Buddha, we won't spare the time...

by MURDO MACLEOD, Scotland on Sunday, Dec 2, 2007

Edinburgh, Scotland (UK) -- IT BEGAN with Buddhism but quickly descended into a barney. Christians and political correctness enthusiasts are locked in a furious, public row after a trio of Conservative councillors decided their future wasn't orange and 'boycotted' Buddhist prayers at a Scots council.

An outraged Labour councillor immediately accused the Tories of bigotry and contacted the national watchdog which regulates town hall standards. The Conservative councillors angrily counter-attacked, claiming their religious freedom was under assault.

The dispute started at the Dumfries and Galloway Council headquarters and has dragged in national church groups, academics and the Buddhists themselves, who last night remained resolutely calm.

Following the case of the British teacher jailed in Sudan for letting children name a teddy bear Mohammad, this row has again focused attention on how to balance freedom of expression and cultural sensitivity.

Dumfries and Galloway usually invites a local Christian cleric to lead prayers at its monthly full council meeting. But to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the oldest Buddhist monastery in the UK, the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery in Eskdalemuir, the council broke with tradition and invited a non-Christian cleric to lead prayers.

Buddhist nun Ani Tsultrim Zangmo chanted for approximately 30 seconds before delivering a short homily on the importance of being in harmony with nature and the elements.

Tory councillors and practising Christians Denis Male, Gail MacGregor and Roberta Tuckfield stayed away until the prayers were over.

Labour councillor Ted Brown was outraged, telling his local newspaper: "Councillors swear an oath upon taking office to represent their constituents irrespective of race, colour or creed and I cannot see how these three individuals can square that with the bigoted stance they have taken."

Brown also contacted the Standards Commission but has decided not to take the matter further.

The targets of Brown's attack are unlikely to let the matter drop. Denis Male, who runs a ceramics business, said: "I'm writing to the Standards Commission.

"The issue is that I have been criticised publicly and mention has been made of the Standards Commission. I'm not prepared to accept that."

He added: "There's a difference between listening to a presentation about the work of an organisation, and me allowing them to lead me in my prayers. I felt that as a Christian it would be wrong for me to be led in non-Christian prayers.

"I work with the monastery on a range of issues and projects, but the Bible says 'thou shalt have no other gods before me.' We had a Kirking, a church service, for the council a few weeks ago and some of the councillors were not there. I did not object to that. Is it okay not to be at Christian prayers but not okay to stay away from non-Christian prayers?"

Roberta Tuckfield, who works in tourism, said: "I don't believe anyone was offended. We made a point of coming in discreetly through the side door.

"If we had all walked out and made a show of it that would be one thing but the fact is that people often come into meetings late and no one notices."

The Rev Alistair Donald of Forward Together, a group of evangelical ministers in the Church of Scotland, defended the Tory councillors.

"The decision on whether or not to engage in joint worship must surely be left to an individual's conscience," he said.

Richard Cook, of the Campaign Against Political Correctness, said: "It just shows the absurdity of this whole business of taking offence at things.

"If Christians want to stay away, then fair enough, just like anyone can stay away from church services." And Perry Schmidt-Leukel, professor of religious studies at Glasgow University, said: "For many Christians, Buddhism... is the hardest to find common ground with... because it doesn't acknowledge a creator."

Ani Lhamo, the Buddhist abbot's secretary, said: "We have no problem with people not wanting to take part. People have the right to follow their own beliefs and stay outside if they want."

But Brown is not without support. Margo Moffat, a Lockerbie businesswoman, said: "They should have gone because this was all about showing respect and tolerance, not about taking part.

"If you are elected then you are a public figure and you are often going to be invited to events and you have a responsibility to show a commitment to equality and to tolerance."

Victor Spence, general secretary of the Edinburgh inter-faith council, said: "Public figures have a responsibility to all their constituents, of all faiths. Going along to something does not mean you are taking part."

Brown told Scotland on Sunday: "I spoke to the Standards Commissioner and have decided not to take the matter any further. I don't think the public interest is served by me saying anything else."
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