Category Archives: Religion

Removing Church nominees from Education Committees: Good news from Petitions Committee

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The story so far: Our petition attracted over 700 signatures, some notable, and Spencer Fildes and I were invited to give evidence on it before the Public Petitions Committee last November (shown above; see here for more).  After submitting us to attentive but not unfriendly cross-examination, the Committee decided to write to a number of interested parties, whose submissions you will find on the petition website, together  with my own response. It met again last Thursday, to consider what action to take, and the official report  is now available here under Continued Petitions, and reproduced below for completeness.

Now read on: We had hoped that at this point they would decide to forward the matter to the Education and Skills Committee, going down much the same road as a related petition did three years ago. What happened, however, was potentially far more favourable to our case. It is relevant that the Convener is Johann Lamont, a very senior, independent-minded, and able parliamentarian, who has said of herself “I have been a committee convener, proud of building consensus where possible, to test legislation and to challenge the government of the day.”

While summarising submissions received, the Convener laid considerable emphasis on the equalities issue, referring to submissions from the Education and Human Rights Commission, and also (I was pleased to see) the Jewish Community, as well as our own response to submissions, in the following words:

The Equality and Human Rights Commission referred to its submission on the previous petition on this issue, PE1498, in which it comments on the requirements of the public sector equality duty. That was echoed by representatives of the Jewish community, and the petitioners, who note that, to date,

“none of these issues have been addressed”.

The petitioners maintain their position that the system is unfair and discriminatory, particularly in the light of changing demographics.

After brief exchanges with other members, she concluded discussion by saying:

We do not propose to close the petition until we have asked the Scottish Government specifically whether it has fulfilled its responsibilities with respect to the public sector equality duty. It is clear that there are strong feelings on both sides of the argument—what is interesting is whether there is a middle ground somewhere. We would want to know about the governance review and anything that comes out of it. On the point raised by the EHRC, I assume that the Scottish Government’s response to any of these questions will be assessed in light of its obligation under the public sector equality duty.

In other words, the issue is not going to go away. I do not know if the reference to “a middle ground somewhere” should be taken at face value, or whether it is simply a conciliatory gesture, but the real point of the paragraph is in the final sentence.  The Government is being very plainly told that it cannot pursue its previous policy of pretending all is well, and that there is a case here that it must answer.

We do not expect things to move at all quickly at this stage, because of interaction between consideration of our petition, and the current broad Governmental consultation on the entire Scottish school system, which was open to all for comment until early in January this year. This consultation made no mention of the issue of Church appointees, but one of the questions that contributors were invited to consider did mention equality (presumably having in mind the very real problems of social inequality and the way that these are passed down through the. education system), and the Scottish Secular Society in its submission took the opportunity to raise the matter of Church appointees.

Official report:

The final continued petition for consideration this morning is PE1623, by Spencer Fildes, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, relating to unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. The meeting papers include a note by the clerk and copies of the submissions received since our previous consideration of the petition in November.

The Scottish Government indicates that it has no plans to change the provisions, but refers to its education governance review, which has recently closed, and which sought views on the legislative framework that should be put in place to support education in Scotland.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities regarded that review as an opportunity for community representatives to participate actively in the consideration of education services. It also noted that, with regard to the action called for in the petition, its members did not feel that non-elected representatives carried undue influence.

Submissions from Muslim and Jewish representatives did not directly support the action called for in the petition but considered that there might be options to more widely reflect diversity in communities.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council suggests that education committees could

“reflect the population of our schools more effectively”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission referred to its submission on the previous petition on this issue, PE1498, in which it comments on the requirements of the public sector equality duty. That was echoed by representatives of the Jewish community, and the petitioners, who note that, to date,

“none of these issues have been addressed”.

The petitioners maintain their position that the system is unfair and discriminatory, particularly in the light of changing demographics. Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

We need to ask the Scottish Government, having carried out the education governance review, to assess the position of unelected church appointees in view of the public sector equality duty. We should refer to the issue of faith community appointees, too.

Okay. We need to find out when the Scottish Government will publish the findings of the education governance review. It is clear that the Government does not plan to address this issue—I do not think that there would have been a specific question about it in the review consultation. It is perhaps an issue that people would have to have raised. We can ask the Government about that. It may be worth checking whether the Government has reflected on the position of unelected church appointees in view of the public sector equality duty.

We just need more information about what was in the review.

I think that the closing date for submissions to the education governance review was 6 January. I was interested to see the submission from my local authority. It may be some time before the Government gets round to replying, given that the closing date has just passed.

We would just be looking for the timescale at this stage. We do not propose to close the petition until we have asked the Scottish Government specifically whether it has fulfilled its responsibilities with respect to the public sector equality duty. It is clear that there are strong feelings on both sides of the argument—what is interesting is whether there is a middle ground somewhere. We would want to know about the governance review and anything that comes out of it. On the point raised by the EHRC, I assume that the Scottish Government’s response to any of these questions will be assessed in light of its obligation under the public sector equality duty.

If there are no other suggestions, is it agreed that we follow that course of action?

Members indicated agreement.

Socrates: ancient Humanist? (reblogged from Footnotes to Plato)

If you want to know more about Socrates, or Humanism, or anything else that really matters, this is for you.

And the horns of Euthyphro’s Dilemma, described here, are as sharp as ever. This morning, February 2nd, a committee of the Scottish Parliament is considering the Scottish Secular Society petition for the removal of the church representatives who sit, immune from electoral scrutiny, on Scottish Local Education Authority Committees. Defenders of the status quo argue that they have an important role to play in transmitting Christian values. The petition (which I helped write) argues that if a value is specifically Christian, it will not necessarily be shared by the non-Christians who now form a majority among young Scots, while if it is not specifically Christian, we do not need a church representative to instruct us in it. The derivation from Euthyphro is obvious.

More on the petition on this blog and on the Parliamentary website. Updates as available. Massimo Pigliucci’s essay, below, speaks for itself, and I am flattered that he approves the use that the petition made of Socrates’ argument.

Footnotes to Plato

MNR-Socrate Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

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Liberty’s Falwell to lead task force on US Higher Ed

Answers in Genesis recommends Liberty University, of which Jerry Falwell is president, because

One of the unique features of Liberty is its strong stance on the literal creation account in Genesis. Every Liberty student is required to take a course called “History of Life.” The faculty of the Center for Creation Studies, led by Dr. David DeWitt, teaches this course. The arguments for biblical creation are drawn from science, religion, history, and philosophy.

refutingevolutionThe course textbooks, as Dr DeWitt describes them on the Creation Ministries International website, are Refuting Evolution by Jonathan Sarfati, and The Creation Answers Book (Sarfati et al), which tells you among other things, how all the animals fit into the Ark and why radiometric dating is unreliable.

Liberty University has some 15,000 on-site students, with a further 100,000 on-line, and claims to be the largest Christian university in the world. Forbes ranks Liberty #651 among US Universities, and its graduagtion rate (48%) is among the lowest for private universities. However, the Young America Foundation places it among the top 10 choices for conservative students. Glasgow readers may remember it as the alma mater of Pam Stenzel, who told horror stories about sex to Catholic school children bussed in to hear her (more here and here).

libertyuJerry Falwell is the son of Jerry Falwell Sr, who blamed pagans, feminists, and the ACLU for making possible the 9/11  destruction of the Twin Towers, presumably by causing the withdrawal of God’s protection. Jerry Falwell himself was among the earliest supporters of Tr+mp’s presidential campaign, calling him “one of the greatest visionaries of our time”, and Tr+mp spoke at Liberty’s convocation in January 2016.

Falwell announced on Tuesday that he will be leading a task force, at the President’s invitation, that will aim “to get the government off the backs of higher education.”

Eat your heart out, Harvard.

Highland Education Committee Church Appointee blames gays for bullying

The Strathspey Herald reports that:

‘A clergyman has used his position on a Highland Council education committee to criticize the alleged promotion of homosexuality in schools.

Alexander MacLean, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, also suggested that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people are bullied because they are “overt” and attract attention.” … Mr MacLean is one of three religious representative on the committee who have full voting rights under UK legislation.’ [Emphasis added]

The Strathspey Herald has grasped the central  point. The issue, as always, is not whether Mr Maclean’s comments are acceptable, but whether it is appropriate for him to have a legally assured privileged position on the Education Committee from which to advance them, over and above any support his views may have in the community and among the elected Councillors.   He holds that position as the result of legislation imposed from Westminster before devolution, even though education is itself a devolved area. So the Scottish Parliament can change this anachronistic and undemocratic law, and we are asking them to do so.

The episode illustrates more clearly than any words of mine the need to remove the Church nominees from their unelected positions of power. Mr MacLean is entitled to his views, but he is not entitled to a privileged platform at the heart of local government from which to promote them.

A Creationist Speaker Comes to Town

Long but detailed; updated resources include rebuttals to creationist claims, including dinosaur soft tissue, and teaching exercise on Lucy. I have mined this for links. There is also a discussion of bible-basd arguments, for those (like the author) to whom such thngs are important.

Letters to Creationists

By the early 1800s European geologists (many of them devout Christians) realized that the rock layers they observed had to be far older than the 6000 years allowed by a literal interpretation of Bible chronology. For instance, as discussed here , angular unconformities like that shown below could not been formed in the course of the one-year-long Flood of Noah.

Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”) Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

Numerous other evidences for an old earth have been observed by scientists over the past two hundred years. These include fossil soils, and massive deposits of salt and of limestone in the midst of sedimentary rock layers, and tens of thousands of annual layers in lake bottom deposits (“varves”) and in glaciers (see Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth). We can trace, in reasonable detail, the movements of the sections of earth’s crust over the…

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Young Earth Creationists arguing in circles

Relative dating from sedimentology dates back some 200 years, as beautifully explained here by my friend, field geologist and Anglican priest, Michael Roberts, with illustrations from what he has seen himself, while we have now had absolute radiometric dates for over a century. Index fossils are used only to establish that rocks are the same age, and the way creationists manage to forget this fact is indeed miraculous.

This piece gains added interest because of its first-hand accounts, both of geological exploration, and of attempts to persuade creationists to accept the results.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

This incredibly duplicitous meme appeared on my twitter feed today. Fri 13th Jan 2017icrevolution

Evolution is wrong as it is a circular argument from the age of fossils worked out from evolution

Yes, it is the old chestnut of Young Earthers that the age of rocks is based on a circular argument from evolution. It took me back to 1971 when I made the felicitous mistake of going to L’Abri to sit at the feet of the evangelical guru Francis Schaeffer. I arrived ther all bright-eyed and bushy tailed thinking of all the wondrous things I would learn in the next four weeks. I learnt much but not what I had expected.

On my first morning i was sent to Shaeffer’s son-in-law Udo Middlemann to discuss what I would study. I explained that I was going into the Anglican ministry and had just returned from 3 years working as an…

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Unelected Church appointees on Council Committees; argument and counter-argument

nov24_0The story so far: Spencer Fildes and I defended our petition to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee on November 24. The Committee (transcript here; see “New Petitions) listened most attentively, questioned us closely but not unsympathetically,  and agreed to write to a number of organisations  for their views. You will find full details, including petition text and links to the submissions received, at the Petition website. Now read on:

There may still be time for individuals and organisations to submit their own views, but the window is rapidly closing. We would suggest that any submissions  at this stage should be short and concentrate on the central issues, and that individual submissions mention any relevant personal details (e.g. parent, teacher, own schooling, professional qualifications and degrees). What follows is my own response, on behalf of  Scottish Secular Society. If you find some of this material (especially the analysis of the arguments put forward by defenders of the system) repetitious and boring, I can only agree.

Response to submissions

We respond here to the specific arguments raised in submissions to the Committee. To avoid repetition, we present some relevant general points, before dealing with the individual submissions.

[A personal note: I am submitting this on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, as their Science Adviser. I have spent my life as an educator, my own children were educated in publicly funded Scottish schools, and I am currently collaborating with Prof Roger Downie, Glasgow University, in a study of evolution education in Scotland.]

General points

1] Several submissions refer to the presence on the Education Committees of other non-elected members, such as parent, teacher, and pupil representatives, and Council officials. We would have no objection to the presence of religious representatives on the same terms, i.e. by invitation of the elected members, and non-voting.

Religious representatives hold the only positions within the entire Scottish government structure that are not answerable to the electorate or their chosen representatives. They are chosen without reference to the general public, and then imposed on Councils regardless of the wishes of the elected members; none of the submissions opposing our petition address this central fact.

2] (This matter was raised in Committee): the minutes of Falkirk Education Committee for September this year show that the religious representatives there do vote on divisions, including divisions on topics not directly related to religion, and we have verified that this is also the case elsewhere.

3] It is claimed that the religious representatives are independent, non-political, and broaden representation by their presence. We disagree on all counts. They may be independent of party, but that is only because they are independent of the electorate, and we do not see that as a strength in a democracy. They are, instead, totally dependent on their nominating Churches, and pursue those Churches’ agenda in Committee. Fully one third of the representatives are clergy, and there is no reason to regard the others as more broadly representative than the elected Councillors.

4] Our opponents refer extensively to the importance of religion. Religion is indeed important, and so are many other things, such as science and physical health. We trust our schools and the Education Committees that supervise them to teach pupils about science and health, without imposing on them representatives of the Royal Society of Edinburgh or the local Health Boards. Why this strange need for supervision by special interests when it comes to religion?

5] The petition is criticised for singling out religious representatives, as if this were an attack on religion. This is a straw man argument. Religious representatives are not singled out by us, but by the uniqueness of their situation. They are insulated from the discipline of the ballot box, and are the only persons so privileged within the entire Scottish government structure. We would object on the same grounds if there were similar protected positions for the irreligious.

The Scottish Government response

The Scottish Government response represents a significant change from its earlier position when responding to PE01498, a closely related petition 3 years ago. Their more recent response makes interesting use of the past tense (“was viewed as providing support to the authority“) and while stating that there are no plans for change, now stops short of declaring support for the status quo. The new response also invites the Scottish Secular Society to take part in the current consultation on education. We will of course do so. However, we are concerned in case the two processes (petition and consultation) interfere with each other, since we regard the subject of the present petition as a free-standing issue.

Submissions from the Consortium of Scottish Local Authorities, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council

COSLA appears neutral, denying excessive influence by the religious representatives, but making no arguments in their favour, and referring, as if by contrast, to the broader question of community representation (see [1] above).

We regard EHRC as supportive, reiterating their earlier position. This specifies three issues under the Equality Act, specifically the need to:

eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation; Advance equality of opportunity between different groups, and Foster good relations between different groups

and states that

“the Commission believes that, as concerns have now been raised, an appropriate course of action for Scottish Ministers may be to assess whether these provisions and the policies and practices which flow from them meet the requirement to give due regard to the three elements of the Equality Duty listed above.”

We agree, and note that none of these issues have been addressed by any of the opponents to our petition, nor by the Scottish Government in its responses to date.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council completely supports us on the central issue that the Churches should not have the right to appoint voting members of the Committees, and is generally in favour of membership of these Committees being broadened. It makes a number of detailed recommendations to that end, but these lie outside the scope of our petition.

Other submissions in support

With one exception, individual submissions from a range of backgrounds and belief positions are strongly supportive; we let these speak for themselves. Note that Iain Campbell is founder of the Western Isles Secular Society, while Janet Briggs is Secretary of the Glasgow Unitarian Church.

Michael Zimmermann, of Clergy Letter Project, is rightly concerned about the disproportionate influence of science-denying fringe Churches. As emerged in Committee, what matters here is not merely that such views are educationally unhelpful, but that they are unrepresentative, so that their empowerment demonstrates fundamental flaws in how the system operates.

Edinburgh Secular Society draw attention to the lack of progress since they first raised the matter in 2013. They point out that the Churches have not owned the schools since 1872, now represent a minority of the population, and that their representatives are unelected, unaccountable, and use their influence to further their special interests. One example is the frustration of attempts to set up joint-campus schools. Those who wish to pursue such a divisive policy should do so by standing for election.

Glasgow Theosophical Society supports the petition on general grounds, and is specifically concerned “that the present arrangement does not support non-religious individuals and groups or promote the views of rational philosophy in shaping educational learning.”

Hostile submissions

Although our general points (above) anticipate many of the arguments against us, we prefer to discuss the hostile submissions in detail for completeness, and in case we appear to acquiesce. We apologise for the unavoidable length of this section, and make repeated references to General Points [1] through [5] in an attempt to minimise repetitiveness. The one hostile submission from an individual, Andrew Strachan, has already been discussed in Committee.

Church of Scotland accuses the petition of selective quotation from an outdated document. We had in fact intended to quote in full at greater length, to avoid such an accusation, but were advised by the Clerks to be selective for reasons of brevity. The petition gives the full citation to the source we used, and unfortunately the Church of Scotland does not provide a reference to the current version.

Turning to matters of substance, CofS denies, despite having itself introduced the term, that its position is one of privilege, but states no reason for this view, other than its own benignity. It denies that its representatives are “unelected”, since it considers its internal process (which it does not describe) to be a form of election. This completely misses the central point, that the representatives are not answerable to the general electorate. CofS refers to its 1.7 million adherents (less than a third of the population, and even this according to figures cited in the petition is an overestimate), but gives no details of how they are involved in the process, which we suspect of being restricted in practice to a handful of highly active members. It also asks how the petitioners know that the 37% (latest figures give 52%) of non-believers are unhappy with the Church of Scotland representatives. This is irrelevant to our arguments, but we could equally well ask what makes the Church imagine that nonbelievers would be happy with the situation if they knew about it, as most do not?

The CofS submission draws the usual misleading analogy between the religious representatives and co-opted Council members (see [1] above), and makes the unsupported claim (see [3] above) that its appointees broaden democracy and make it more participatory.

Finally, the submission denies our claim that present practice “violates equality by excluding non-believers, and many believers”, on the grounds that some small faith groups also have representatives in some districts, such as the Bahai in Shetland. We do not follow the reasoning here. How is an atheist, or for that matter a Bahai, in Glasgow, rendered any less excluded from the making of the decisions that affect them by the fact that there is a solitary Bahai religious representative taking part in decision-making, 300 miles away?

The Scottish Catholic Education Service claims that “[T]his current petition is discriminatory in nature against religious bodies as it refers solely to unelected Church representatives.” For refutation, see [5] above. It is worth repeating that our objection is not to their being Church representatives, but to their being unelected, imposed, and voting.

The Catholic Education Service refers to the “many unelected members” of Education Committees; for our response, again, see [1].

“Church representatives … operate on a non-political basis and therefore make a valuable and objective contribution to the local community.” For rebuttal, see [3].

Unaware of the self-contradiction, the Catholic Education Service in its very next paragraph describes its Church’s representatives as committed to the pursuit of a very specific agenda, saying that “their role in doing so is seen by the Church as vital to the welfare of Catholic schools.“ This passage shows a marked lack of confidence in the ability of Catholic voters to look after their own interests. The reality is that we will have Catholic schools as long as there is demand for them, but here the Catholic Education Service seems to be demanding protection over and above this.

The Catholic Church submission also refers to the legislation independently ensuring the continued existence of denominational schools, the legal requirement that the Catholic Church must, like other interested parties, be consulted over Council education policy, and the special entrenched role of the Catholic Education Service and the Council of Bishops in the management of Catholic schools. These are presented as reasons for the continued presence of the Catholic Church representatives on Education Committees, whereas on the contrary they are reasons for regarding those representatives as redundant. Nor do they excuse the fact that nominees from all churches have, and use, the right to vote on all matters of educational policy, whether their own denominations are particularly affected and indeed whether or not religion is specifically involved (see [2] above).

Interfaith Scotland reports that “diverse traditions support having a religious voice on Education Committees to ensure a balanced and nuanced approach to education in Scotland which includes an understanding of the potential religious needs of an increasingly religiously diverse Scotland,” and go on to speak of the role of faith groups in Scottish society. In response, we refer to [4], and also raise again the implied neglect of the educational needs of the nonreligious. To the extent that the religious do have special educational needs, these can surely be met, and generally are, from the religious community’s own resources.

Finally, Interfaith Scotland aspires to greater inclusiveness, as in the examples (also cited by CofS) of Bahai and Muslim representatives. This is mere tokenism, since religious views are so diverse that it would require an enormous commitment to accommodate them (how many different representatives would be needed merely to accommodate the diverse Presbyterian groups in Glasgow, for example?)

The Muslim Council of Scotland, MCS, claims that religious representatives do represent the majority of the population. This is no longer true, but is in any case irrelevant to the issues of discrimination and lack of democratic accountability. MCS deplores sectarianism, prejudice, and hate crimes, and argues for mutual understanding. Few would disagree. It further states “We believe that it is vital that the views of all faith and belief groups, are taken into account to inform committee decisions. Therefore, we would like to see wider representation where views of all faith groups are considered.” This is an interesting agenda, but it cannot possibly be achieved by representation of all groups. For instance, within Scottish Islam alone there are at least two major groups (three if one accepts the claim of Ahmedis to be regarded as Muslims), each with its own internal divisions. MCS suggests dealing with this problem by having one faith group speak for several others. We don’t see how this could possibly work.

MCS refers to “the very human values adopted by the Scottish people, over the years such as wisdom, compassion, integrity and justice,” and the role of religion in developing these. Yet the relationship between religion and morality is, as we point out in the petition itself, debatable, and the suggestion that religion is necessary for appreciation of these values is deeply offensive to non-believers. MCS recognise that many elected Councillors belong to religious communities, but notes (correctly) that that is not the sole determinant of how they vote. But why should it be? MCS claim that the religious representatives are not unelected, since they are elected by their own faith groups; for rebuttal see our response to this argument as advanced by the Church of Scotland.

MCS further states “This petition singles out religious representatives on Education Committees. Other Local Authority Committees, in fact the practice of the committee system as a whole, invariably include unelected voting members representing other bodies”. This is not true. In the cases that we have examined, the other nonelected members are always non-voting. Moreover, they invariably derive their mandate to serve from the elected Councillors; see [1]. MCS states that the religious representatives’ contributions are “often greatly appreciated”. Maybe. Under our proposal, if Councils do indeed appreciate such contributions, they have but to ask for them. MCS then repeats the argument from the alleged diversity of religious representatives; here, again, see [3].

To summarise this section, our opponents use, repetitiously, a limited range of by now familiar arguments, none of them addressing the core issues in ways that will stand up to examination.

Conclusion

We rest our case on broad principles of democracy, equality, and fairness. In this we are supported (SPTC), or at least not opposed (COSLA), by those most directly affected, while EHRC agrees with us that the questions we raise require an answer; we are also supported by some religious groups and all but one individual commenters and respondents. As might be expected, we are opposed by those organisations whose undemocratic privileges we seek to remove, but their arguments will not stand examination. The system we have inherited is anti-democratic, unfair, and discriminatory. Changing demographics only underline its anachronistic nature. The time is ripe for change.

Prof Paul S Braterman, MA, DPhil, DSc, on behalf of Scottish Secular Society

Presentation to Parliament: Removing Church nominees from Council Education Committees (Petition PE01623)

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Update: the transcript of the meeting is now available at http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10656 then “New petitions” then “Local Authority Education Committees”

The petition progresses. Yesterday, Spencer  Fildes and I (actually, mainly Spencer) gave evidence to Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee. The petition itself is now closed for signature, but submissions from  organisations, or from individuals, especially I would suggest parents and teachers, remain welcome at petitions@parliament.Scot. (Suggestions: specify PE01623, and keep it short.)

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Johann Lamont, Convener, leads the Committee’s questioning

As I reported yesterday, the Committee heard us with close attention, questioned us for almost half an hour, and resolved to seek further testimony from interested bodies. We could not have wished for more at this stage. There will now be an interval while responses and other submissions are collected, for consideration by the Committee, probably early in the New Year. The Committee will then have to decide whether to close (i.e. kill) the petition, or to forward it to the  Education Skills Committee for further consideration. It would be unwise to attempt to predict which of those options it will choose, but they clearly agree that we have raised an important and timely issue.

I posted the BBC’s Parliamant Live coverage here yesterday, and the full Parliamentary video of the proceedings is avvailable here. But time to let Spencer have his say:

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Spencer makes his opening presentation

Thankyou, Convener, and my thanks to the Committee for inviting us.

At present, every Council Education Committee in Scotland is required by law to include three full voting members nominated by the Churches. Voters and their elected representatives have no choice in the matter. This legal requirement dates back to 1929, and in its present form to 1973. It is so broadly worded, that it could well apply to any future education system.

We believe this current system is out of place and does not reflect a constantly evolving, rapidly modernising Scottish democracy. We would not dream of allowing the Churches to impose members on this Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee. But that’s what we’re doing to Scottish councils.The Scottish Secular Society believes it is time for change. Currently, the future of Scottish education is under active discussion. Now would be the perfect time to review the status quo.

One major consideration is the fact that parents who hold no belief now represent the majority among primary school parents. This has now created a democratic deficit across Local Education Authorities.

To address this changing demographic, we respectfully suggest that the simplest change would be to relax the requirement. We would like to see the law allowing, not compelling, the elected members to appoint up to 3 such representatives, and to decide whether or not to give them voting powers, much as they do right now for parent and teacher representatives.

To gauge the views of Scotland’s MSP’s on this matter, we wrote to every one of them to find we have considerable cross-party support. Two MSPs actually thought that the system already was the way we would like it to be, and approved of that. Other MSP comments, in brief:

“there may well be merit in looking afresh at this again”, and “there should be a greater amount of autonomy in choosing the best people whether they be religious leaders or not”, “I am broadly supportive of the concept of members of Education Committees being elected”, “it is up to each local authority to decide who should be on the education committee.”, “the current arrangement must change” and “the status quo is an anachronism”.

Our supporters include

  • Professor Dame Anne Glover, who was scientific adviser to the Scottish Government and then to the EU
  • Clergy Letter Project, which represents 15,000 ordained clergy worldwide
  • The Secretary of Glasgow Unitarian Church.
  • Glasgow Theosophical Society,

As our petition statement shows, the present situation is undemocratic, unjust, encroaches on human rights, and is highly problematic in enforcement. In addition, it is unnecessary, infringes local autonomy, and is the opposite of participatory democracy.

It is unnecessary, since denominational schools have their own separate mechanisms of governance. Many Churches are already involved in individual schools, including non-denominational schools. Believers, like everyone else, can and should vote, take part in public debate, and stand for office, however, unlike what we are challenging today – religion in this case should be afforded no privilege over those who may hold no belief.

It infringes on local autonomy because laws handed down by central government (in this case, the 1973 and 1994 Westminster governments) are imposed on local Councils regardless of their wishes.

It is certainly not participatory democracy. The broader community is not involved, and the appointees are answerable only to their own Churches.

Finally, many councils have difficulty filling some positions, and there are some, in our view, with questionable appointments. If the system was meeting a legitimate need, such recruitment problems would unlikely arise.

The Church of Scotland itself admits that the system requires an element of reform, and the simplest, is the one that we suggest.

Scotland’s regions are highly diverse. We believe Local Councils themselves are the best judges of local needs, have a local mandate from their voters, and should be free to use it.

In conclusion, we would respectfully ask you to seek opinions from organisations representing non-believers as well as believers, and from organisations concerned with schooling and with human rights, such as Time for Inclusive Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, with a view to forwarding our petition to the Education and Skills Committee.

Update on petition unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees, Scotland

nov24_0This morning, Thursday November 24, the Public Petitions Committee listened to our evidence most attentively, and agreed to what we had asked for at this stage, namely for them to write to interested parties for their views. A pleasant occasion, which you can watch in full here.

The petition is no longer open for signature, but organisations and interested individuals may submit by email to petitions@parliament.scot , with “PE01632, Unelected Church Appointees” as the subject line.

Here is the BBC News Live report:*

The Public Petitions Committee takes evidence on on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. MSPs consider PE01623 from Spencer Fildes

nov24_2The committee begins this morning by considering PE1623 by Spencer Fildes, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. Evidence from Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman from the Scottish Secular Society.

PE1623 calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish government to remove the constitutional anomaly that imposes unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees.

10:05 Spence Fildes makes an opening statement on his petition PE1623, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees.

nov24_3Mr Fildes says the current system is out of place. Mr Fildes says religion should hold no privilege over those who hold no belief. He says the current system of unelected church members is certainly not participatory democracy.

Labour MSP Johann Lamont says there is currently a governance review of Scottish education and asks if this may be a way to address the issue. Mr Fildes says the Scottish Secular Society is participating in the consultation and has “chucked its oar in”.

nov24_4Paul Braterman from the Scottish Secular Society says there are concerns where committed creationists are nominees education boards.

SNP MSP Angus Macdonald says church appointees do not always have voting rights. [No he didn’t; he knows better. He was actually suggesting having church appointees without voting rights, as sometines happens for other non-elected committee members]

Mr Fildes says the argument is not against church appointees but the way they are appointed. He says to give the position just because someone is religious is wrong, they must be there due to the will of the local authority. Mr Fildes says the Scottish Secular Society run a facebook page where they canvas people’s opinions. He says the anecdotal responses regularly bring up this issue of unelected church representatives on education boards.

nov24_5

The Scottish Secular Society representative says church members are imposed on the boards. SNP MSP Rona Mackay asks about other non-elected representatives on the board.

Mr Fildes says where there is a need by the local authority for expertise that is ok. He says if a local authority decided to have a church representative that would be fine. Mr Fildes says we need to get to a point that it is a win win for anyone. He says the Scottish Secular Society stands for “Freedom from religion and freedom of religion.” Mr Fildes he backs freedom of speech, however he is against imposed church appointees.

nov24_7andlast10:35 Committee convener Johann Lamont asks her fellow MSPs to consider the action the committee will now take. Tory MSP Brian Whittle agrees with Ms Lamont’s suggestion to find out if the Scottish government has changed its view on the issue. Ms Lamont says the committee should write to COSLA to find out local authority views.The committee agrees to contact a number of organisations with interests in the petition:

  • the Scottish Parent Teacher Council
  • the Association of Directors of Education Scotland
  • the Church of Scotland Education Committee
  •  the Scottish Catholic Education Service
  • the Educational Institute of Scotland
  • Interfaith Scotland
  • the Muslim Council of Scotland
  • the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland and the Humanist Society Scotland

* http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-38050473 24 Nov 2016, lightly edited to remove redundancies

Stornoway’s Sunday swimmers need your help (and a little bit of cash)

“Whatever you or any legal department has to say, our belief and values with regard to Sundays matter.”

stornowaypool

Main pool, Isle of Lewis Sports Centre Stornoway; there is also a kiddies pool complete with Nessie. Open Mon – Sat 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. Closed Sundays

Comhairle nan Eilean Sia (Western Isles Council) consider it sinful to swim in the public baths on Sunday. That is a matter for them. They wish to impose this view on all Stornoway sports facility users. That is a matter for all of us. It is discrimination against non-Christians, and indeed against the many Christians who think that taking a swim on the Sabbath is ok.

Such discrimination is illegal, and the Council knows it but doesn’t care. As one Councillor told a constituent, “Whatever you or any legal department has to say, our belief and values with regard to Sundays matter.”

Nonetheless, the official reasons are financial. And the beautifully named FiSH, Families into Sports and Health, want to call their bluff. FiSH is an organisation that has sprung up among the users of the sports facility, and has set out to raise the money needed for a twelve month trial by crowdfunding. We are not talking about a large sum (£11,400), and they are already a third of the way there.

You can contribute, comment, and learn more about the background, here. Your contribution will not be collected unless the full amount can be raised. If, faced with a successful campaign, the Council has second thoughts and the money is not needed, donors will be consulted about passing on the money to a local children’s charity.

So

  • if you think freedom of conscience matters
  • if you think it wrong for believers in one particular version of one particular faith to impose their rules on everyone else
  • if you think that public bodies such as Councils ought to respect the law

please help.

Information and donations at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/isl-sports-centre-opening-sundays-12-month-trial-community#/ . You can join the FiSH Facebook group here.

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