A religious group unofficially representing the Catholic Church in the media has said questions over the legality of promoting the Coalition for Marriage anti-equality petition to schoolchildren are ‘illogical and sinister’.
PinkNews.co.uk revealed last week that the Catholic Education Service had asked more than 359 state-funded schools across England and Wales to promote the Catholic response to the government’s proposals to introduce marriage equality and the anti-equality Coalition for Marriage petition to 339,000 students from 11 to 18 years old.
The Education Secretary Michael Gove announced an investigation into the legality of the practice, with a spokesperson telling PinkNews.co.uk: “While faith schools, rightly, have the freedom to teach about sexual relations and marriage in the context of their own religion, that should not extend to political campaigning.”
Several bodies, including the National Secular Society, Schools Out and the British Humanist Association raised concerns that promoting a political petition, as the Coalition for Marriage identifies itself, without drawing attention to different views, may have breached the Equality Act and the Education Act.
Section 149 of the Equality Act puts a duty on public sector bodies to have “due regard” to eliminating discrimination, harassment and victimisation and “fostering good relations” between people of varying sexual orientations, among others, in their decision-making.
Sections 406-7 of the Education Act 1996 forbid the “promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school” and require balanced treatment of political issues.
The Catholic Education Service has said the promotion of the Coalition for Marriage petition, which is addressed to “Her Majesty’s Government”, and the Archbishop’s response to government plans was a positive message to schoolchildren of the religious understanding of marriage, not a political view.
Catholic Voices have now accused the British Humanist Association, among others, of using “sinister and illogical” arguments to stop schools teaching their views on marriage.
They wrote today: “The BHA is confused about the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. Section 149 of the Equality Act prohibits discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, but to describe schools supporting and teaching the commonly-understood definition of marriage, one embedded in British law, as “discrimination” is simply to fail to grasp the meaning of the word. Discrimination means unjustly to treat one group in a more unfavourable way for no good reason, or to deprive them of human rights.”
They added: “The BHA seems equally confused about the meaning and purposes of the Education Act 1996. Sections 406 and 407 of that Act indeed forbid the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject, but informing students of what marriage is and has always been can hardly be construed as a partisan political view, any more than Catholic schools being urged to support Make Poverty History or the Jubilee campaign for debt remission was considered a partisan political act. (Does the BHA and NSS regard these as violating the Education Act 1996? We should be told.)”
Referring to the European Court of Human Rights’ 2010 refusal to identify a Europe-wide right to gay marriage and decision to leave it as a matter for member states to settle, they add: “The Church’s argument against gay marriage isn’t against equality: there is no right to same-sex marriage, and therefore no discrimination. Its argument favours preserving marriage as a conjugal institution, for the benefits of children and of society.”
They also allege: “Not only does their logic fail, but the NSS and BHA are offering, in their criticism, a rather sinister glimpse of their true ambitions — to declare anything that they object to in religious expression as “political” and therefore to deny its right to be heard.”
A National Secular Society spokesperson told PinkNews.co.uk: “Catholic Voices says ‘The Church’s argument against gay marriage isn’t against equality – there is no right to same-sex marriage, and therefore no discrimination’, but they don’t seem to understand what equalities are about.
“Women once had no right to vote so according to Catholic Voices’ argument, they were not discriminated against. Equality means giving a right to a group that is denied it for no good reason.
“As cheerleaders for the Catholic Church we would expect Catholic Voices to support attempts to inculcate young people with political Catholicism, but it is for the Secretary of State to decide whether that is appropriate in state funded schools – and, according to the law, it is not.”
Richy Thompson, Campaigns Officer for the British Humanist Association told PinkNews.co.uk: “Catholic Voices seem to have completely ignored the very points that were wrong about the CES’s actions. On equality, they are right when they say that the European Convention on Human Rights does not guarantee the right to same sex marriage. But it seems to me that arguing equal marriage and civil partnerships are “unnatural”, as St Philomena’s did, is clearly going beyond this and discriminating against LBGT people.
“Furthermore, they argue that “informing students of what marriage is and has always been can hardly be construed as a partisan political view”. But Catholic Voices have again missed the crucial point: that the CES also encouraged the promotion of the Coalition for Marriage petition, an avowedly political and not religious campaign with the political goal of preventing same sex marriage.
“What is most shocking about Catholic Voices’ statement is the complete lack of care shown for the pupils and staff that were victimised as a result of this incident.”
Earlier this year, Catholic Voices commissioned a poll which said 70 percent of Britons believed marriage should “continue to be defined as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman”.
The survey did not mention marriage for gay couples or suggest what any redefinition might entail. When the results were used by others to oppose government plans for same-sex civil marriage, Catholic Voices acknowledged the purpose of the poll “was not to gauge support for same-sex marriage” but to “assess support for the state promoting the existing understanding of marriage”.