Activity Report from Siðmennt,The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association for IHEU April 2006
Two main themes characterized the work of Siðmennt over the past year.
1) An incredible amount of activity on a large number of projects.
2) Ever-increasing bonding among the board members – growing teamwork.
However it would be much better both for Sidmennt and Icelandic society if Sidmennt had equal legal and economic status to other life stance organizations in Iceland. Then we could provide all the services which Humanist groups provide in many other countries. In 2005 we did everything we have been doing in the previous 14 years only much more of it! Board members participated in many meetings, seminars, and conferences both in Iceland and abroad. We were quite visible in the media and we received many guests from our sister groups on both sides of the Atlantic.
Below are the highlights of our activities throughout the year.
• Our vice president made a speech about freedom of religion at a meeting of the Social Democratic Youth organization. (Feb)
• Detailed interview with our civil confirmation teacher about the 17 year history of civil confirmation in Iceland and about Sidmennt. (Feb)
• Vice president appeared on Sunday TV talk show discussing religious indoctrination in public schools (March)
• Sidmennt sent Minister of Education and the education committee in Parliament a letter documenting many examples of religious indoctrination in public schools. (March)
• The Sidmennt president and another board member met with representative of American Embassy in Iceland to answer questions about the status of religious freedom in Iceland. Our replies formed part of an annual report the U.S. State Department makes about religious freedom around the world and sends to the American Congress and posts on its website. (March)
• Sidmennt visited by Juha Kukkonen, chairman of the Finnish Freethinkers Association. Met with a small group of our members. (May)
• Sidmennt board met with a human rights lawyer to help us with our struggle for equal status to religious organizations. She wrote a long, detailed report supporting our request for equal status which we have used since then when dealing with government authorities. She recommended that Sidmennt pursue a court case against the government to win this right. Such a case could take many years and be frighteningly expensive. (April-June)
• The board decided to first explore thoroughly trying to get Parliament to either amend the law about registered religious organizations or else to pass a new law about life stance organizations as was done in Norway in 1981. This process is ongoing according to a strategic lobbying plan.
• A Sidmennt board member gave a short speech at a conference about revising the Icelandic constitution (June) explaining our position on separation of church and state. In August we sent the committee working on revising the constitution a formal letter suggesting ways to amend the constitution along with our lawyer’s report about the lack of clarity in the constitution regarding the rights of non-religious people.
• In July our vice president attended the IHEU and IHEYO congresses in Paris.
• Sidmennt president met with Lauri Sivonen the assistant to the head of the European Human Rights Council who was visiting Iceland and asnwered questions about the status of life stance organizations in Iceland, the effects on Icelandic society of having a state religion, and the automatic registration of newborn babies into the religion of their mothers.
• Preparation began last summer for an international atheist, Humanist, Freethought conference in Iceland in June 2006. All 4 groups of non-believers in Iceland are cooperating on this major project, along with Atheist Alliance International. (AAI)
• We had a surprise visit from August Berkshire, vice president of AAI, on his way home from the Paris Congress.
• Sidmennt board sent press release to the media supporting the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt children after supporting a bill in Parliament on this matter.
• Sidmennt sent a letter to all Members of Parliament (August) asking for their support for a possible bill which would grant equal status for non-religious life stance organizations so our members’ church taxes could go directly to these organizations instead of to the University of Iceland as is the case today. Press releases were sent to the media about this.
• In broad terms our letter to the MPs said that Sidmennt is built on Humanist values which have a long history and international connections with other rationalists and wants to offer broader services than our civil confirmation program such as secular naming ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. In order to increase our services we need to have equal access to the church taxes we have to pay just like members of all other life stance organizations in Iceland but which are religious.
• In August we were visited by Pekka Elo, chairman of the Finnish Humanist Union and he interviewed 2 of our board members for an article in his group’s journal.
• Our board sent a press release to the media criticizing the government subsidies to religious organizations.
• In October an elderly honorary member of Sidmennt donated 660 copies of his autobiography to our organization to use for fund-raising purposes. Any profits from the sale of his book will go into our legal fund.
• The Sidmennt board actualized a longtime dream by awarding its first annual Humanist of the Year Award in October. The recipient was the Icelandic Gay and Lesbian Rights Organization “Samtokin 78”. Forty guests were invited, press releases were sent out, and a reception was held. Members of Samtokin 78 were very pleased and articles appeared in the media as well as radio interviews with representatives of Sidmennt and Samtokin 78.
• Four board members attended a meeting with a committee at the Ministry of Education which is reviewing the curriculum for Christianity classes, comparative religion, ethics, and critical t?inking in the public schools. We pointed out many examples of religious indoctrination in the schools and referred them to the conclusions made by the United Nations Human Rights Committee regarding these matters in Norwegian schools. The committee seemed concerned about the same issues as we were but told us that curriculum changes occur extremely slowly.
• There was a gigantic increase in enrollment this winter in our annual civil confirmation program. 130 teenagers participated, which is a 40% increase over last year which was also a record setting year. We ran 5 classes and organized 2 ceremonies. The administrative work involved has become more complicated but we view this as a positive problem.
• We took another big step in our confirmation work this winter by holding half of the special weekend course for kids living in rural areas, in Akureyri, the largest town in the north of Iceland, where 9 participants live. For the first time there will also be a small civil confirmation ceremony held in the Eastern Fjords where 2 participants live. It has always been our goal to hold the preparatory course and the ceremony in more places in the country than just the capital. We hope this marks the beginning of wider accessibility to our services throughout the nation.
• Sidmennt has been in the media limelight all winter. Several clergymen wrote rather negative articles about Sidmennt, misinterpreting our position on various things and board members responded publicly. Heated debate took place on several websites.
• The Sidmennt board was very active in sending press releases to the media about various issues such as our record enrollment in civil confirmation, Sidmennt’s continuing struggle for equal status with religious organizations, and the Humanist of the Year Award. Our vice president was interviewed on more than one occasion about this on TV and radio.
• Last fall 2 board members participated in the national meeting of the Norwegian Humanist Association at their invitation.
• A detailed article about Sidmennt appeared in Fri Tanke, one of the Norwegian Humanist Association’s many publications.
• An article about our Humanist of the Year Award to the Gay and Lesbian rights organization appeared in the British magazine “Gay Humanist Quarterly”
• Sidmennt is working jointly with the Icelandic Human Rights Center to organize a seminar this spring about equal rights and status of all life stance organizations. We are asking all political parties in Iceland to send a representative to state their party’s position on this matter.
• A number of interviews with the Sidmennt president appeared in newspapers this winter regarding civil confirmation, life stance organizations, and a very large in-depth interview appeared in one of the Sunday papers highlighting the work of Sidmennt. This was followed by a long radio interview.
• We receive an ever-growing number of requests for assistance with civil weddings and secular funerals. We can only give advice at this stage as we are not in a position to conduct such services.
• We have always gotten a lot of support and encouragement from our Norwegian sister association, been invited to their national meetings and celebrations, and HEF has now offered us legal advice regarding religious indoctrination in schools and the struggle for equal status of life stance organizations. This has been invaluable to Sidmennt.
• One of the largest projects we have ever undertaken has been the preparation for an international atheist, Humanist, Freethought conferrence in Iceland at the end of June. We have gotten world famous speakers and been publicizing the event domestically and around the world.
• We have a burning interest in training some Sidmennt members to become Humanist celebrants. One of our conference speakers (Margaret Downey) conducts such workshops and will be discussing the importance of providing secular alternatives to religious services. We hope to i?vite her back to give us this training when and if Sidmennt gains the right to conduct such services, so that we can do this properly.
The dream continues to move us forward
Yes, Sidmennt is an unbelievable organization. We have an incredible amount of energy and cohesiveness which grows from year to year. We have very little money, no headquarters, and no paid staff, but our idealism and a passionate interest in human rights and justice unites us and drives us forward as a close-knit team. We are determined to make our dream of real religious freedom and equal status for all life stance organizations in Iceland a reality.
Hope Knútsson, President of Sidmennt