They want them to scrap an 85-year-old law that obliges councils to appoint three religious representatives to their education committees. This has enabled the Church of Scotland and Catholic Church to block moves such as possible “joint campuses” of religious and non-denominational schools, the campaigners argue.
Last week Holyrood’s public petitions committee considered a petition by Edinburgh Secular Society (ESS) to end the legal right. Colin Emerson, vice-chair of the ESS, said it “privileges” Christianity. However, churches have defended the status quo, saying their own input into decisions is often invaluable.
“This discriminates against those of minority faiths and those of no faith,” Mr Emerson said. “This surely is an untenable position, particularly with the democratic changes occurring in Scotland.”
He cited a recent case in Fort William in which votes cast by religious representatives “overturned the elected coalition’s decision” on where a new school should be located.
SNP back-bencher John Wilson said: “In some local authorities, the churches have exerted undue influence over the decisions that have been made by the local authority, particularly where there has been a decision for joint campus education provision, where church representatives have vetoed any moves in that direction.”
Deputy convenor Chic Brodie also supported the petition, which has received more than 1,700 signatures, according to the ESS. He said it was a “nonsense” the issue was only being confronted 85 years after the law was enacted.
Gary McLelland, chair of the ESS, told SecEd: “We are definitely not against religious people being on education committees per se. In fact, we often recognise their contribution. We just take issue that it is written into legislation even though some councils, such as Shetland, don’t want them.”
The Holyrood committee will contact churches and faith organisations across Scotland for more information, as well as the largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, and the Scottish Inter Faith Council.
John Finnie, an Independent MSP, has also lodged a Member’s Bill to end the church representation on committees.
However, the Catholic Church, Church of Scotland and Free Church of Scotland have all opposed the campaign.
Rev David Robertson, a Free Church minister and director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, said the ESS was failing to protect equality and diversity. “They should be encouraging Christian schools rather than campaigning to remove the last vestiges of our once proud Scottish Christian education system.”
A Church of Scotland spokesman said the Kirk representatives played a role of “service and support” that reflected its contribution to education since its vision of a school in every parish helped establish Scotland’s universal education system.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church said: “Church representatives offer an invaluable service to their local communities by contributing to discussions among elected representatives on councils.”