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My Scottish friends; please write to your MSPs in support of opt-in petition; draft letter here

As many of you know, the Scottish Secular Society has petitioned the Scottish Parliament for a change in practice from opt-out to opt-in for religious observance. The petition has attracted wide attention, including support from the Herald, and now seems to me to have a greater chance of success than would have seemed possible even a year ago. In any case, it is doing a great job in opening up debate on the entire embarrassing question of church-state relationships, which politicians wold much rather ignore, and it is important that it receive as much visible support as possible.
You can find your MSP using http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/msps.aspx
below is a suggested draft letter, rehearsing the main arguments. Tweak as appropriate.
Time is running out; the 2nd hearing in committee is November 12.
And please consider passing this on to your friends. Our basic problem is that the religious establishment are a clearly defined constituency. The reply must be, to show that we’re a constituency too.

Dear XXX,

I write as your constituent to ask your support for Petition 1487, Religious Observance in Schools, which seeks to replace the present “opt-out” system for Religious Observance (RO) with “opt-in”.  The petition and responses are at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/religiousobservance, and the Petitions Committee will be holding its second hearing on November 12. We believe that the proposed change will end serious problems with the present system, lead to improvements in communication between home and school about the nature of RO, and help RO fulfil its aim of celebrating shared values.

The present system presumes agreement with the school’s practice of RO. Not all school handbooks even fulfil the legal requirement to state that opt-out from RO is available. Children who opt out are not properly catered for, and are made to feel exceptional, while there are examples of schools putting pressure on parents to reverse their decision, or even on occasion denying that the right to opt out exists in their school. The proposed change to opt-in would prevent such wrongs.

At present, while RO is intended to be a celebration of universal community values, it is often in practice dominated by one particular worldview, generally, in so-called non-denominational schools, Protestantism. This at a time when the number of Scots having no religious affiliation exceeds a third, and is greater than that of the Church of Scotland, the most numerous denomination.

The practice of RO varies enormously from school to school, and recent events at Kirktonholme Primary, where to parents’ dismay, creationist and anti-scientific books were distributed during RO, show how far it is at times from achieving its ideals. Such abuses would be most unlikely under the improved school-home communication that would result from opt-in.

Finally, we believe that the proposed change will reinvigorate RO by leading to general discussion of its nature and purpose, discussion that in our present diverse society is essential for its long-term survival.

Respectfully,

Petition to end Church appointments to Scots education committees; answer to objections

I have written here and here in favour of Edinburgh Secular Society’s petition to remove the requirement for Scottish councils to accept unelected church nominees church nominees on their Education Committees (you can see and sign the petition here; details of existing nominees are here). Why such a requirement exists at all is a question for legal historians, but I note that there is a parallel requirement in England, and that the relevant legislation for Scotland (here) is pre-devolution. I suspect all this is a hangover from the merging of church and public schooling in the 19th and early 20th century.

        The Rev. Ian Galloway, Convener of the Church of Scotland Church and Society Council, claimed on BC Scotland Newsnight that the petition would deprive Education Committees of valuable input. Not true, your Reverence.

Rev. Ian Galloway

The arguments against the requirement are obvious. Most Scots (most English, for that matter) don’t even know about it (I didn’t myself until recently), and would be as dismayed about it as I am. It is not a trivial matter, since the religious representatives actually hold the balance of power in 19 of Scotland’s 32 Council Education Committees, a situation likely to continue in the current fluid state of Scottish politics. The religious representatives cannot but have a dual loyalty; to their duty as citizens, and to their duty as representatives of one particular worldview, and of an organisation with material and political interests of its own. It provides a kind of dual representation to those who happen to belong to one of the favoured religious groups, since they can present their case to their ecclesiastical representative, as well as to their elected councillor. Finally, and most seriously, it is an affront to democracy, and to the principle that Government should represent the interests of the people, rather than those of particular organisations or pressure groups.

But no one gives up power without a struggle, and we can already see the lines on which the religious establishment will oppose this change. The representatives of religion, we are already being told, have a special caring concern for the spiritual development of the young. They bring a special perspective to bear. They give generously of their time. They proffer the benefits of their wisdom and experience. Finally, it would be an infringement of religious freedom to debar them from contributing in this way, and yet another example of what they would have us believe to be an emerging anti-religious intolerance.

None of these arguments will stand up for inspection. Firstly, and most importantly, there is no suggestion that anyone be debarred from anything. Legislation gives councils broad powers to co-opt members to committees, if they so choose, and indeed it is customary to have teachers and parents represented on Education Committees. In exactly the same way, councils would remain free to invite church representatives to join them on these committees if they wished to do so. Indeed any such invitees would be in a stronger moral position than those mandated under present legislation. They would be there because  councillors had chosen them, and those councillors themselves are answerable to their electorates, rather than to some external authority. Their religious positions cannot be assumed to automatically bestow on them any particular kind of wisdom or virtue, and it is all too easy to point to instances where the representatives of religion have shown neither. In this context, scandal aside, I would draw attention to the open conflict between the Bishops Council, which controls sex education in Catholic denominational schools, and bodies concerned about the quality of such education, including the educational arm of the National Health Service. I would also point out that several church nominees espouse Young Earth creationism, in direct contravention of Scottish Government policy, the curriculum, and indeed the whole of established science. Whether these representatives are donating their time, or whether they regard committee membership as part of their professional ecclesiastic duties, is a minor matter, although it does again raised the question of dual loyalties. If they bring a special perspective to bear, the same could be said of nurses, social workers, policemen, or drug dealers. There is nothing intolerant about questioning religious privilege, and indeed many sincere believers regard such privilege as corrupting to Church and State alike.

For the reasons given in my second paragraph here, I would argue that the existence of unelected church representation would be unacceptable, even in a nation of believers. In a Scotland where over one third of the population, and an actual majority of the young, reject all religious affiliation, it is inexcusable.

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Out of control sex “education” in Scottish Catholic schools; background to the Stenzel Horrors

The underlying problem is that factual information about sex is, in Scottish Catholic schools, delivered under the Religious Education heading as part of the “Called to Love” module of sexual health and relationships education (SHRE), and tailored to suit Church doctrine, not scientific or educational reality.

A Scottish Parliamentary report, described here in Friday’s TESS, refers to “worrying” comments from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that Catholic schools had prevented NHS officials from scrutinising their SHRE.

In the words of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (I asked them), Religious Education in Scottish Catholic schools “is set out in statute with the Catholic Education Commission having responsibility for the faith content of the curriculum on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland.  Religious education in Catholic schools takes place within the context of the wider Catholic faith community, in partnership with home and parish, and as part of the school curriculum’s Experiences and Outcomes.”

So there are no checks and balances. If it chooses (and it does so choose) the Bishop’s Conference can decide that agnosticism and atheism are not to be discussed as real options on a par with religious faiths. Even worse, it seems that the Bishop’s Conference can and does dictate the factual content of SHRE regarding human sexuality, refuses to even discuss the matter with NHS officials, and feels (and is) at liberty to override explicit Scottish Government guidance, when that guidance says (here and here) that

All young people must be given advice on “safe sex” and how to avoid or limit their exposure to infection. Young couples are encouraged to use a method of contraception and condoms to protect against transmission of infections.

and

a condom … prevents your partner(s) becoming infected with HIV, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes

This leads to such horrific episodes as Pam Stenzel’s school visit in Paisley last month. I reported on this earlier, and have now heard back from the Local Authority in response to my Freedom of Information request. The visit has also been the subject of a story in today’s TESS, and I am happy to have been able to supply some if the information used there. If happy is the right word; we shouldn’t have to keep fighting against reality-denying nonsense in our schools, whether that nonsense is about creationism or about chlamydia.

Tomorrow, I am going to the Edinburgh Secular Society conference in Edinburgh where I will be talking about both those issues. On Sunday, I will post here the full response of Renfrewshire Council to my Freedom of Information request. There you will see, among other things, that the school who invited Ms Stenzel did not know about the highly questionable quality of her academic qualifications, that it regards nonsense claims she made as “contentious” when in fact they are downright wrong, and that her talk (filmed for future use) is in any case justified because it fits in with the overall message about being good.

More later.

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