as the free school or academy initiatives. If the want a service to be inclusive, than have people working in it. Seeking out Christians or any faith Group for positive discrimination isn’t something generally held in British law, with some exceptions for religious groups, which are protected characteristics under the Equality legislation.

    My advice to the Secular Society is to get a sense of proportion and humour.

    • As a Life Member of the NSS, I find their report balanced, unarguable and unobjectionable.

      I perceive all religions and similar ideologies as being similar business models to one another. Like businesses, they promote “product” to groups of customers or consumers of varying degrees of gullibility.

      Most consumers have very little say in the overall policies of the brand they support and – as with most business models – they exercise little if any influence over the choice of leaders or the policies and practices adopted and implemented by the senior managements.
      To a humanist secularist, talk of ‘god’ is utterly meaningless as we do not find any verifiable evidence for the claimed existent of supernatural entities. Therefore, it is not a non-existent entity which has provided you with guidance on how to live and lead a good life but a whole range of factors such as members of your immediate family, your kin network, wider societal mores and – as you point out – the secular law of Britain.

      On the question of schools, you should recognise that almost all schools in the public sector are funded from general taxation, paid into by a largely non-religious UK population. Surely, it should be the other way round?

      Should it not be people wanting to indoctrinate their own children into a certain mindset who should pay for the privilege and not expect the population at large to foot the bill for their own exclusivist ideologies?

      All secularists want is for children to be treated fairly and to receive a good education to equip them to deal with life as it develops for them.
      I have no problem if religion is included within the history syllabus. There could also be a basic study of philosophical and moral values.

      Religion historically and contemporaneously has only so far divided people and not brought them together. Secularism offers all people – regardless of their beliefs – equal treatment before the law and a governmental decision-making process which tries to treat all people fairly and equally.

    • It’s ridiculous and plain wrong to suggest that this report calls for discrimination against people holding or expressing a religious faith.

      The recommendations in no way ‘penalise’ Christians or deny people of faith the right to believe or follow any religion of their choice. This report, and secularism more generally, isn’t about curtailing religious freedoms; it’s about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.

      And the National Secular Society doesn’t advocate for ‘non-faith schools’ (atheist schools), it advocates for an inclusive secular education system in which all schools are equally appropriate for and welcoming of all children, irrespective of their faith background. That’s the opposite of divisive. What is divisive is to insist on children’s education being organised around religious identities.

  3. Four points:

    1. The NSS approach to the constitution is predicated on the principle that majority rule is the paramount principle to be applied in the field of constitutional reform. I’d be interested in reading a coherent argument to support this contention. Our current societal settlement is a combination of majority rule and inherited institutions (e.g. the monarchy and the established church).

    2. The removal of our inherited institutions actually threatens social cohesion rather than encouraging it (contrary to the NSS argument). Social integration is often only achieved after one or two generations. This is because identity is inherited – family, language, manners etc. For democracy / majority rule to work there must be a higher identity than mere adherence to the democratic principle in order for the electorate to peacefully accept a government which they do not agree with. The NSS proposals are directed at undermining that.

    3. The NSS counterpoint that other “religions” will seek equality with Anglican Christianity in terms of the privileges enjoyed by the latter is a form of bootstraps argument which pre-supposes a general acceptance of the principle of equality between religions. Arguing that “faiths” should be given equality within the constitution and not “worldviews” would clearly be a weak argument and the NSS’s anxiety is misplaced because that approach will not get very far. If Christians felt intellectually free to make an equality argument then it would be much more effective to argue for, say, a proportion of Christian output on the BBC which reflected those who identify as Christian in the population at large. It’s interesting to see that the NSS baulks even at Thought for the Day when almost all the BBC’s output is secular.

    4. The aim that “citizens should interact equally with the state” is a republican agenda in all but name. The British are currently subjects not citizens. Ironically, a state which is not personified in a monarch is more difficult to interact with but this is exactly where we will end up if the gradualist, secular approach to constitutional reform is followed. The reason for the requirement that the monarch must be in communion with the Church of England is to ensure continuity and stability. It was a remedy to the bloodletting which resulted from the alternation of Protestant and Roman Catholic monarchs after the Reformation. If there is no check on the belief system of the monarch, the remaining royal prerogatives will not be tolerated long. The solution will simply be to remove the power of the monarch and then the expense of one.

    Any proposal for constitution change should offer both a credible alternative constitutional measure to compensate for the loss of the old one as well as a credible underlying worldview which people can buy into. History is littered with movements which are more keen to tear down than to build up and the NSS is in danger of falling into this category.

    • 1. Whether you think the outcome is ‘coherent’ or not, the outcome of the Brexit referendum shows very clearly that majoritarian democracy does operate in the UK.

      2. The Court of Star Chamber no longer exists. Do you want to bring it back?
      The House of Lords has evolved into a very different role, as has that of the monarch. Any system that tries to resist evolution will dig its own grave.

      3. The amount of religious programming at the BBC – particularly BBC Radio 4 – is truly excessive and bears no relationship at all to the low numbers of people attending churches on Sunday mornings. And don’t even get me started on “Bells on Sunday”!

      4. Actually, we are all citizens – of the EU – for now. It is facile to suggest that we are all subjects of the monarch. We are – if anything – subject to the rules and laws of Parliament, not the monarch, even though s/he formally signs legislation into existence. What really ended religious conflict in this country was not religion itself but the passing of the parliamentary Act of Toleration – nothing to do with churches or monarchs.

      The usual argument in support of the UK Constitution is that it is flexible. Reducing still further the role of religion in an increasingly secular society is simply yet another one of the evolutionary developments taking place since 1688. It makes sense to do it.

    • Four points:

      Your first is:-

      1. The NSS approach to the constitution is predicated on the principle that majority rule is the paramount principle to be applied in the field of constitutional reform. I’d be interested in reading a coherent argument to support this contention. Our current societal settlement is a combination of majority rule and inherited institutions (e.g. the monarchy and the established church).

      My reply: Our current settlement is not based upon “majority rule” as was very recently confirmed by the Supreme Court. We have a representative democracy with a head of state stripped of all political power and … regrettably … in England an Established Church. I suffer this as a citizen of the UK but, since I live in Wales, where the Anglican Church was disestablished and disendowed in 1920 I have some respite from this anachronistic situation.

      In view of recent developments in the USA I am increasingly supportive of the breeding of heads of state so long as they are truly powerless and perform only a ceremonial function. They should also “earn their keep” as the rest of us do.

      So, not only is the assertion that the NSS approach predicated on “majority rule” false so also is the assertion that our present democracy is based upon majority rule.

      The difficulty with “inherited institutions” is that they become irrelevant. The majority rule of which Oliver writes was the rule of the Protestant majority in England (and I really mean England) and in addition those of the majority Protestant sect. Hence the tension between the Free Churches and the Anglican Church in Wales which led to disestablishmentarianism (I have always wanted to use that word in context).

      Inherited institutions do not have inherent and absolute value. They must be reviewed and their continued fitness to purpose confirmed. Oliver may wish to live in the Nineteenth Century neither I nor my children and grandchildren wish for this.

      If I can find time I will respond to the other three points.

      • Alan

        I once managed to sneak “pseudoantidisestablishmentarianism” into a journal article. Either the editor connived or he missed it!

          • And, though it doesn’t quite scan, you can sing it to the tune of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

          • By coincidence I was singing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious on Wednesday this week. Normally I prefer Palestrina and Monteverdi, but it’s on the repertoire of the songs we sing for the residents of St Katherine’s nursing home.

  4. It surprises me that anyone should feel that this report is an attack on their religious faith. It simply makes the case for organised religion to be kept out of public life – not for religious individuals to be excluded. The divine being that UKviewer believes in so passionately is not necessarily the same one that Mr Mohammed at the local convenience store does or Mr Goldstein at the Kosher restaurant. Whose God is going to run the country? At the moment, the Christian religion has the upper hand in constitutional terms, but other religions are asserting their right to participate.

    The NSS thinks it is safer, if we are to avoid the sectarianism that is tearing other parts of the world into pieces, that religion plays no part in Government.

  5. In Peterborough a new War Memorial was erected in the city centre about 5 years ago. That first Remembrance Sunday the usual wreath laying took place at 10.15am followed by the civic service in the Cathedral. At 11.00am a crowd gathered at the War Memorial and wanted to know why nothing had been organised – it never had before but now the central location of its new site made it wanted. The next year it was organised as an addition, no vicar involved. The feedback was that what was needed was a Vicar. I was as surprised as anyone else. So now I do two on Remembrance Sunday – a civic ceremony and a ‘people’s one’ – by popular demand and it is religious using the agreed ecumenical material.

    I do not find this country is as secular as is often claimed and that is backed up by Linda Woodhead’s research into the ‘no religions’, those who self certify on census data their religion as ‘no religion’. It’s a more complex picture than just tick box counting of religious service attendees.

    • Our Remembrance Day is held at a Peace Memorial next to the Town Hall. The main actors in the ceremony are the Mayor and the Chair of Council. There is no specifically religious, militarist or nationalist content to the occasion. There are one or two religious representatives there but they have no particular status and are there to lay wreaths next to ours. The attendance is always amazingly good.

  6. I have little to add to the comment made by “John”.

    I am 77. I have lived a moral, law-abiding and productive life and helped to raise two children who proved to be law-abiding and honest, truthful citizens, each of whom has in turn raised two children of excellent personal character. All this without ever after the age of 14 having the least belief in supernatural entities or phenomena. So enough of this nonsense that religion is essential for moral behaviour and social responsibility.

    I agree with John’s view of religion. I also regard religion as a service industry with many global brands – some more admirable than others. Like the tobacco industry, to maintain or build its consumer base it needs to “catch them young”. If it can do this at the expense of the State so much the better from the industry’s point of view. It is no coincidence that the Church of England has appointed a former oil company executive as its CEO and is eagerly taking up the offer of access (funded by the State) to school children which was started by the Blair Administration and continued through the Coalition years and into the current Conservative term.

    As in the commercial world, new brands emerge from time to time and these take market share from existing brands. As a result, the multiplicity of religions tends to increase unless the dominant brand can force competitors out of the market.

    The nub of this matter is that in a state which is open to consumers of all of the available brands of religion the only practical accommodation is for the state to be neutral with respect to religion.

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