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   This doctrine was responsible for centuries of anti-Semitism, and was finally repealed by the Church in 1965 (after which, of course, they returned to being infallible).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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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.