Last March, Tommy Sheppard, a Humanist and member of the Scottish Parliament, moderated a panel discussion for the Humanist Society Scotland about education. Specifically, they were focused on the problems with “mandatory religious representation on local authority education committees,” an issue reflected in the group’s Enlighten Up campaign.
What Sheppard basically argued was that religious education was important, but it was wrong to guarantee seats to religious representatives, often from the Church of Scotland, when those people were not accountable to the people in the community. It would be like reserving a handful of seats on every public school board in America for representatives from the Catholic Church. It’s completely unnecessary, especially in a nation where more than half the people have no religious beliefs.
None of this was controversial at the time. Indeed, as of last night, the audio of that discussion that was posted last year had fewer than 200 streams on Spreaker.
You can hear Sheppard sharing his opinions around the 60:30 mark of the 62:00 discussion — that is to say, his thoughts were so inconsequential that he didn’t bother making them until the conversation was nearly over.
But those remarks are now at the center of a huge scandal.
Here’s what Sheppard said that people are now having a problem with:
Mr Sheppard… said the way to achieve a fully secular school system in Scotland was to do it ‘bit by bit.’
“Some of the things in the Enlighten Up campaign are, I believe, exactly the way to do that,” he said. “Chip away at the power organised religion has within our school system.”
Mr Sheppard, a ‘proud member’ of the Humanist Society Scotland, said they should ‘take those little victories and use them to move onto the next campaign where we actually advocate that the role of religion in schools is for people to learn about it but not for it to define the value system in the school.”
Right. That’s fine. No issue there. It’s not surprising for a Humanist to argue that we need less religious influence in the public school system, and one way to do that is removing this “school board guarantee.”
But the Catholic Church is furious that anyone, especially a member of Parliament, would suggest there was something wrong with the current arrangement.
A spokesperson for the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland said: “This is a blatant attack on religious freedom and chillingly intolerant.
“While members of the Humanist Society claim to be proud of their belief system, they don’t seem sufficiently proud of it to argue for humanist schools which would be underpinned by humanist beliefs,” he said. “It may be a belief system with few adherents in Scotland but that should not prevent state recognition for schools that adhered to it. The Registrar General already categorises humanist weddings as part of the ‘Religion and Belief’ marriage statistics. There’s no reason why their schools couldn’t be similarly categorised. Advancing the rights of humanists by demolishing the educational rights of Catholics is hypocritical in the extreme.”
He added that Mr Sheppard should know that ‘religious belief is a protected characteristic and when it is expressed through educational choice it should not come under attack.’
Currently all Scottish councils are required to appoint three religious representatives to their education committees. These religious representatives are unelected and unaccountable.
The fact that unelected religious representatives continue to serve on local education committees means that there are simply no secular schools in Scotland. In many areas of Scotland, parents don’t have a choice, and have to send their children to the nearest school.
It’s not “chillingly intolerant,” much less an “attack on religious freedom,” to argue against automatic seats for religious people on education committees.
But people are acting like what Sheppard said was completely out of line.
Speaking to the Herald, Mr Sheppard said the comments — made one year ago — had been taken out of context.
“At no stage did I ever criticise Catholic schools,” he said. “I have several in my constituency which are excellent. I was talking at a meeting about the composition of education authorities and whether it’s right that unelected people should sit in those boards and make education policy in Scotland.
“That is a wholly different matter I believe than the control of public policy on education and should be done on a secular rather than a religious basis.”
What’s really odd is how media outlets are acting like this audio just “emerged.” That’s the word they’re using. Even though the audio has been online for a year and no one ever tried to hide it. This isn’t the Donald Trump/Access Hollywood tape, for goodness’ sake.
Even if it did suddenly emerge, Sheppard’s comments are just that. They’re his ideas. It’s not like he proposed a bill to eradicate automatic religious seats on these committees. Since when is it “intolerant” to merely propose an idea that might be unpopular?
Once again, religious leaders are freaking out over nothing. They should get used to it though. Their influence is waning and these archaic rules won’t be around forever. At some point they’re going to have to prove their worth instead of assuming everyone just accepts it at face value.
(Image via Facebook. Thanks to Brian for the link)