Leave homophobia to Speaker's Corner: don't teach it in schools

Should faith schools criticise homosexuality? No, says Tom Copley.

During the Equal Marriage debate we heard much from opponents of equality about how dreadful it would be for teachers to have to tell pupils that same-sex marriage was as equal and valid as straight marriage.  Much was made of the need to protect the religious beliefs of teachers over and above the rights of same-sex couples to marry the person that they love.

Now Neil Davenport, a teacher at a north London school, has asked in an article why it is that faith schools should not be allowed to criticise homosexuality.  This is in response to research from the British Humanist Association which has found that 46 schools had Section 28 type provisions in their SRE policies banning the “promotion” of homosexuality.

I am a passionate supporter of freedom of speech and expression.  But freedom of speech does not mean freedom for a teacher to express any opinion whatsoever to pupils within a classroom.  Surely no one, including those who support Mr Davenport’s position, seriously believes that.

Those who believe homosexuality to be wrong are perfectly within their rights to publish unlettered diatribes on Spiked Online, or to stand on the corner of Oxford Circus with a sandwich board and a megaphone proclaiming the sinfulness of the “homosexual lifestyle”.  What they are not entitled to do is tell the children in their care that some of them are inherently flawed based upon their nature.

If you disagree with that then fine, but I suspect you may find yourself in some difficulty.  Because if you believe that schools and teachers have a right to promote a specific religious belief system then where do you turn to for protection when they start preaching ideas that victimise your own children?

The real conundrum for those like Mr Davenport who think it’s perfectly fine for teachers to express criticism of homosexuality in the name of faith is that it was not so long ago that religion was used to in the same way to justify the most appalling racism.

Until as recently as the 1960s it was the official doctrine of the Catholic Church that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, a doctrine based on one line in the Gospel of Matthew (“Let his blood be upon us and our children”).   This doctrine was responsible for centuries of anti-Semitism, and was finally repealed by the Church in 1965 (after which, of course, they returned to being infallible). 

The Mormon Church forbade the ordination of black priests until 1978 on the grounds that black men and women had inherited the Curse of Ham (the same curse which was used to justify slavery).

Would Mr Davenport have been content with either of these doctrines being taught in schools of those religions?  One hopes and assumes not.  Yet he is content for religion today to be used as an excuse for schools to criticise, and therefore victimise, their gay pupils.

Indeed, there are a plethora of verses in any religious text that can be quoted in defence of beliefs and practises that would be abhorrent to the vast majority of people, including those of faith.  So why is homophobia an exception?

If Mr Davenport had written an article asking “why can’t schools criticise black people,” he would rightly no longer be a teacher.  Yet it is still considered acceptable for teachers to demand the right to homophobia on the grounds of personal belief. 

Ultimately I would like to see an end to faith schools so that all children have the right to go to their local school regardless of the beliefs of their parents.  However, in the absence of a fully secular education system the Department for Education must make it clear to all schools that discriminating against LGBT pupils is as unacceptable as discriminating against pupils based on disability, race or gender.

Cross? Very. Photograph: Getty Images

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.