Category Archives: Scotland

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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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.

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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

The Church, education, and “Christian values”; another bad reason for denying democracy

Reminder: there is still time to show support for our petition to abolish Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees; just click here and fill in your details

Summary: Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

The Churches refer to “Christian values”, in order to justify their uninvited presence on Council Education Committees. Like other reasons offered (see earlier post), this one repays closer examination.

The Church of Scotland enjoins its appointees to assert their presence  “by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools”. I have already discussed the implications for the curriculum and for religious and moral education and religious observance. Here I would like to concentrate on the concept of Christian values, and, indeed, religious values in general.

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The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio

Most believers take it for granted that the morality derived from their own religion is superior to others, and indeed a very common argument in favour of religious belief is that, without it, there is no basis for moral conduct. (Note, by the way, that this is not an argument in favour of the truth of religion, but only of its usefulness.) But can morality be derived from religion? More specifically, if, by some means, we know what God does or does not want, is that enough to tell us the difference between right and wrong?

Consider, as many people have, the story of how Abraham was willing to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son, Isaac. As a teenager, I took this story very seriously, and asked myself whether Abraham was really doing the right thing. I gradually came to realise that this is a very interesting question, however you answer it, because it shows up a fundamental problem with the idea that morality comes from God.

What I did not know was that this problem had been pointed out over 2000 years ago, by Plato’s Socrates, in what is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In today’s language, are good actions good because they correspond to what God wants, or does God want them because they are good? The first alternative makes morality dependent on the whim of the Deity, which few of us will find satisfying. Some religions, after all, have believed in a God who wants human sacrifices. The second implies that goodness can be defined independent of God, in which case religion is not the ultimate basis for morality anyway.

Then there is the small problem of deciding what God actually wants. Does God want us to kill homosexuals? The authors of Leviticus certainly thought so, and Daesh ( the “Islamic State”) thinks so today. Does He want us to kill blasphemers and heretics? The legal codes of many countries say that He does, and there was a period in the sixteenth century when Catholics and Protestants agreed that this is indeed what He wants, even though they could not agree on who was, or was not, heretical.

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The Ten Commandments, late 19C, stained glass in synagogue, Alsace; image by Ji-Elle via Wikimedia. In accord with Jewish tradition, this image shows “I am the LORD” as the first commandment.

Some say the Ten Commandments encapsulate what God wants. So here’s my own brief summary; full text in the Appendix to this post:

God brought you out of Egypt (only applies to Jews, and anyway completely unhistorical). Don’t make idols, take God’s name in vain, or worship other gods, because God is jealous and will be very cross and punish you for generations. Not much morality there. Honour your parents; generally a good idea, though I have seen exceptions. And take a day off each week; good advice. But the reason offered is strange; that God made heaven and earth in six days (yes, that’s what it says), and rested on the seventh (what does it mean, I wonder, for God to rest).

Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness. Very good advice, but do we need a Deity to tell us this? And, finally, it’s wrong to covet your neighbour’s slaves, but slavery itself is okay. Indeed, following on from the Ten Commandments in Exodus we have the rules about slavery. A Hebrew slave can leave if he wants after seven years, but his wife and kids have to stay behind because they are the master’s property.

At this point, some people will accuse me of poking fun at the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, I am taking them seriously, looking at what they actually say, and evaluating them as guides to action. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

I had two reasons for analysing them in such detail here. Firstly, to challenge the claim of the great moral worthiness of these Commandments as a basis for morality. And secondly, and more importantly here, to illustrate the difference between general values and religious values.

As a matter of shared human values, I think we would all agree that murder, theft, slander, and cheating on our partners is not desirable behaviour. But I don’t notice unbelievers going around being any more homicidal, personally and sexually dishonest, or prone to malicious tale-bearing than the rest of us. Covetousness is an interesting case; at what point does the natural desire to improve one’s lot, and cut a respectable figure in society, become socially disruptive? As for this stuff about slaves, perhaps the kindest thing that we can say is that the authors of Exodus were people of their own time, and accepted (as most of us do today) their time’s view of economic necessity.

That leaves all the stuff about Egypt, graven images, and not making God jealous. I don’t think we need to pay attention to any of this if we don’t want to. Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

But you might say that it’s unfair to judge Christianity by quoting the Old Testament. OK, let’s fast forward a bit. I won’t linger over St Paul’s views on the duties of slaves and women, or the Albigensian Crusade, or the Spanish Inquisition (after all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition), or the cosy relationship between at least some Churches and Hitler, Mussolini, and the bloodstained dictators of Latin America. These are more enlightened times.

Nor will I belabour the sex abuse scandals of recent years, the havoc wrought by the doctrinal absurdity of priestly celibacy, and the numerous administrative cover-ups, since not even the various Churches involved pretend to moral justification.

As for the involvement of the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Salvation Army in forced adoptions, they’ve apologised and won’t do it again, so let’s move on.

Consider instead an area where the moral consensus in the West has shifted dramatically within my own lifetime, and how the Churches have responded to this change. I am referring to sexual morality, and the closely related subject of the treatment of women.

Not too long ago, in Scotland, lower pay for women, and restricted employment and promotion, were regarded as part of the natural order of things. Sex between men was illegal, and, the “promotion” (i.e. discussion) of homosexuality in school health education classes specifically forbidden. Sex outside marriage was, however hypocritically, considered wrong, and the availability of contraception to young adults was restricted, for fear of condoning such activity. Abortion was illegal, unless it could be shown to endanger the mother’s health, and the barrier for this was set so high that illegal abortions were commonplace. Now, by contrast, job discrimination against women is illegal, except for certain jobs (such as the priesthood!) where gender is regarded as important to performance. We have same-sex marriage, and a highly successful grassroots campaign (TIE; Time for Inclusive Education) is leading to the incorporation of nonjudgemental discussion of homosexuality in school education programmes. Sexual morality is seen as based on human values of respect and concern, and teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low. There is still a legal requirement for doctors’ agreement to the necessity of an abortion, but it would be extraordinary for such an agreement to be withheld.

All of these changes will to most of us seem to be changes for the better. And all of them have taken place in the face of opposition, in some areas still effective and active, from the clergy. Thus in the areas of morality of the greatest concern to schoolchildren, the Churches have not been leaders, but laggards. The very last people, one might argue, to be granted a position of privilege on the committees that decide education policy.

Adapted with additional material from a post that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system. It also appears on the Scottish Secular Society website, at http://www.secularsociety.scot/church-education-denying-democracy/

Appendix: The Ten Commandments, KJV, Exodus 20:1-17 (there are minor differences in the version in Deuteronomy)

And God spake all these words, saying,

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Thou shalt not kill [a more exact translation would be, thou shalt not murder]. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

How the Church of Scotland justifies its unelected Education Committee appointees; assumption, presumption, and privilege

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Our petition to the Scottish Parliament seeking to remove these unelected representatives is still open for signature here

As regular readers will know, moves are afoot to remove the three Church nominees who sit, with no regard to the electoral process, on every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland (you can help by simply signing our Parliamentary Petition here).

In England, the legal requirement is for two such representatives, one from the Church of England and one from the Catholic Church. Something ought to be done something about this, although the English educational system, disrupted and fragmented, is now largely out of the hands of the local authorities anyway. There is much be said about the situation developing in England, little of it complimentary, but that is not my present concern.

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Schisms and mergers among Scottish churches since the Reformation; Wikidwitch via Wikipedia. Click on link for clearer image

The requirement for three church appointees reflects the fractious history of Scottish Protestantism, and the presence of these representatives is a relic of the Churches’ historical input. The representatives exert power on local authorities’ most important committees, their Education Committees, over and above the power they would exert as citizens, and the Churches to which they are answerable thereby exert power over and above the power that they certainly exert, and in a democratic society must be free to exert, as associations of individuals. This is not about religion; it is about power. It is not about rights; it is about privilege.

Consider the Church of Scotland’s own code of practice for its religious representatives, which states:

Since the state assumed responsibility for the provision of school education in 1872 the Church of Scotland has been granted a statutory role as part of the education authority of the day.  This privileged position reflects the historical link between schooling and the church. For that reason, if for no other, it is important for church representation on local authority committees with a responsibility for education, to ensure a respected presence across Scotland. This may be achieved by establishing good relationships; by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools.

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The Church of Scotland offices in Edinburgh. The Church of Scotland Education Service appoints a representative to every Council Education Committee in Scotland.* Illustration by Kim Traynor via Wikipedia

Where to start? Let’s start with the description of the Church of Scotland as a national church. How seriously should we be taking this claim, when in today’s Scotland only a fifth of the population say that they belong to it, while twice as many say they have no religion. It’s not even as if people turned to the Church on special occasions; Humanist weddings in Scotland now outnumber those of any religious denomination. Then there is the disingenuous reference to the historic link between schooling and the church. The reality is that in 1872 what had been the Church of Scotland was split into two (soon to be three) major fragments, not to be reunited to form the present-day Church of Scotland until 1929, and that in any case the 1872 Act combined church-run and local authority schools in what was intended to be a single non-denominational system. But all this is a minor detail compared with the major presumption, that such history could possibly justify a special place for the Church. The Church could perhaps claim some kind of inherited property rights over pieces of land or buildings, but the idea of an inherited right to influence children’s education is morally repugnant. Thirdly, there is the assertion of a statutory right to seek to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church. What, one wonders, could this interest possibly be, over and above the interests of the pupils themselves, and the broader community to which they belong? Then there is the reference to Christian values. I will have much more to say about these in a later post (hint: Euthyphro’s Dilemma; Justification through Faith; the Churches and sexual morality; the 10 Commandments).

Finally, there are the stated objectives of endeavouring to influence … the development of the curriculum, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools.

Such endeavours by the Church, as by any other body, are a welcome ingredient of public discussion in our pluralist democracy. What is completely unacceptable is the pursuit of these objectives by means of an inherited privilege that lacks all democratic legitimacy.

Unless one believes (and one is forced to conclude that the Church leaders really do believe) that the ecclesiastical authorities have access to a kind of wisdom not granted to lesser mortals, what possible reason is there for the Church to have special reserved powers to influence the curriculum that affects all pupils (Church-connected or otherwise? For religious and moral education, the policy of Scotland’s Education Department is that the teaching of this subject (and it is actually a curriculum subject!) should educate but not indoctrinate, so that special Church influence in this area is completely out of place. And to conclude, the policy on religious observance states that it should represent the shared values of the community to which the school belongs, transcending denominational boundaries.

Thus, by its own accounting, the Church of Scotland plans to use its unelected appointees in ways that subvert the very educational system that they are there to influence. The policies of the other Churches making such appointments are presumably similar, and the argument used to justify the existence of these appointees turns out on inspection to highlight the need for their abolition.

*Exception: Orkney, which as of summer 2015 had no religious appointees. The Church of Scotland did, however, have two appointees, contrary to the law, in Midlothian and West Lothian.

This post uses material that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system

This post is also available at http://www.secularsociety.scot/church-scotland-justifies-unelected/

Clergy back call to remove unelected clergy from Council committees in Scotland

Petition “…to remove the constitutional anomaly that imposes unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees” (signatures still urgently needed; you can sign and comment here)

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Image from Clergy Letter Project website home page

This just in, to the Public Petitions Committee, from Michael Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Clergy Letter Project, which exists to promote the acceptance and celebration of science among believers. It states, more clearly than I could ever do, the reasons theological, educational, and ethical for removing the existing power of the Churches to nominate three representatives to Scottish Local Authority Education Committees; a large enough bloc to swing the balance of power on 19 of Scotland’s 32 such Committees:

I am writing in reference to “PE01623: Unelected church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees” and in my capacity as the Executive Director of The Clergy Letter Project.  The Clergy Letter Project is an organization of more than 15,000 ordained members of the clergy who believe that religion and science can be fully compatible.  Additionally, our members believe that religious doctrine should not influence the content of secular education.    The underlying premises of The Clergy Letter Project are two-fold.  On the one hand, many of those who are promoting a religious presence in secular educational institutions are doing so on very narrow grounds.  In other words, in almost every case, the specific educational goals being promoted are completely at odds with the religious beliefs of many other individuals.  On the other hand, many who are promoting a religious presence in secular educational institutions believe that their religious beliefs trump science when they see the two in conflict.  The thousands of religious leaders who comprise The Clergy Letter Project understand that the importance of religion lies in its spiritual value rather than in any particular pronouncements about the material world.

Mandating that three religious leaders must be appointed to each Local Authority Education Committee privileges religion in a manner that is likely to do damage to the educational opportunities open to students.  Let me hasten to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any particular religious leader serving on a Local Authority Education Committee, if that is the will of the community.  As citizens, religious leaders should have all the rights that every other member of the community has.  But mandating seats on the Committees for religious leaders simply because of their religious beliefs is unfair and runs the risk of severely compromising the very nature of the education the Local Committees were established to protect.

I urge you to take this petition very seriously and take steps to ensure that Scottish students receive the highest quality of education possible.

Michael Zimmerman

Executive Director The Clergy Letter Project

www.theclergyletterproject.org

mz@theclergyletterproject.org

#ElectNotSelect; “Remove Church Appointees” makes front page of Herald

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From front page, [Glasgow] Herald, 7 Oct 2016; click to enlarge

You can sign here: https://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/ChurchAppointees

And you can see a fuller version of the story in the Herald online here.

Why sign? For the moment, I’ll just repeat what I said yesterday:

Three of the full voting members of every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland are unelected nominees of the Churches, whether the voters or their elected representatives want them there or not.

And because this is Scotland, a country that regards its people with respect, the petition process means something. Enough, in this case, to actually change things. The petition will be discussed by Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee, who will, we hope, pass it on to the Education and Skills Committee, the Government will be asked to state its position, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the Consortium of Scottish Local Authorities, and other interested parties will be written to …

What happens then? That depends very much on you. Hierarchies never give up power without a struggle. There will be mobilisation in defence of the indefensible, and no Government, and very few individual MSPs, will be willing to stand up for change unless we have shown them that there is a real demand for it. That is why your signature matters.

What more can you do? Firstly, and most effectively in terms of return on time spent, pass it on. Use your social accounts, Facebook, Twitter, whatever. Next, let your own MSPs know how you feel; you can contact them at http://www.parliament.scot/msps/current-msps.aspx. And keep your eyes on the newspapers and their comments sections; write to them if you feel so moved. Never have concerned individuals had so many ways of making their voices heard. Use them.

#ElectNotSelect; Remove Church appointees imposed on Scottish Education Committees

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Debating chamber at Holyrood. Photo Mogens Engelund via Wikipedia

Sign the petition here, and your signature will go straight to Holyrood, and help get rid of the absurd legal relic whereby

Three of the full voting members of every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland are unelected nominees of the Churches, whether the voters or their elected representatives want them there or not.

The time is ripe for change. Our petition, Unelected church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees, has widespread cross-party support in principle among MSPs. But we need to show that there is public support for change, or timidity will triumph.

Click on link to see the full petition, and, if you agree, to sign. Remember that the Education Committees, on which these Church appointees sit, control a larger part of Council budgets than any other Committee. They are the ultimate employers of School Principals and teachers, as well as being represented on senior teacher selection panels.  They decide on the opening and closing of schools, and whether a school should be denominational or nondenominational, and control local practice in such matters as religious education, religious observance, and instruction about sex in human relationships. The Church appointees vote on these matters, and in addition discuss policy directly with Council officials. You will find a full listing of the appointees, how they came to be selected (e.g. only answer to a newspaper advertisement; nominated himself after losing an election), and which ones are known Young Earth creationists (half a dozen; many more probable) here.

Why are these appointees there? Because District Council Education Committees must, by law dating back to 1929, include three appointees of the Churches, nominated by Church hierarchies, and immune to the electoral process. These nominees actually hold the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees, whether anyone wants them there or not, and they don’t even need to declare their outside interests!

Who selects them? One is selected by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one by a third religious organisation (it must be religious) chosen by the Council with regard to local demographics. Fringe creationist churches are overrepresented here, as are the Episcopalians, with a mere 25,000 communicants but ten allotted slots.

This blemish on our democracy is also a breach of our right to equal treatment under the law, because it creates positions of power within our system of government that are only open to certain believers. Believers, moreover, in dogmas no longer accepted* by most Scots young enough to have children within the school system.

Since we are dealing with the law on a devolved matter, education, the Scottish Parliament is the only body with the power to remove this constitutional anachronism, which is why the Scottish Secular Society is petitioning them to do so.

Our petition will initially be examined by the Public Petitions Committee, who are greatly influenced by the number of signatures, as well as by the content, and intellectual weight, of individual comments. They can close (i.e. kill) the petition, or write to interested parties, including the Scottish Government, and then forward it to the Education and Skills Committee. This latter Committee, on which we know we have support, can then require the Scottish Government to state and explain its policy.

This theocratic anachronism that has survived only because unexamined. Given the choice, we are sure that the present Scottish Government (any Government) would rather let sleeping dogs lie. Help us to deny them that choice.

Want to do more to help? Sign (obviously); showing professional titles and degrees will add weight, as will indicating if you have a special interest (e.g. parent, pupil, teacher, Minister).

Publicise on your social networks, using #ElectNotSelect, and sharing the petition link (here) and, if you like, the link to this blog post (here).

Write to your constituency and region MSPs. Keep it brief. The very fact of your writing is more important than the details of what is in your letter. Mention the petition by name and number, and the issue of democracy. Mention also any reason you may have for personal interest in the matter.

But keep to the constitutional aspects. Attacks on religion in general, or broadening the discussion to include its role in the educational system, gives ammunition to our opponents. And we will have opponents; no one gives up power without a struggle.

You can also send a comment to the Committee. Keep it brief, and we would ask you to stick to the issues of democracy and equality; see preceding paragraph. If you belong to any relevant professional organisations (e.g. teachers’ unions, parent-teacher councils), write to them as well.

When? As soon as possible. The more immediate support we can show, the more organisations will be willing to support us.

Notes: We will be accused of attempting to drive the Churches out of public life. On the contrary, our petition, explicitly, would leave Local Authorities free to consult or co-opt church representatives, much as they can and do co-opt representatives of parents and teachers, if they choose to do so.

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St Mary’s Edinburgh, seat of the Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews. Photo Michael T R B Turnbull via Wikipedia

The Church appointees are non-party, but they are not non-partisan. Nor are they independent, since they owe their positions to their hierarchies.

The Churches have claimed that the system somehow broadens and strengthens the local roots of democracy. In reality, most Church appointments are made by remote hierarchies, with the Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews making appointments from Highland to Dumfries and Galloway.

Scotland, we are often told, is a Christian country. To the extent that this is true, special representation of religion is unnecessary, because Christians vote, and are free to stand for election, just like everybody else.

The Scottish Secular Society is a faith-neutral body, and one of our Board members sits on Scotland’s Inter-Faith Council.

*Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014, Tabel 2.4, downloadable here, shows 68 percent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 percent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as “no religion”

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