Why shouldn’t faith schools criticise gays?

The campaign to stop certain schools from teaching traditional values is an attack on parental autonomy.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) says it has uncovered 44 schools, mainly faith schools, which stress in their sex-education guidelines that governors will not allow teachers to ‘promote’ homosexuality. Campaigners claim that some faith schools seem to have adopted policy statements that echo the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 enacted under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Section 28, which was overturned by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 2003, banned schoolteachers from ‘intentionally promoting’ homosexuality. Critics denounced it as a form of discrimination against gay pupils.

Now, the gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell says of certain faith schools’ sex-education policies: ‘This is spookily similar to Section 28 in Britain and the new anti-gay law in Russia. These schools are abusing their new freedoms to pressure teachers to teach gay issues in a way that will discourage them from saying anything positive that could be construed as “promotion”.’ The Department of Education has apparently instructed officials to launch an immediate investigation into these ‘anti-gay’ schools unveiled by the BHA.

In a secular society that is supposedly committed to freedom of religion, the really outrageous thing here is that MPs and shrill campaigners are meddling in the values being taught in faith schools. In essence, under the increasingly smokescreen-like claim of upholding equality, these activists are undermining up a core aspect of a liberal society - that religious people must be free to hold and promote certain beliefs. The accusation that faith schools are practising intolerance seems breathtakingly unconvincing, not to mention hypocritical, when one considers that militant atheists are themselves being intolerant of traditional and religious communities and their belief systems.

It is true that some religious communities that hold traditional views on sex, marriage and relationships view homosexual acts as morally wrong. Only the philistines of the BHA will be shocked to learn that many religious-minded people do not have a positive view of homosexuality. Such traditionalists often also view sex before marriage, abortion, divorce and euthanasia as morally wrong. But so what? A free society should be strong enough to allow the existence of all sorts of views, prejudices and judgments without recourse to clampdowns or official investigations into such beliefs. Is the gay-rights lobby now so fearful of minority old-fashioned views that it must demand measures to censor them – the same kind of measures that were once employed against its own members? At a time when traditional views are less influential than ever, and when acceptance of gay equality is thoroughly mainstream, it seems odd that campaigners cannot abide any expression whatsoever of disapproval of homosexuality.

Campaigners will say that it is one thing for adults to hold traditional, anti-gay views, but it is wrong to pass such opinions on to the next generation through schools. This could make gay pupils feel ashamed or humiliated, we’re told. So are we saying that the self-esteem of gay teens is more important than the autonomy of religious communities and also of parents? Campaigners are using apparently hurt teens as a stage army to prevent adults from passing their values on to their children. Under the guise of championing gay rights, we are really witnessing an attack on parental autonomy. After all, religious-minded parents tend to send their children to religious schools precisely because they want them to take on certain values. By investigating how faith schools teach sex and relationships, officialdom is in effect questioning the values parents want to instil in their kids. Not content with policing the nutritional content of parent-made lunches, now campaigners demand that the moral content of lessons chosen by parents should also be vetted or even outlawed by state snoopers.

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Where once the campaign for gay equality was once about enlarging freedom and individual choice, now protecting gays from apparently offensive views is a key way through which moral choice is eradicated and conformity is institutionalised. Traditional religious communities are increasingly bearing the brunt of this conforming drive, because their attachment to traditional marriage, as well as to adult/child boundaries, is viewed as a pesky buffer against the state’s drive to colonise personal relationships and informal networks. Traditional communities’ belief in the importance of family relationships, and their trust in faith schools to socialise their children, is taken as an affront by those who are naturally suspicious of unregulated familial and educational relationships between adults and children. Clamping down on what is taught in faith schools is simply the latest attempt by suspicious campaigners and parts of the state to diminish parental and communal autonomy over the raising of children.

Neil Davenport is a writer and sociology/politics teacher in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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