Exclusive: Education Secretary orders investigation of Catholic Schools’ anti-gay petition scandal

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The Education Secretary Michael Gove has ordered officials to investigate the promotion of an anti-gay marriage petition by the Catholic Education Service uncovered by PinkNews.co.uk on Wednesday. This publication revealed that the organisation had written to more than 359 state funded Catholic secondary schools in England and Wales to inform students of the Catholic Church’s objections to the Government’s plans to allow gay couples to marry and to promote a petition to the prime minister organised by the anti-gay Coalition for Marriage.

The action follows a similar move by the Welsh Education Minister on Thursday and an editorial published on Friday by PinkNews.co.uk pleading for Mr Gove to to establish the full facts of the case.

A spokesman for Mr Gove told PinkNews.co.uk this afternoon: “Schools have a responsibility under law to ensure children are insulated from political activity and campaigning in the classroom.

He added: “While faith schools, rightly, have the freedom to teach about sexual relations and marriage in the context of their own religion, that should not extend to political campaigning.”

Sources at the Department for Education yesterday stressed to PinkNews.co.uk that if schools discuss political campaigns, such as the Coalition for Marriage’s petition for the Government to change its policy, it had to give a balanced view. The evidence collected by PinkNews.co.uk indicates that the arguments for gay couples being given full civil marriage rights were not given to students. Nor were the students informed of counter petitions such as the Coalition for Equal Marriage or the Equal Love campaign organised by the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

Michael Gove’s spokesman told PinkNews.co.uk: “Officials are looking into this as the Education Secretary and other ministers are anxious to establish the full facts of this case and will be meeting representatives of the Catholic Education Service shortly.”

PinkNews.co.uk understands that the subject will be raised by officials to the Catholic Education Service at a meeting to be held within the next few days.

On Wednesday, PinkNews.co.uk revealed that St Philomena’s Catholic High School for Girls in Carshalton, students as young as 11 were “encouraged” to sign the anti-equality pledge by the school’s headmistress. The Catholic Education Service, which is responsible for hundreds of state funded Catholic schools confirmed to PinkNews.co.uk that it had written to at least 359 Catholic state secondary schools in England and Wales 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.

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”.

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.”

The school and the Catholic Education Service is already facing the threat of legal action from the British Humanist Association following the PinkNews.co.uk exclusive investigation. The British Humanist Association said it believes such actions may have violated section 149 of the Equality Act which prohibits discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and sections 406-7 of the Education Act 1996, which forbid the “promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”, and requires balanced treatment of political issues.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, the chairman of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns against discrimination in faith schools told PinkNews.co.uk: “The Catholic Education Service has shown a shocking disregard for the condition of LGBT people; have failed to properly embrace the much more important obligation of ensuring that everyone is treated with respect and kindness, and in doing so has undermined public trust.”

PinkNews.co.uk editor Stephen Gray said: “We welcome the decision by Michael Gove to investigate the practices that PinkNews.co.uk uncovered. While the right of a religious group to hold this view of lesbian and gay relationships must be respected, it is surely not appropriate for schools to teach it without representing other views.

“There are nearly two million children in religious schools in England and Wales and it’s important for those students that are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to be educated in a safe and tolerant enviroment. It’s also important to send a clear message to all those non-LGBT students that sexual orientation is not a choice or a reason to discriminate against or bully someone.

“Given that homophobic bullying is far more prevalent in faith schools, the Catholic Education Service has a greater responsibility than most to ensure that its students are educated in a positive and accepting space that acknowledges the plurality of views on these issues.”

Yesterday’s editorial by PinkNews.co.uk called on Mr Gove to launch an inquiry to match that begun by his counterpart in Wales adding: “Michael Gove must go further and wider. There are nearly two million children in religious schools in England and Wales. He must consider how allowing them to be taught LGBT issues in anything other than a fair and even-handed way can be conducive to a cohesive society.

“This Government is planning a historic change to the status of same sex relationships; it cannot allow the outdated and discriminatory teachings of some faiths, nor the power those faiths hold, to jeopardise such progress.”

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