Despite the absence of a codified constitution in the UK that explicitly separates religion from the state, it would nonetheless be heartening to see the Education Secretary take a more objective and inclusive approach to education, especially when the sexual health of young people hangs in the balance.
As the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. draws to a close, it is worth keeping in mind not only the efforts being made in the struggle against the disease but also the obstacles that have attempted to undermine these efforts. In a sense, little has changed since 2003 when the Catholic Church was discouraging people across the world from using condoms as a means of protection against HIV, with patent disregard for the scientific evidence against their claim that the infection could pass through the contraceptives.
In 2010, the Vatican was forced to vociferously reemphasise the Church’s opposition to contraception after the Pope suggested that condoms may be of benefit to male prostitutes, an offer of compromise hardly worthy of the serious conversation being had by medical professionals, scientists and coordinators about how best to tackle the epidemic. This case, in addition to Catholic opposition to the Affordable Care Act in the United States, suggests that healthcare would benefit from a secular outlook that prioritises wellbeing and safety over theological interests. It could be argued, however, that education is in need of a similar non-religious framework in order for these priorities to be realised.
Last week, it emerged that some schools in England have been not only discouraging but also actively preventing students from receiving important cervical cancer vaccinations as a direct consequence of religious belief. Explaining its decision to withhold vaccines from its students, one school said that its ‘pupils follow strict Christian principles, marry within their own community and do not practice sex outside marriage’. The news prompted criticism from numerous commentators, as well as calls for calm from others, but the debate itself should be seen as a symptom of a wider conflict inherent in the relationship between religion and education.
This conflict is perhaps best illustrated by the establishment of the Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) Council in May this year. The Council seeks to ‘promote the best possible sex and relationship education both at home and at school’ and is comprised of seven founding organisations, all of which have been found to support positions associated with the Christian right-wing and several of which have declared religious intent outright. Last week, one of the Council’s member organisations, Lovewise, was found to have given presentations containing misinformation to schoolchildren in order to discourage abortion, prompting condemnation from Labour MP Dianne Abbott.
The values of the Council in general and the actions of Lovewise in particular demonstrate the irreconcilable differences between elements of religious tradition and education, especially as it relates to sexual health. It may be true that, as the director of Lovewise Dr Chris Richards has said in defence of his organisation, young people ‘have a right to hear and discuss what might be positive about keeping sex for marriage and keeping their unborn child’, but schools have a more important obligation to deliver evidence and fact-based education to their students.
This can often mean dialogue and debate, but only in a secular environment can credible and objective conclusions be reached without the risk of unfairly promoting the beliefs of one faith above human wellbeing. Young people deserve to be educated in an environment that promotes multiple voices and a variety of ideas, but they also deserve a structure of learning that values the search for truth above all else. It would be a mistake to forgo that structure in order to facilitate the interests of particular religious traditions.
It is worth noting that the SRE Council has received the personal support of the Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has said, ‘I look forward to working with you all in ensuring that the interests of families are put at the heart of our policies’. Despite the absence of a codified constitution in the UK that explicitly separates religion from the state, it would nonetheless be heartening to see the Education Secretary take a more objective and inclusive approach to education, especially when the sexual health of young people hangs in the balance.