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Council members in Scotland’s Western Isles have brewed up some controversy after voting to endorse a suite of Roman Catholic teaching materials provided by the Scottish Catholic Education Service (SCES).

The vote took place after some Church of Scotland ministers lobbied against official materials from the government-backed RSHP (relationships, sexual health, & parenthood) program, claiming they ran counter to the region’s religious values.

It’s certainly true that the Western Isles is a religiously conservative region where issues like LGBTQ rights have only just begun to make inroads, says Severin Carrell, Scotland editor for The Guardian:

Once dominated by conservative and highly orthodox Presbyterian churches, including the Free Church of Scotland, the Western Isles still observes sabbatarianism, which forbids work and play on Sundays. The current council is all male… The first pride march in the Hebrides was held in 2018 in Stornoway, the largest town on the islands, where the local arts centre An Lanntair, staged an LGBT history month in 2017.

In that environment, it’s not surprising that some of the aging heterosexual white men who form the council might feel some discomfort surrounding issues of sexual health, gender identity, pornography, consent, and a host of other related issues that 21st century students may find themselves navigating.

That doesn’t make it okay to prioritize their discomfort over the students’ need — indeed, their right — to receive accurate and relevant information from their educators.

In that department, the RSHP program has solid credentials. It was created by Education Scotland in partnership with the Scottish government and independent firm TASC (Scotland) Ltd., an organization with a solid background in sexual health. Their research and resource creation projects have included LGBTQ-specific work as well as programs for the prevention of childhood sexual abuse.

By contrast, the SCES program has a completely different agenda, as evidenced by the suite of experts who make up its advisory team: specialists in Catholic religious education, every last one. (One of them was even knighted by Pope Francis.) That’s entirely appropriate to the organization’s mandate to build religious values into education policy, with emphasis on parental involvement and educator orthodoxy; they’ve clearly chosen individuals whose qualifications match their goals.

But their chosen experts aren’t likely to understand the needs of a diverse student population, much less meet those needs with equitable, accurate, and timely information.

The result is a two-part curriculum. The primary-school component, “God’s Loving Plan,” emphasizes “the Church’s vision… of Marriage as the ultimate expression of love between man and woman” as well as “respect, intimacy, modesty, and chastity” as key relationship values.

When students reach secondary school, they’re presented with “Called to Love,” an equally religion-based program that adds a bit of a pro-life twist to the previous talking points:

Christian moral teaching positively affirms all human life as precious and worthy of development. Based on the belief that all people are created in God’s image and are loved in a unique way by God, it encourages us to appreciate the value of our lives, to develop self-respect and to live life to the full, as God intended.

Setting aside the emphasis on exclusive opposite-sex marriages as the only valid form of sexual relationship, the rhetoric of these twin curricula would still be intensely inappropriate outside of a strictly parochial setting. Education and religious indoctrination are two different things. Schools should not be engaging in the latter by presenting a curriculum that claims to know the nature and intentions of any deity.

Add in the anti-LGBTQ prejudice, and you’ve got a good case for saying it really isn’t worth teaching anywhere.

But it appears that the prejudice is the point, at least for those claiming to speak for the Church of Scotland. Reverend Hugh Stewart, a minister from the Isle of Lewis who pushed for the “Called to Love” curriculum, was clear that his objection to the RSHP materials centered around its support for acts and people his religion views as immoral:

It is one thing for a child or young person to be educated and objectively informed; it is another to require them to ’embrace,’ which infers a tacit support for, a view that contradicts their own morality or faith position.

As an example of the sort of teaching he found objectionable, he alleged that RSHP lessons would involve teaching children as young as three about human genitalia, in contrast to SCES materials’ assertion that kids can’t possibly need that information until age ten at the earliest.

Councillor Angus McCormack, the council’s education convenor, claimed to be unconcerned by the vote and its outcome:

All these councillors are doing [is] expressing an opinion which is driven by their own personal beliefs… I think that teachers will bring a realistic curriculum to their children and make sure that they’ve all the information that they need to live in our present-day world.

But for those raised with the LGBTQ-exclusionary curricula of the past, it’s hard to be so sanguine. The need for comprehensive and up-to-date sex education that normalizes diversity and fosters acceptance and respect — real respect, not the “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind — is clear, and LGBTQ activists fear that the council’s decision will prevent progressive educators from teaching valuable content to students who need support and information, not dogma and superstition.

(Image via Shutterstock)