Secularist of the Year 2012 - Peter Tatchell
Irwin Prize for defending the separation of religion and the state
London, UK - 19 March 2012
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has won this year's award for Secularist of the Year. He was presented with the £5,000 Irwin Prize by the author and freedom of expression campaigner Nick Cohen, at a ceremony in London hosted by the National Secular Society (NSS) on Saturday, 17 March 2012. The audience included prominent scientists, journalists, politicians and writers.
Anthony Gajadharsingh, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, said:
“We are delighted that our Director, Peter Tatchell, has been given this prestigious award. He has been a voice of human rights and secularism for more than four decades; challenging religious intolerance and defending freedom of belief for people of all faiths and none. While opposing special rights and privileges for religious organisations, the Peter Tatchell Foundation will continue to work for the human rights of everyone, believers and non-believers alike,” he said.
Commenting on his receipt of the award, Peter Tatchell added:
“I feel very privileged and honoured to receive the Irwin Prize. However, compared to the heroism of secularists and humanists living under religious fundamentalist regimes, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, my own efforts are quite insignificant. I salute their courageous, inspiring work in defence of rationalism, scientific knowledge, freedom of expression and human rights.
“I pay tribute to my humanist and secularist colleagues in many countries, including Leo Igwe in Nigeria, Kato Mukasa in Uganda and George Thindwa in Malawi.
“Worldwide, organised religion is the single greatest threat to human rights; especially to the rights of women, LGBT people, atheists and minority faiths. Religious-inspired dogmas persecute Christians in Pakistan, Sunni Muslims in Iran, Shia Muslims in Bahrain and Jewish people in much of the Middle East. In many countries, atheists and apostates face discrimination, harassment, threats and violence from religious zealots. Some Islamist countries have the death penalty for Muslims who turn away from their faith. Even in the West, the religious right menaces freedom of expression and equality, with its demands for the censorship of the satire that targets religion and with its campaigns in defence of gender and sexual orientation discrimination.
“Secularists support the separation of religion and the state. With no established state religion, there is equality for people of all faiths and none. Secularism is the best guarantor of religious freedom. It is in the interest of people of all faiths, as well as the interests of non-believers. People are entitled to their faith but they are not entitled to insist that their religious values are the law of the land,” concluded Mr Tatchell.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said:
"We are very pleased to have been able to reward Peter's lifelong commitment to human rights and to honour his support for a just and inclusive secular society. He has been active in many progressive campaigns over the past forty or more years, not least on gay rights, and has had to endure much public and press abuse because of it. But he has persevered and now he has made the unprecedented transition from public enemy number one to national treasure."
Mr Sanderson said in his introduction to the presentation:
"I'm very pleased to see that at last he (Peter Tatchell) has been recognised as a true secularist and someone who has given much to the cause....
"Of course, you'd have had to live on the moon not to have been aware of Peter's many campaigns to drive forward human rights. He is an international player and perhaps his most famous confrontation was that with Robert Mugabe, the tyrant of Zimbabwe . This resulted in him being badly beaten by Mugabe's thug-like minders.
"Peter is a fighter for civil liberties, criminal justice, democracy, free speech, LGBT rights, sex education and social justice.
"He has also faced physical attack in Russia and regularly finds himself the subject of attack in the streets and on public transport. His home is a fortress, but his determination remains resolute.
"The NSS first came across Peter when, in 1998, he audaciously climbed into the pulpit at Canterbury Cathedral and interrupted the Archbishop mid-flow. He wanted to call him to account for his antipathy to gay rights, something the Archbishop had consistently refused to address.
"Peter was charged under an obscure piece of legislation: the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860. It uniquely protects churches from "riotous, violent, or indecent behaviour" and prosecutes anyone who "shall molest, let, disturb, vex, or trouble" a priest. The reverse, of course, doesn't necessarily apply. For all those who have been molested, let, disturbed or troubled by a priest, there's little redress – particularly given that the worst offenders are secreted away by the Pope in the Vatican, beyond the reach of those troublesome international arrest warrants.
"It is a law that uniquely protects churches and chapels – in other words a religious privilege – and it was at that point that we took up his cause. A conviction could have resulted in a substantial prison sentence.
"The magistrate could not avoid finding Peter guilty but showed his contempt of the law under which Peter was convicted by fining him a derisory £18.60, the year the Act was passed expressed in pounds and pence," said Mr Sanderson.
Clive Bone, the former councillor at the centre of the Bideford council prayer victory in the High Court was awarded the £1,000 Simon Biber Memorial prize for Special Achievement.
Previous winners of Secularist of the Year are:
2011 - Sophie in 't Veld MEP (presented by A. C. Grayling)
2010 - The Southall Black Sisters (presented by Dr. Michael Irwin, accepted by Pragna Patel)
2008/2009 - Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury (presented by Richard Dawkins)
2007 - Mina Ahadi (presented by Joan Smith)
2006 - Steve Jones (presented by Dick Taverne)
2005 - Maryam Namazie (presented by Polly Toynbee)
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