Stay out of religion, David Cameron, it’s not your job

Independent on Sunday, 15 December 2013

How did anyone ever think it was OK to expect men and women to sit apart?

David Cameron is strongly opposed to gender segregation. Michael Gove thinks it’s “pandering to extremists”. Universities UK, which came up with an insane piece of “guidance” on the subject, is reviewing it after being covered in the metaphorical equivalent of a bucket of ordure. So how did anyone ever come up with the idea that it was OK to expect men and women to sit separately at some events on university premises?

I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that the current government (prop, D Cameron) is in most respects inexplicably keen on religion. Want some money to set up a Catholic or Muslim free school? Go and see that nice Mr Gove and he’ll tell his officials to hand over the dosh. There is even a minister for faith whose job description includes promoting religion. Baroness Warsi goes around telling people that the coalition is one of the “most pro-faith governments in the West”. This is hardly something to boast about, in my opinion. But who can blame your average religious extremist if he (it usually is a he) gets the idea that people of “faith” can do whatever they like?

Here are a couple of correctives to the notion that religion is an essentially benign force. In a country committed to equality, British universities allowed Islamic societies to segregate male and female students at around 40 events in the 12 months up to March this year. Then the Supreme Court ruled that Scientology – an “evil cult”, according to Michael Gove in a parliamentary debate – must be recognised as a religion. The judges swept aside a ruling that only groups which recognise a deity count, opening up the possibility of tax breaks for Scientology. The decision caused dismay at the Department for Communities which happens, amusingly, to be where the minister for faith is also based. I hope Lady Warsi is going to update a recent observation – “More often than not, people who do God do good” – to avoid discriminating against people who aspire to become Operating Thetans.

The court’s decision is logical. Who is to say that one set of supernatural beliefs is more credible than another? The proper way to deal with it is to withdraw tax breaks and privileges from all religions, not just ones that ministers don’t like. Sadly, Cameron’s mild Anglicanism hasn’t equipped him to deal with all this, and the result is staggering incoherence. Promoting religion isn’t the job of governments, and no one should be surprised when it leads to gender segregation or worse.

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