Melanie McDonagh

Equality against conscience and the Big Society

Equality against conscience and the Big Society
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It was pretty well apparent at the outset that the Equality Act 2010 – the so-called Socialism in a Single Clause law – spelt trouble and now it is the Catholic Church that may run foul of Harriet Harman’s pet project. The Catholic Education Service in England and Wales has written to Catholic secondary schools to get them to encourage pupils and staff to sign the online petition against the Government’s gay marriage proposals. Today, on BBC Radio 4, the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, Andrew Copson warned that the Church may be breaking two laws: the one that prohibits partisan political activity in school, the other, more importantly, being the Equality Act 2010, which requires government ministers and public bodies to promote equality. And as Mr Copson argued, the Church’s stance was ‘an argument against the equality of lesbian and gay people.’

Funnily enough, if the Equality Act really were socialism in a single clause, the Catholic bishops would be all for it. Catholic schools haven’t been shy of engaging in more modish propaganda – the Make Poverty History campaign to write off developing world debt, for instance, or the usual environmental campaigns against global warming. But however New Labourish the bishops have been in the past, this is one area where they’re prepared to go counter-cultural.

The argument that this move by the Catholic Education Service is political partisanship doesn’t bear close inspection. Redefining marriage is not a party political issue; it’s squarely a moral and social one. There are differences within the parties and none between them on the question. Any change in the marriage laws would have to be enacted in parliament, but it’s no more political than that.

The equalities issue is a graver threat to the Church. Bear in mind that the government, including present Conservative ministers, was perfectly prepared to see Catholic adoption services, which did sterling work with some of the most difficult-to-place children, close down, as they have done, rather than allow them to place children only with married heterosexual couples. The adoption charities’ policy was based on the tradition that the complementarity of the sexes between parents in a stable relationship makes for the best environment for raising children, an argument you’d have thought Conservatives would understand. Yet in the interests of being seen to promote equality, Tories allowed those charities to go to the wall as a result of the implementation of the equalities law.

As for this specific issue, about church lobbying in schools on gay marriage, it is hard to suggest that schools should participate in the social and moral formation of their pupils and then fight shy of the most important and contentious issue of the day. Granted, I would expect schools to debate the subject rather than dictate the Church’s stance – and I expect there’ll be no end of kudos for those children prepared to take quite the opposite approach to the bishops – but the idea that the Church should not restate as strongly as possible to its own pupils the teaching that marriage is inherently heterosexual is impossible to square with its responsibilities. The Church’s argument, remember, on gay marriage is not that this is a ‘religious’ issue; it’s that marriage, as an institution oriented to bringing up children, is by definition between a man and a woman. But for those for whom equality is a slogan which trumps every argument, this idea of an inherent character of marriage is hard to get to grips with.

It would, I think, be intolerable if the Equalities Act 2010 were used against the Church. But it would, usefully, highlight the fatuity of the Prime Minister’s failure to challenge the legislation in the first place if one of its victims were, once again, one of the most influential elements of the Big Society.