Secularism in 2023: A year in review


The year began with Church of England bishops issuing an apology to LGBT+ people for the “rejection, exclusion and hostility” they have faced in churches and the impact this has had on their lives. Nevertheless, after a six-year process of “listening and learning” the bishops decided not to change their position on gay relationships. According to the Church’s official position, gay sex and same sex marriage remain sinful.

Labour’s Ben Bradshaw warned that, without change, the Church’s “extraordinary and unique privileges in its role in the nation’s life” are “unsustainable” and predicted the Church was heading for a “major constitutional clash with Parliament”.

We argued that Anglican bishops’ stance on same sex marriage demonstrated the widening divisions between Church and state – and that formal separation should follow.


In February, we pushed back against the emergence of a new de facto blasphemy code following the sinister overreaction to a Quran being scuffed in a Kettlethorpe school. We raised concerns with the government after West Yorkshire Police recorded a ‘non-crime hate incident’. The Home Secretary subsequently issued a statement making clear that “we don’t have blasphemy laws in Britain”, put out new guidance clarifying that criticism of religion per se is never a hate crime, and made clear that causing offence is no grounds for the recording of a ‘hate incident’.

Meanwhile, Kate Forbes’ religious views on issues such as abortion and gay marriage came under scrutiny as she attempted to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader. Some socially conservative commentators suggested such scrutiny was evidence of ‘Christianophobia’, claiming hysterically that Christians were effectively barred from public office. We argued that Forbes was entitled to her beliefs, but they shouldn’t get a free pass just because they’re religious.


In March, we published research into how state schools are facilitating coercive and controlling practices in religious communities. It revealed how the oversubscription criteria of some faith schools’ admissions policies are imposing extreme religious ideology on families. We found evidence of admissions criteria being used to control how students’ families dress, whether they can use the internet, what they can eat, and when parents have sex. We called on the government to stop faith schools behaving like cults. The schools minister said the report’s findings and recommendations would be considered as part of the next review of the School Admissions Code.

And as a group of MPs brought forward a bill to allow for same sex marriage in the Church of England, we argued that Parliament should begin the process of disestablishment rather than try to fix the Church of England.


As the nation prepared to crown King Charles, we anticipated a coronation fit for a king, but not for a modern democracy. We argued that an exclusively Anglican religious ritual was no way to inaugurate a head of state in diverse and increasingly irreligious Britain.


With the coronation fast approaching, our head of campaigns pointed out that the religious ceremony wasn’t for us, it was for the Church – and said we should stop letting the Church use our affairs of state to promote itself.

Meanwhile, an intervention from the Archbishop of Canterbury in a House of Lords debate on the Illegal Migration Bill sparked much discussion about whether religion and politics should mix. We argued that religious leaders should be free to speak out on matters that concern them, but they should do so on the basis of equality, not privilege.

And as cabinet ministers spoke alongside anti-LGBT campaigners at a conference organised by Christian nationalists, we called for American efforts to export regressive religious views under the guise of the ‘culture war’ to be resisted.


In June, we welcomed recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that faith schools in England should be prevented from religiously discriminating against children in their admissions, and that compulsory collective worship laws should be repealed. We argued that adopting the UN recommendations would go a long way to ensuring that our education system equally respects the rights and freedoms of pupils, families and teachers of all backgrounds.

And after the evangelical Christian MP Miriam Cates complained that politicians cannot talk openly about their faith, we argued that recent events show politicians who criticise religion are far more likely to be silenced.


In July, the Bishop of Durham used his reserved seat in the House of Lords to criticise the Law Commission’s sensible recommendations to reform wedding law in England and Wales, warning they are “likely to undermine the Christian understanding of marriage”. We argued that the Church shouldn’t dictate how we marry.

Meanwhile, the Bishop of Bristol used her seat in the House of Lords to lobby for a change in the law to allow more money to flow from cash-strapped local authorities to places of worship. We urged local councils to ensure that taxpayers aren’t burdened with propping up an ailing yet wealthy religious institution.

And with some religious groups taking offence at the summer’s biggest blockbuster films, we warned their petty objections are all part of the growing global push to bring back blasphemy.


As the Danish Government considered legislating to make it illegal to burn copies of the Quran in order to placate Muslim-majority nations outraged by a series of protests involving burnings of Islam’s holy book, we argued that prioritising religious feelings above freedom of expression was a grave mistake. A new law prohibiting damaging or destroying copies of the Quran or other religious texts was subsequently passed by the Danish parliament in December.


As plans were announced to erect a 16ft statue of a woman clad in an Islamic veil celebrating “the strength of the hijab” in a Birmingham park, we argued the monument was a slap in the face to those who reject religious dress codes and no way to celebrate women.

And as a survey of Church of England clergy found almost half of them think the seats currently reserved for Anglican bishops in the House of Lords should be shared with other faith leaders, we argued religious privilege in Parliament should be ended – not extended.


The aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October exposed many charities registered to advance Islam as also advancing extremist narratives and antisemitism. We argued that removing “the advancement of religion” from the list of charitable purposes would help put an end to charities spreading antisemitism and other forms of extremism.


In November, we welcomed news that a bill to disestablish the Church of England would be introduced in Parliament, after being selected from the House of Lords private members’ bill ballot. Our chief executive argued that beginning the process of separating Church and state would signal a forward-looking Britain committed to equality, inclusivity and freedom of religion or belief.


On the day Liberal Democrat peer Paul Scriven introduced his bill in Parliament to separate Church and state, he wrote exclusively for us on why he thinks the time to disestablish the Church of England has come.

And as we marked the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our chief executive pointed out that its promise of freedom and equality remains a distant dream for those living under religious rule – and called for the anniversary to prompt renewed efforts to uphold human rights on the ground for everyone, everywhere.

A fuller review of the year is available in our annual report.

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