The sinister and illogical attempt to stop RC schools teaching the meaning of marriage

Catholic Voices have been doing a series of interviews following an attack by secularists on Catholic schools for attempting to teach the Catholic understanding of marriage. (Hear Austen Ivereigh debate Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association (BHA) on Saturday's Today programme; and Jack Valero be interviewed by Edward Stourton programme on the Sunday programme).

The story follows a March letter from the Catholic Education Service to schools, inviting parents and students to join more than 473,000 people in signing the Coalition for Marriage's petition to preserve marriage as the voluntary lifelong and exclusive union of a man and a woman. The CES wrote to 385 Catholic secondary schools in England and Wales, drawing their attention to the archbishops’ letter on the subject of marriage. The schools educate more than 300,000 students, many of whom are from ethnic minorities and the poorest sections of society, and educate them in a way that Ofsted has found more likely to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ than most British schools. The Catholic Church was reminding Catholic schools of the Catholic understanding of marriage and the threat to it of redefining marriage.

Remarkably, Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society claimed that it was no part of the Catholic Education Service (CES)’s remit "to promote a specific political campaign" and further that it was "disgraceful that children are being encouraged into bigotry when they are attending a state-school paid for my taxpayers". Ben Summerskill, of gay-rights lobby group Stonewall, insisted that schools "categorically shouldn’t be involved in such a live political issue, particularly in a way that demeans gay pupils". Writing in Pink News, the online ‘gay news service’, Richy Thompson of the BHA accused the CES of being in breach of the Education Act 1996 and the Equalities Act 2010. "The Coalition for Marriage is very obviously a political coalition with a very clear political aim," he said. "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."

A specific accusation, made by a pupil at St Philomena’s Catholic High School for Girls in Carshalton in south London, was that the school’s headteacher encouraged all pupils to sign the marriage petition, regardless of their age. The school denies this. "Contrary to what has been published, those under the age of 16 were expressly informed that they could not sign the petition, which simply proposes that the legal definition of marriage remains the same," the school points out, adding: "The assembly was based on the Pastoral Letter of The Bishops Conference on the Church's teaching on marriage and was delivered in response to a request from the Catholic Education Service. As a Catholic school, we have a duty to inform our students of the Church's teaching on social issues while also promoting, supporting and respecting pupils' right to think for themselves."

Meanwhile, 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.

As the European Court of Human Rights has ruled, it is not discrimination for marriage to be defined – as it is in British law – as the union of man and a woman. There is no human right to a same-sex marriage. The Catholic Educational Service is fully supportive of the Equality Act as "it is central to Catholic teaching that all individuals be treated with respect and dignity". Homophobia or bullying or discrimination against minorities have no place in Catholic schools.

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.)

Teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman is also, of course, a religious view, an expression of the core teachings of the Catholic Church, which under Article 9 of the EHCR it is perfectly at liberty to teach. Should there be any doubt about this, it was made explicitly clear at the time of the Equality Act 2010 that the Catholic Church had the right to teach in its schools its understanding of marriage and sexuality.

The NSS and the BHA are, of course, longstanding opponents of publicly-funded faith schools, and they have chosen this issue as a means of garnering support for their unpopular ambition of scrapping them. But to do so, they have to argue that (a) the argument in favour of gay marriage is an argument in favour of equality; (b) those who oppose gay marriage are therefore against equality; (c) because schools are committed in law to upholding equality, therefore schools speaking against gay marriage are breaking the law.

The logic falls at the first hurdle, because 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. Far from being a "sectarian" view, this is precisely the view of marriage upheld in British law and backed by 70 per cent of the British population.

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. Politique d'abord was the slogan of some of the twentieth-century's less favourable movements and regimes. As Brendan O'Neill points out, the attempt to deny Catholic students their right to be educated in their faith is the obvious next stage in this campaign.

(Incidentally, you can hear CV Peter D. Williams debate gay marriage with human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell here; and CV Isaac Chenchiah debate the same issue at Bristol University here.)

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