Secularists are proposing to make religious observance in schools an opt-in activity, as a petition on the issue comes before a Holyrood committee.
Lodged by parent Mark Gordon and Secular Scotland, the petition calls for the Scottish Government to change the law so that religious observance, such as attending a church service or religious assembly, becomes an opt-in choice rather than the current opt-out basis.
Mr Gordon said research suggests that “only 20% of parents say the school informed them of their opt-out rights”, and arrangements are no longer appropriate given the current religious landscape in Scotland.
“I have consulted numerous school handbooks and discovered that they often do not even mention the right to opt out,” he wrote in the petition.
“A few parents do remove their children from religious observance. Most, however, do not because they are unaware of their rights, they feel that this would be ‘rocking the boat’ or because they fear that their child will be singled out.
“The law does mandate that ‘in no circumstances should a child be disadvantaged as a result of withdrawing from religious observance’ and should be given a ‘suitable worthwhile alternative activity’.
“In my experience and that of many other parents, this is most certainly not the case. My daughter is made to sit in the school office with paper and pencils to draw with and is looked after by the school secretary since there are usually no teaching staff available.
“It seems to me that a far more sensible and fairer approach could be to turn the situation around so that the default position was opted-out. Parents would then be asked by individual schools whether they wanted their child to attend a particular service, have a minister visit to conduct a service or where material specific to (and promoting of) faith would arise. This is consistent with the duty of care that schools should rightly exercise.”
The Church of Scotland has responded with a letter to the Public Petitions Committee which will consider the issue.
The Church wrote that “religious observance is no longer tied to any one faith community’s creed or liturgical calendar. Nor should it be. It is instead focused on the beliefs and values that shape and are shaped by each school community”.
It added: “To argue that it should be opt-in rather than opt-out would be to diminish the educational experience for young people in the same way as to remove personal social development would affect severely the capacity of a school to deliver on the four capacities as its primary goal.”