LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A motion to remove the voting rights of religious representatives on education boards is “a serious threat to the identity” of Catholic schools in the Scottish capital, according to a spokesperson of the Archdiocese of St. Andrews & Edinburgh.
Scottish law mandates that three religious representatives serve on each school board. Over 10 percent of the schools in Scotland are state-supported Catholic schools. Most schools are “non-denominational,” but have historic ties to the Protestant Church of Scotland, and the law in Scotland still mandates that communal “religious observances” take place in schools, saying this “complements other aspects of a pupil’s learning and is an important contribution to pupils’ development.”
Parents can exclude their children from these religious observances – which vary according to the historic ethos of the school and religious makeup of the student body – and recent legislation allowed students to skip the observances, even without parental permission.
However, the law does not say the religious members necessarily have the right to vote in elections of the education boards, and the Green Party is bringing up a vote in the Edinburgh city council on Aug. 22 to take away their vote.
The Perth and Kinross Council began to remove voting rights of religious representatives in April.
The proposal has been strongly opposed by the Archdiocese of St. Andrews & Edinburgh, which has 10 Catholic high schools and 69 Catholic primary schools within its jurisdiction.
Within the city of Edinburgh itself, there are three Catholic high schools and 15 Catholic primary schools, educating around 20 percent of all pupils in the capital.
“Removing voting rights of church representatives removes the ability of the Catholic Church in influencing the running and direction of Catholic Schools. So, we believe this motion presents a serious threat to the identity and Catholicity of our schools in Edinburgh,” an archdiocesan spokesperson told Crux.
The Catholic representatives on the boards typically abstain from issues not related to Catholic schools.
“The role of our representative is to represent the views of the Catholic Community in local decisions regarding Catholic education. For example, the building or closure of a Catholic school, accessibility of Catholic schools or the recruitment of staff,” the spokesperson said.
In a July 26 statement, Archbishop Leo Cushley said the motion “effectively removes from the Church the ability to influence the running and direction of our Catholic schools” adding that it also “casts into serious doubt the commitment of some of our elected representatives to the future of Catholic schools.”
It is not known how much support the proposal has on the Edinburgh City Council: The Green Party has 8 seats on the 63-member body. However, Barbara Coupar of the Scottish Catholic Education Service told the Scottish Catholic Observer “there is a long-term Green Party policy to remove Catholic schools from the education system.”
However, the Observer said it expects the 6 Liberal Democrat members on the council to support the Greens.
In addition, there are 17 Conservative, 17 SNP, 11 Labour, and four Independents. The leadership is run by the SNP and Labour parties.
The leadership of the 17-member Conservative Party delegation said they are likely to vote against the proposal.
“I am really concerned that this sudden desire to remove voting rights from religious representatives is a pretext for removing them from committee altogether,” said Councilor Jason Rust, the Conservative group chairman.
“Those advocating the scrapping of voting rights need to be honest about their ultimate intent. The approach being taken seems to be an outright attack on choice and can only be a bad thing for education in the city,” Rust told the Edinburgh Evening News.
“The Labour group are going to argue that this entire debate be taken offline in order to invite Faith groups and those of no faith to hold discussions with the council and engage with each other in order to ease tensions,” said Scott Arthur, a Labour member of the city council.
“In some quarters the debate has been quite sour, and the Catholic faith has been characterized in such a way that isn’t actually fair. It is also damaging that so much of this debate has been played out within the media and for that reason we believe the council has to press pause on this issue,” Arthur told the Scottish Catholic Observer.
Eileen Rafferty, the religious education adviser to schools for the archdiocese, said that it is “only reasonable that Catholic reps vote when it comes to decisions affecting Catholic education and Catholic schools,” and pointed out the “vast majority” of Catholic representatives on the education boards were not clergy, but “parents and/or educationalists with rich experience in Catholic education.”
“It is their voice that is determinedly silenced by this proposal,” Rafferty said.
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