In a legal opinion commissioned by the Christian Institute, the eminent QC John Bowers (who has just been elected principal of Brasenose College, Oxford; where I come from, that means that he is to be taken seriously) has concluded that hastily drafted new government regulations can be seen to have dangerous (though possibly unintended) consequences: the regulations are designed to ensure that “extremism does not form part of the [school] curriculum” and require academies, free schools and independent schools in England to “actively promote” the rights defined in the Equality Act 2010, including sexual orientation and transsexual rights. Mr Bowers says these vaguely-worded school standards can be interpreted to mean, for instance, that teachers are required to promote the idea that the new legal definition of marriage is ‘better’ than the Christian view that marriage can only ever be between a man and a woman.
This is how he puts it:
It has almost been an article of faith of successive governments that the curriculum should not be a political football …. It may be said that this is to be swept away possibly as an unintended consequence of the amendments. This may be seen as a Rubicon which is now being crossed. The provision of the Regulations which appears to show the greatest potential [for such a reading] requires that principles are actively promoted which “encourage respect …including respect for the basis on which the law is made and applied in England.” Could this be interpreted as requiring teachers to promote the idea that principles enshrined in the law as enacted (including the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013) are in some way ‘better’ than principles which are not enshrined in law (but may be part of genuinely held religious beliefs)? Arguably yes…. Were this provision to be interpreted as requiring a teacher to teach that the Christian definition of marriage is ‘worse’ than a definition which includes same sex marriage, this could engage… the rights of that teacher to the free exercise of their religious belief or … potentially those rights of the pupil (and their parents’)….
Mr Bowers concludes that the inevitable result of these regulations will be to open teachers up to increased scrutiny, pressures and complaints. They could undermine their academic freedom. And there is now a real risk of major litigation over what happens in the classroom. What I fear is that because the Act CAN be interpreted in the way he suggests, it WILL be. And if there is a risk of litigation if teachers don’t argue actively for gay marriage (after all, the regulations require them to “actively promote” the rights set out in the Act), that’s what they will tend to do. Then we are locked in: that’s how the culture wars operate; that’s what political correctness is all about: the avoidance of risk leading to moral and intellectual captivity.
The interesting thing is that the government has issued guidelines in which it says that this is what shouldn’t happen. According to these, “No school, or individual teacher, is under a duty to support, promote or endorse marriage of same sex couples. Teaching should be based on facts and should enable pupils to develop an understanding of how the law applies to different relationships. Teachers must have regard to statutory guidance on sex and relationship education, and to meet duties under equality and human rights law.”
But what if the teacher thinks that among the most important facts the pupils need to know, and if it’s a Catholic school they certainly should be told this, is that marriage can only be between a man and a women, so that the English law is now based on a lie? The regulations require that “principles are actively promoted which ‘encourage respect … including respect for the basis on which the law is made and applied in England’.” But what if Catholics can’t and shouldn’t respect the basis on which this law has been made? Catholic teachers have now been told that they must have regard to statutory guidance on sex and relationship education. But what about education on the subject of same-sex marriage and civil partnerships? Shouldn’t Catholic teachers also “have regard to” the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
The fact is, says the blogger Brendan O’Neill, “that in every jurisdiction in which it has been introduced, gay marriage has been heavily attended by authoritarianism and coercion. Sometimes the coercion is soft, taking the form of what John Stuart Mill called ‘the tyranny of custom’, where those who refuse to embrace gay marriage – the most speedily formed custom of modern times – will be branded phobic and hateful and perhaps boycotted by agitators, pressured to choose between their moral opposition to same-sex marriage and their place in polite society; you absolutely cannot have both.” That’s right. And that’s the direction in which these new regulations are heading. Mr Bowers thinks so: Teachers are going to be opened up to up to “increased scrutiny, pressures and complaints”. Their academic freedom, he thinks will inescapably be undermined. And Catholic teachers will be, must be, in conflict with the English law, which nevertheless REQUIRES them to teach their pupils respect for the basis on which it is built.
There is no escape. Catholic teachers will have to choose between the laws of men and the laws of God. It’s a real and agonising dilemma. Others, like Catholic would-be obstetricians, have already had to face it. What will our teachers do?
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