Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Though it probably helps if you call him "Allah"

Brides and grooms have been counting the ways they loved each other in church weddings ever since Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the famous sonnet 150 years ago. But in civil services, the poem is banned - because of its last line: "if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death".

It is that mention of God that has made Barrett Browning persona non grata in register offices for decades. And she's not alone. Scores of poems, songs and even letters are barred from being read or sung in civil weddings if they contain even the most oblique religious reference. But now couples will be able to choose their favourite works under an unexpected shake-up of marriage laws being planned by the Government. An imminent relaxation of the law will mean an end to the ban which prevents anything with religious connotations being included in civil wedding services.

Ministers have let it be known that they will also be content for hymns to be sung and extracts from the Bible to be read, although they accept this may be too sensitive for churches and faith groups.

The rules set out in the 1949 Marriage Act were intended to draw a sharp distinction between the decision of couples to opt for a church wedding or for a non-religious ceremony. It says that: "No religious service shall be used at any marriage solemnised in the office of a superintendent registrar." Civil marriages started in 1837.

But it has led to the banning from civil services of a vast array of readings. Barrett Browning's poem is prohibited because of its references to "grace", "being" and "God" despite it being a love poem and not a religious text. Even Robbie Williams' bestselling Angels is barred, because of that one word.

With 181,000 civil marriages in 2003 compared to 86,000 religious ceremonies, the Government is to start consultations on whether the law should be changed and couples given the chance to hear their most cherished words on the biggest day of their lives. The move was quietly started by Gordon Brown after a letter to him from Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath and his party's culture spokesman, who had been contacted by several people with grievances about censorship of readings. Don Foster had been alerted to the current rules by Nick Rijke, who was barred from having Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem read when he got married in Oxford register office in May last year.

Mr Rijke, 39, a public relations executive with the Environment Agency, said of the review yesterday: "It is a very positive step in the right direction because it would have allowed readings like the one that we chose, as that was an incidental reference to religion." It came to the Chancellor's desk because the Treasury has oversight of the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which is in turn responsible for the registration of marriages.

Mr Brown asked the ONS to carry out a review which found several common examples of songs, music and readings which had been requested by couples but banned by local registrars. The ONS review has also found anecdotal evidence of cases where guests in clerical or rabbinical dress have been excluded from ceremonies because of concern that their presence could be construed as conferring religious legitimacy.



Denver has hired a local marketing firm to reshape the public's image of the homeless - from one of a bedraggled panhandler to an image reflecting the growing number of women, children and families. The Denver Commission to End Homelessness awarded a $60,000 contract to political consultant Eric Sondermann.

The move comes as the commission begins to implement Mayor John Hickenlooper's plan to raise money and resources needed to end homelessness within 10 years. "We want to do a professional communication job so people have a clear understanding of what we're doing and what it will take to change the lives of the people who are homeless," said Deborah Ortega, executive director of the commission. "Part of our communication is to help people understand that these efforts will make a difference, but it takes the resources to change people's lives."

A more realistic portrait of the Denver area's homeless population is the growing number of children, women and families seeking assistance, service providers said Wednesday during a briefing to a City Council committee. "The side the public doesn't see is that of the women and children," said Father John Lager, director of the Samaritan House in downtown Denver. "There are even less services for them." Lager said that the number of families standing in line for the shelter's daily lottery for beds has more than doubled from 10 per day to 25 per day in the past few years.

Last month, the commission unveiled a bold plan that calls for sweeping changes in Denver's approach to homelessness. The 10-year plan calls for building more than 3,000 units of permanent and transitional housing, providing comprehensive mental health and substance abuse services, expanding the city's shelter system, increasing outreach and reducing panhandling. However, funding the plan will be a major undertaking. Startup costs are projected at $7 million, and city officials estimate it will cost $12 million per year to fully implement the plan.

Hickenlooper, who has made the issue a top priority, is pushing mayors and county commissioners from neighboring suburbs to ask metro voters to extend the 0.1 percent stadium sales tax that funded the construction of Invesco Field at Mile High to pay for affordable housing, including housing for the homeless. "The plan the commission and mayor developed is a long-term and comprehensive one," Sondermann said. A theme the public may hear is that combating homelessness is a matter of "morality and justice."


Fog of political correctness in Britain

Some excellent sense on British immigration: A comment from India

In contemporary Britain, immigration keeps cropping up as an election campaign issue. I am not surprised. Over the years a penumbra of political correctness has hung over British social discourse. Either from a feeling of post-imperial guilt or simply succumbing to fashions of the time, the British have landed in a trap where the agenda is set by shrill activists who force entitlement claims down the throats of a bewildered society.

We lived in the London precinct of Maida Vale in the mid-’90s. When we moved in, I paid a visit to the local library. The elderly librarian walked up to me, introduced herself. For the record, she was a white woman with an elegant educated accent. She then proceeded to stun me with an unexpected statement. “We have books in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati and Tamil. I know there are many languages in India. Which is your language? If you want, I can order books for you in your language.”

My response was something she had never expected: “As a matter of fact, my language, Kannada, is not on your list. But, if you don’t mind my asking, why is the British tax-payer paying for books in all these languages?”

To use a very English expression, she was gob-smacked. She mumbled something about the need to stay in touch with their roots and cultures. She was a charming inoffensive lady. I did not pursue the conversation further. I later wondered whether I had missed an opportunity to take some easy money off the generous British tax-payer. I could have set up my cousin in Bangalore to send hundreds of Kannada books to the Maida Vale library. It would have been deliciously ironical! For, these days there are hardly any libraries in Karnataka with books in any language, for that matter. It was not always so. Under our beloved reactionary maharaja we had well-stocked libraries in most major towns. But our present progressive rulers seem busy with other matters. Someone should do a survey. I would wager that there are today more Indian-language books in British libraries than in Indian ones!

Immigrants to Britain have gone there voluntarily. Presumably, they liked British society. Hence they went there in the first place. A corollary to that would be that they learn English and hopefully borrow English books from state-funded public libraries. They are, of course, free to buy books in other languages with their own money. But what is the logic of expecting the government to subsidise reading habits derived from their so-called “roots”? Left to themselves, most immigrants would not have asked for it. But if woolly-headed liberal natives of the host country come and tell me that I have a “right” and an “entitlement” to this-that-and-the-other in the name of multi-culturalism and staying-in-touch-with-one’s-roots, then I would be a fool not to exploit their generosity. You could even argue that by being an object of their philanthropic attentions (albeit, not at the personal cost of the liberals themselves, but being debited to the general fisc!) I am actually doing them a favour. How else could they obtain the warm glow of post-imperial-guilt-expiation and earn the accolade of being “sensitive” to other cultures/races/religions/languages and so on. Actually, we could take this one step further in the interests of logic and lucidity. British public libraries should ban Shakespeare. He was not multi-culturally sensitive (he did not know French or Latin, let alone Gujarati or Urdu) and was a “chauvinist” to boot. Did he not use the expression “This England, this demi-paradise”? This is doubtless wounding to the feelings of immigrants. I have a vision of British public libraries stocked with books in Hausa and Serbo-Croatian, Arabic and Sinhala... but English, never!

One can now begin to understand why immigration is a general political issue for many, not just for the usual racist nativists. Britain has had immigrant groups before. The Lombards occupied Lombard Street in London; Cromwell encouraged Jews to settle in England and of course Hitler drove many of them in; the French expelled the Huguenots who found refuge in England. It is true that these were all white folks and the ignorant must have found them literally “easier on the eyes”. But there is another crucial difference. None of these groups received subsidies from the state. None were encouraged to adopt a tone of “entitlement-seeking”. The signal that multi-culturalism can qualify for state sponsorship and even state mandates, does not go unnoticed by the “clients” in the immigrant groups or their self-appointed liberal “padronnes” who mediate between the state and these groups and who themselves become beneficiaries of grants and subsidies. If there is money to be made in multi-culturalism, then we can be sure that it will attract rent-seekers like bees in search of honey!

Incidentally, the same school of political correctness makes sure that granular information — for instance, immigrants from India commit fewer crimes and rarely go on welfare unlike immigrants from Nigeria, Pakistan or Bangladesh — gets little or no publicity! (I’m sorry, I am a chauvinist Indian. I could not resist this!)

There will always be a hard-core, hopefully small minority of racist and intolerant yobs in any society. But if the state insists on indiscriminately supporting asylum-seekers and then spending more money buying special books for them as also making welfare grants to fanatical religious preachers who use multi-culturalism for their benefit, while not believing in it themselves, then you run the risk of converting middle-of-the-road tolerant citizens into immigrant-bashers. I am continuously surprised as to why the British government is unable to make a statement as follows: “Select immigrants are welcome. We will set the selection criteria. Since no one is forcing them to come in, we will expect that once they are here, they will blend into our culture and not expect Britain to accommodate their cultural needs which they are welcome to address privately at their own cost”. This would be an eminently reasonable position that would considerably diffuse the matter.


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