Yesterday’s PinkNews.co.uk exclusive that the Catholic Church encouraged pupils in all its secondary schools to sign the Coalition for Marriage’s petition against gay couples being given the right to marry by the Government was hugely shocking. Not only were the actions morally repugnant, but it also appeared that the Catholic Education Service (CES) were breaking a number of laws – both on equalities and against political indoctrination.
Policy Manager Maeve McCormack justified the CES’s actions by arguing that Catholic schools are free to put forward Church teaching in RE and assembly, and that ‘Schools with a religious character are allowed to teach sex and relationships – and conduct assemblies – in accordance with the religious views of the school. The Catholic view of marriage is not a political view; it’s a religious view.’ And in a statement released today, the CES have explained that they will continue to ask schools to encourage over-16s to sign the petition.
But if this means victimising gay people, and encouraging political action, then Maeve is mistaken.
The Equality Act 2010 sets out a public sector equality duty. This requires public authorities, including schools, to ‘have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation;… advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it; [and] foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.’
From 6 April, schools had to ‘publish information to demonstrate its compliance with the duty’.
It seems to me to be very likely that the schools involved broke this duty. A pupil who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender will undoubtedly feel discriminated against, harassed and victimised by the Church’s actions.
The assemblies will undoubtedly have harmed good relations between LGBT pupils and others. The pupil quoted in the original PinkNews.co.uk article makes it very clear that this is the case.
At the same time, the Education Act 1996 prohibits ‘the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school’, and to ensure that schools ‘take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils… are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.’
The Coalition for Marriage is very obviously a political coalition with a very clear political aim of preventing the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
There has, unfortunately, been a spate of recent incidents of ‘faith’ schools promoting homophobic material to pupils. In February, it was revealed that Catholic schools in Lancashire invited a US preacher in to give talks to pupils, following on from which a leaflet was distributed to pupils, entitled ‘Pure Manhood: How to become the man God wants you to be’.
And in January, it was reported that the Jewish Free School in London (JFS) had presented pupils with information on the American ‘gay cure’ group JONAH – Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. So these issues are all too common.
What is different about this case, however, is firstly how widespread it was – the CES centrally advised every single Catholic secondary in England and Wales to take this action – and secondly the overtly political nature of what has been done.
The CES’s actions therefore seem much more inflammatory than anything that has happened in the past.
We think there is a real argument to be made that the Catholic Education Service has both discriminated against LGBT pupils, and promoted partisan political views to all students. We’re serious about wanting to take a case on this. All we need is a pupil who was in one of these assemblies. If you can help us, please get in touch.
Richy Thompson is the Campaigns Officer (Faith Schools and Education) for the British Humanist Association.