The House of Lords in Britain is currently debating a new bill that will require Catholic schools to provide, among other things, “non-judgmental” information on access to abortion and contraception to students as part of a new sex education initiative. In response, one Catholic politician has called the new legislation “radical” and “a crisis of conscience for parents and teachers alike.”
According to Britain's Catholic Herald, the new Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) will be required for children as young as five and will forbid parents from removing their children from sex education classes once they turn fifteen.
The Hon. Edward Balls, an MP who backed the legislation, told the BBC on Feb. 23 that under the new bill, Catholic schools will “have to teach that there are different views on homosexuality. They cannot teach homophobia. They must explain civil partnerships. They must give a balanced view on abortion. They must give both sides of the argument. They must explain how to access an abortion. The same is true on contraception as well.”
House of Lords member David Alton, who is Catholic, said earlier this week that the bill “seeks to take away powers from schools and parents by placing sex and relationship education (SRE) on to the national curriculum and removing the parental right to withdraw children for the last year at school.”
Quoting the legal opinion of top human rights barrister John Bowers, Lord Alton said that the bill “represents a radical appropriation of power by central government, enabling them to dictate teaching on a matter over which many parents have strongly held moral or religious convictions. The Bill would further erode parental influence in an area which many parents would assert is a matter for the family rather than for schools.”
“I cannot begin to tell the Minister how much anxiety this has engendered, and not just among Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Anglicans, who as a matter of conscience believe abortion to be the taking of an innocent life,” Lord Alton added.
“This is not a trivial matter, and I hope that the Government realizes the implications. The Government needs to understand that such a fundamental attack on the character and ethos of faith schools will create a crisis of conscience for parents and teachers alike.”
The House of Lords member also said the the proposed sex ed bill contains “some of the most unenlightened clauses that I have ever encountered in my 30 years in parliament,” and that parents are “outraged” by it. According to the Catholic Herald, the government's own consultation showed that 68 percent of respondents said they do not want SRE placed in schools and 79 percent stated that they do not want the parental right to withdraw a child to be interfered with.
“Simply ignoring the views of parents on such a sensitive matter smacks of arrogance and the worst kind of nanny state,” Lord Alton charged.
On March 8, Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham, who is the chairman of the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales, argued in the Times that the claim that the Church promotes homophobia “highlights a real lack of understanding of what is being taught in Catholic Schools.”
The bishop pointed to a study which reported that 61 percent of Catholic schools in Britain were deemed “excellent” or “very good” in respecting other people, compared to 43 percent of other schools in England.
“That’s one of the major reasons why so many parents decide to send their children to Catholic schools in the first place,” the bishop asserted. Teaching sex education in light of Church teaching, then, “does not lead to discriminatory and intolerant behavior, nor does it lead to a deficient knowledge of the full facts of life,” he stated.
“In Catholic teaching, the equality of all men and women is embraced because all are seen as the children of God. They are not defined by their race, ethnic identity or sexual orientation,” the bishop said.
Bishop McMahon did not address concerns raised by Ed Balls' comments that Catholic schools would be required to present opposing beliefs on abortion and homosexuality.
When CNA contacted the offices of the Catholic Education Service (CES), it was referred to an amendment to the SRE bill that says religious schools will be allowed to teach the material within a Catholic ethos. However, questions about the requirement to inform students of non-Catholic views on abortion, contraception and homosexuality were not answered.
CES staff also told CNA that Oona Stannard, the group's director, was on “annual leave.” Stannard has been quoted as calling the new SRE “a positive step forward.”