More than 12 years after the bitter Section 28 controversy over how homosexuality should be treated in Scotland’s classrooms, new battle lines are being redrawn as MSPs prepare to legalise gay weddings.
The Equality Network, the charity campaigning for gay rights, is concerned that the new law will be hijacked by religious groups, pressure groups and politicians who believe homosexuality is wrong and want to influence how it is dealt with in the classroom.
Last year, the Scottish Government vowed to press ahead with plans to legalise same-sex marriage after overseeing a consultation on the principle of the new Bill. A second consultation, looking at the fine detail of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill and its implications in areas such as education, is currently under way.
But Equality Network campaigners have been alarmed by some contributions to the debate, which, they claim, echo 1988 Section 28 legislation that forbade the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools or teaching that it was an acceptable family relationship.
The Section 28 clause was repealed in Scotland in 2000 as one of the first acts of the Labour-led administration, which came to power following the birth of devolution in 1999.
Its repeal came despite a deeply divisive debate that saw the Stagecoach millionaire and SNP donor Brian Souter bankroll a “Keep the Clause” campaign to the tune of £1 million.
In its consultation response this month, Scotland for Marriage, a pressure group backed by the Catholic Church and evangelical groups, has said it is “concerned that children will be taught in school sexual health education that marriage can be between two people of the same sex”.
The group says same-sex marriage should be dealt with as a controversial issue like abortion, and that parents should have the right to withdraw children from lessons on the subject.
A briefing on the same-sex marriage consultation by CARE for Scotland, an organisation supporting Scottish Christians, said: “Concerns have been expressed that should so-called same-sex marriage be introduced it is likely that children will taught in school that marriage can be between two people of the same sex… To raise a generation of children with such a subjective view of marriage is a huge social experiment which is likely to result in severely detrimental consequences… Arguably, it may even increase the occurrence of homosexual relationships.”
The briefing added: “The negative consequences for society of rejecting the Christian model as a context within which to raise children are only likely to increase by redefining marriage in the way proposed by the Scottish Government.”
Yesterday, Tom French, Policy Co-ordinator for the Equality Network, said: “We are deeply concerned that opponents of same-sex marriage are attempting to reintroduce Section 28-style discrimination back into Scotland’s schools. This would roll back equality and have a damaging effect on young people and the wider education system. “We firmly believe that school should be a welcoming environment for all young people regardless of their sexual orientation or family situation. Schools have a duty of care to their pupils and it would be wrong to allow discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the education system.”
He added: “We are concerned that opponents of same-sex marriage are attempting to reintroduce Section 28 by stealth.”
The Equality Network noted that last month Souter appeared on the BBC’s Question Time discussion programme and asked what would be taught in schools on gay marriage. Souter declined to comment last night.
On the same programme, the SNP MSP Humza Yousaf said the legislation raised issues about the protection of teachers who disagreed with same-sex marriage.
Last night, Yousaf said of the schools issue: “People have their concerns and our duty and our role is to see how we can address those and that is the whole point of the consultation that is taking place.”
Despite his strong religious beliefs, Yousaf – a Muslim – has said he has no objection to gay weddings if religious freedom is observed.
Kristina Woolnough, of the National Parents Forum of Scotland, said: “Most parents would expect that the personal and social aspects of education that pupils have in school reflects equality legislation, reflects differences and supports young people as they grow and develop.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government is introducing same-sex marriage in Scotland because it is the right thing to do, and is striving to create a Scotland that is free, tolerant and fair.”