The Education Secretary Michael Gove has defended the right of Catholic schools to promote Church teaching on homosexuality following a complaint from Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
Mr Barber had written to Mr Gove complaining that the distribution of “homophobic material” in some classrooms in Lancashire undermined equality laws.
In response, Mr Gove said that the content of a curriculum was not covered by the Equality Act, but added that any berating or harassing of gay pupils would be unlawful.
He said: “The education provisions of the Equality Act which prohibit discrimination against individuals based on their protected characteristics (including their sexual orientation) do not extend to the content of the curriculum. Any materials used in sex and relationship education lessons, therefore, will not be subject to the discrimination provisions of the act.”
Mr Gove added: “If a school conveyed its beliefs in a way that involved haranguing, harassing or berating a gay or lesbian pupil or group of pupils then this would be unacceptable in any circumstances and is likely to constitute unlawful discrimination.”
Mr Barber described Mr Gove’s reaction as “alarming” and said that the distribution of “homophobic material” undermines a school’s legal duty to challenge all forms of prejudice.
He told the Observer: “Having written to the Education Secretary to express our worry about the distribution of homophobic literature in faith schools, his lack of concern is very alarming.”
Mr Barber wrote to the Education Secretary in December expressing objections to the distribution of a booklet on sexuality throughout Catholic schools in Lancashire.
The booklet was provided by Jason Evert, a Catholic apologist who toured schools throughout the Lancaster diocese in 2010, to promote chastity in accordance with Church teaching.
The booklet, entitled Pure Manhood: How to become the man God wants you to be, states that “the homosexual act is disordered, much like contraceptive sex between heterosexuals”.
It adds: “Both acts are directed against God’s natural purpose for sex – babies and bonding.”
A spokesman for the Diocese of Lancaster declined to comment.
Neil Addison, a Catholic barrister who specialises in religion and equality law, echoed Mr Gove’s response, saying that legislation concerning sexual orientation was not applicable to the school curriculum and dismissing the TUC’s objection as “bunkum”.
“The Equality Act says that nothing in the relevant part of the Act ‘applies to anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum’ so the allegation of a breach of the Equality Act is bunkum,” he said. “Also, what has this got to do with the TUC? Since when did it become the role of the TUC to act as censor for what is taught in schools?
“The TUC and gay rights campaigners should remember that freedom of speech is a two-way process. It means defending the rights of others to express views they may disagree with.”
British pro-life activist Robert Colquhoun accompanied Mr Evert to some of the Catholic schools and said that the TUC had focused too narrowly on a small section of the leaflet. He said: “I visited some schools in Preston with Jason Evert when he toured the country here. His ministry is outstanding in promoting chastity among young people.
“Jason’s work has helped many young people understand and appreciate the great gift of sexuality. All his writings are scientifically, medically and theologically thorough and I am appalled that the TUC has criticised his work.”
He added: “Jason’s work also receives a wonderful response from young people who are big fans of his work. To suggest he is homophobic is just absurd.”
The TUC’s website dedicates a section to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. The section identifies schools and colleges as remaining areas where prejudice is “endemic”.
It states: “The Equality Act 2010 … has achieved full legal equality for LGBT people with all other groups, with a few exceptions on which campaigning will continue.
“The public sector equality duty introduced by the Equality Act, the TUC believes, offers a powerful lever to assist public bodies to challenge continued prejudice and hostility in areas where it remains endemic such as in schools and colleges, and in sports like football.
“The TUC is working with unions and allies such as Schools Out to challenge this unacceptable state of affairs.”
Mr Gove’s response followed an official address from a Cabinet colleague claming that Britain was under threat from “militant secularists”.
Cabinet minister Baroness Warsi said that Britain had “got to the stage where aggressive secularism is being imposed by stealth, leaving us with the ironic situation where, to stave off intolerance against minorities, we end up being intolerant towards religion itself”.
She said that the most worrying part of “this militant secularisation” is that in “its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant”.
Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has also expressed fears about the marginalisation of Christianity.