Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Why is the government letting faith schools interfere in the personal lives of their staff?

Yes, Tony Blair was wrong. The bolstering of faith schools and the consequent upsetting of the delicate existing balance between them and society at large, I wrote in 2011, was always a rather suspect idea: not because religious people have not the right to educate their children as they like – they do, up to a point – but largely because of the dangerous precedents they set with regards to human rights in general, not least of children themselves.

At that time, Michael Gove’s allowance, that faith schools could insist on 100% of their teachers being of-the-faith, was already raising worrying questions about the interference of the state or, more troublingly still, a private-sector employer, in the rights of the individual to live their lives as they choose. But this, it now seems, was nothing compared to the knock-on effects that this appears to be triggering in such schools with regard to both discrimination, and wholesale interference in the lives of teachers.

Last week, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales published“guidance” which effectively allows Catholic schools to discipline, or dismiss, their workers for breach of Catholic teachings in their personal lives.

So, essentially, if you are a teacher in such a school living with someone to whom you are not married, remarried after a divorce or, heaven forbid, married in a registry office or a church of another denomination, your job could be on the line. And if you are in a long-term relationship with someone of the same sex, well, woe betide you.

But this is not an episode of Downton Abbey. It is here and now, in 2013. And it is also easy to have a knee-jerk liberal response of horror to these proposals, but probably more useful to try to explain logically why they are so wrong.

One: the state, or any other employer, has no right to tell its employees how they should live their personal lives in the comfort of their own home. End of. If this is not a basic principle of civilised human life, I don’t know what is.

Two: the ludicrous subjectivity by which the criteria are selected. Thus, if you are:

“maintaining a partnership of intimacy with another person, outside a form of marriage approved by the Church and which would, at least in the public forum, carry the presumption from their public behaviour of this being a non-chaste relationship”,
you are at risk. Who, we might reasonably demand, dammit, gets to decide what is and is not a “non-chaste relationship”; and what is one, anyway? Does kissing count? Petting? Or only full penetrative sex, with or without a condom? Presumably, the answer is that “the definition is whatever I say it is”. Such laxness of interpretation would not, rightly, be permitted, in a legal definition in any other area of employment or human rights law, but in these guidelines it is deemed perfectly acceptable.

Three: this is all, as far as any non-lawyer can reasonably guess, illegal. As the National Secular Society logically points out, this “harsh and unfair law drives a coach and horses through equality legislation”. This does not seem difficult to corroborate: among many other places, you can check this summary by the European Court of Human Rights here (Chapter 4 is a good place to start, as is p32 of the guidelines themselves).

Four: it sets an awful precedent for other religions, the more repressive corners of which may be even less enlightened than the current manifestation of the Catholic Church. In a country where Sharia law, with its clearly regressive tendencies towards women and gay men, already has a growing presence, this can hardly be seen as a good sign.

Five. You can argue that if you don’t want to adhere to these guidelines, don’t sign up for a Catholic school: but that’s not really tenable, is it? You might as well put signs on the wall saying “no queers here” or “single mums need not apply”, sorry. Imagine if there were guidelines which prevented churches from hiring black people: it’s just wrong.

And there are surely more. Also, it is easy to present these arguments as anti-religious: they are not at all, they are simply pro-employment and pro-human rights. In fact, a measured and sensible approach would be that the status quo is a perfectly adequate system which permits Catholic education for those parents who wish it, without compromising the inalienable rights of other British citizens.

Because what we are effectively doing is granting the head teachers of faith schools the power to say, “my organisation is religious, therefore the normal rules of equality do not apply here”. It’s nonsense.

When I was a teenager, I saw how this all plays out. My former science teacher was hounded out of my old school by ignorant people who thought that “homosexuality” and “paedophilia” were interchangeable nouns. We should never go back there. And the Catholic Church, paradoxically, is not to blame: it is merely doing what churches do. No, this is behaviour which the present government has encouraged through the free hand it has given to faith schools, and its sloppiness on human and employment rights.

Whatever its motive, it is a dangerous politics for Britain, a nation previously known for its religious tolerance and live-and-let-live attitude. It is abhorrent with regard to human and employment rights. And it is quite probably illegal.

This post first published at LabourList, cross-posted at Harry's Place and selected for Progress' What We're Reading list

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