Exclusive: Catholic school ‘urged pupils as young as 11 to sign anti-gay marriage petition’

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*Update: A Government inquiry has been announced following this article’s publication yesterday
Students at a Catholic state school in south London have been shown a presentation on religious opposition to the government’s proposal to allow gay couples to marry in civil ceremonies which, it is claimed, encouraged them to sign the Coalition for Marriage’s petition against the move.

Numerous organisations including the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society and SchoolsOut have indicated to PinkNews.co.uk that this action could be break multiple laws.

A student at St Philomena’s Catholic High School for Girls in Carshalton voiced concerns to PinkNews.co.uk that pupils from 11 to 18 years of age had been “encouraged” to sign the anti-equality pledge by the school’s headmistress.

The Catholic Education Service confirmed to PinkNews.co.uk that it had written to at least 359 Catholic state secondary schools in England and Wales last month asking them to draw attention to a letter by senior archbishops which told Catholics of their “duty” to do “all we can to ensure that the true meaning of marriage is not lost for future generations”.

It also asked schools to “draw attention” to the Coalition for Marriage campaign and petition against civil marriage equality, which now has over 460,000 signatures.

Responding on the school’s behalf, the Catholic Education Service said St Philomena’s itself had designed the presentation which is said to have encouraged minors to add their names to that campaign.

It confirmed the presentations for all age groups had consisted of the Archbishops’ letter and ended with a slide displaying the Coalition for Marriage’s website and the words: “Sign the petition”.

Experts in the handling of gay and transgender issues in schools have today questioned whether the presentation may have breached equality laws.

A sixth form student told PinkNews.co.uk of her experience: “In our assembly for the whole Sixth Form you could feel people bristling as she explained parts of the letter and encouraged us to sign the petition.

“She said things about gay marriage and civil partnerships being unnatural. It was just a really out-dated, misjudged and heavily biased presentation.”

She added that students had begun to respond: “A few of us in my year are buying Gay Pride badges to pin on our uniform and thought about staging a Stonewall coup by posting the ‘Some people are gay – get over it’ posters around school.”

“Most importantly though, there are several people in my year who aren’t heterosexual – myself included – and I for one was appalled and actually disgusted by what they were encouraging.

“After all, that’s discrimination they were urging impressionable people to engage in, which is unacceptable.”

Greg Pope, the Deputy Director of the Catholic Education Service told PinkNews.co.uk: “We wrote to Catholic secondary schools to let them know of the archbishops’ letter on the government’s gay marriage proposals. We’ve asked them to draw attention generally to the Coalition for Marriage petition which is an open petition that people of all ages can sign.

“We have been aiming this towards older pupils and parents. The archbishop’s letter is a positive statement of the Church’s support for marriage, rather than negative comments about gay marriage.”

The Coalition for Marriage themselves pointed out that the petition is not open to people “of all ages” as the Service suggested, but only to those aged 16 and above.

When alerted to this, Mr Pope said today that the Catholic Education Service would be clear in any future correspondence with schools that the Coalition for Marriage petition had an age restriction, but that it was not planning to contact schools again on the subject.

The Coalition for Marriage confirmed the age restriction on its petition yesterday but has not made any further comment on the story this morning.

On the particular claims made by the student that the headmistress had called gay marriages “unnatural”, Mr Pope said: “All pupils deserve to be treated with respect and tolerance.

“If a pupil or parent feels the school has not lived up to that, all schools have complaints procedures which meet the Department for Education requirements.”

Conor Marron, who set up the Coalition for Equal Marriage to build grass roots support for equality and oppose the campaign of the Coalition for Marriage, told PinkNews.co.uk: “This is incredibly worrying.

“These children are shamelessly being used and manipulated to further the goals of the religious right, most likely without the knowledge or permission of their parents.

“With children as young as 11 being drawn into this without being adequately equipped with maturity and an understanding of the issues at hand is nothing less than abusive scaremongering.

“They claim that one of their reasons to campaign against same-sex marriage is to try to protect children.

“This just goes to show how untrue that is, and that they will use any tool and stoop to any low to get what they want.

“They are the ones who are a threat to children, and this is a shining example as to the dangers of faith schools.”

Concerns have been raised that the school may have breached its public sector equality duty to have “due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity” and “foster good relations” between “persons who share a relevant protected characteristic [including sexual orientation] and persons who do not share it” in decision-making.

Sue Sanders, co-chair of Schools Out, told PinkNews.co.uk: “The Public Duty of the Equality Act requires schools to amongst, other things, foster good relations across all characteristics. I hardly think telling people to sign a petition that limits LGB people their human rights is either appropriate or legal.”

The Catholic Education Service said in response today that the school is permitted by the Act to teach sex and relationship education in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church, but that it would not be allowed to discriminate or permit discrimination against pupils on the grounds of sexual orientation.

New regulations mean that by 6 April, schools should have published information showing how they are complying with the equality duty aims of eliminating unlawful discrimination, advancing equal opportunity and fostering good relations.

PinkNews.co.uk has requested the school’s information through the Catholic Education Service (CES).

In a statement, the British Humanist Association said: “Pink News’s article highlights that the CES’s actions likely broke the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits discrimination against pupils based on their sexual orientation. The BHA believe the CES’s actions likely break sections 406-7 of the Education Act 1996, which forbids ‘the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school’, and requires balanced treatment of political issues. This law was successfully used in 2007 to stop schools showing Al Gore’s climate change film, An Inconvenient Truth, without also explaining scientific errors in the film.”

BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson added: “This action by the Catholic Education Service is absolutely outrageous. Not only might this break equalities legislation, it also breaks laws against political partisanship.

“If any pupil at one of the schools concerned is interested in taking a legal case forward on this, we urge them to get in touch with us.”

The Home Office is currently running an online public consultation on the government proposals to introduce civil marriage equality.