Yesterday, I came across the story of the Christian parents who are weighing up whether to sue their child’s former school over their refusal to let them withdraw their child from a gay pride event at the school. You can read about the story from a secular point of view in the Guardian. You can read from a Christian perspective on the Premier Christian Radio website. Both broadly report the story the same way.
I shared the story with my wife and she had the same initial reaction to me. Neither of us thought suing the school was a good idea. We were both of the the view that, if we felt as strongly as the couple in question evidently do about it, we might keep our child off school that day, suck up the fine and then write a letter to whomever it was appropriate explaining why we thought the sanction entirely unreasonable. But neither of us felt the appropriate response would be to sue.
Nor is the primary issue anybody’s view on homosexuality per se. Just as parents may have views on the benevolence or otherwise of that proclivity, so inevitably do teachers. Unless we are buying into the myth of neutrality (which doesn’t exist) people’s views have a habit of making themselves known, especially when one is trying to impart knowledge on a particular subject.
I remember as a trainee RE teacher trying my utmost to be a neutral as possible, which becomes utterly impossible when a) children ask, ‘what do you believe, sir?’ and b) you are teaching views that you evidently don’t hold yourself and it is abundantly clear it is so to those you are teaching. The answer was not to try and hide one’s actual views in a bid to remain neutral (as I tried in the early days) but to be honest about one’s views from the get-go whilst doing your level best to present alternative views accurately.
The issue in this particular case, then, is not the views of the teachers or the school. The school and its staff will inevitably have views on things and unless you home-school your children and actively insulate them from all views that aren’t yours, they will inevitably encounter people who think things that they don’t at some point (and that’s no terrible thing). The issue is being made to affirm views that you don’t hold and a school insisting that children will affirm such things over and against the parents. That is the problem.
Again, let’s just be clear on exactly what issue was the problem. The school insist, as per the Stonewall directives that they are inevitably forced to parrot, ‘We believe that it is important to teach children about diversity and acceptance.’ The headteacher said elsewhere, ‘Equality is a thread that goes through our curriculum… we decided to do something on anti-homophobia as part of Pride month.’ There it is. It is about unqualified acceptance. Unless you affirm that manifest excellencies of the LGBT+ agenda, you are homophobic. If -phobic, then a bully. Indeed, it is called Pride because all ought to recognise it is something necessarily to be proud of (rather than something, we are often told, just is).
Here, then, is the rub. Stonewall wish to argue that anything short of full acceptance is homophobic bullying. That means unless you affirm and approve of all LGBT+ lifestyles, you are a bigot, a phobe and, yes, a bully. The Christian, by contrast, wants to say that it is possible to be anti-bullying of all forms without necessarily affirming everything about them. In this particular case, the parents were not insisting that the event didn’t happen and nor were they seeking to encourage bullying. All they wanted was for their children not to have to affirm what they don’t believe.
Of course, we all recognise that the Christian position is entirely legitimate. None of us have to affirm all the views and practices of Islam, for example – nor do we have to attend pro-Muslim marches – in order to be clear that we don’t think Muslims should be bullied. Most people would agree that it would be entirely wrong, not to say untrue, to call me an Islamophobe because I won’t affirm my belief in Allah as the one true God and Mohammad as a prophet. I will vociferously defend my Muslim friends against all forms of bullying. I believe in their right to worship their god and practice their religion. But to insist I affirm it or else I am bullying them, everyone who isn’t a Muslim evidently agrees that is nonsense.
Now, just to put that ultra-fine point on it unless it has been missed, all Christians should be utterly opposed to bullying of any sort. No Christian should be OK with bullying people because of their sexuality or for any other reason. Christians should as much seek to stop that kind of bullying as they should seek to stop any other kind of bullying. There is no room in scripture or the Christian faith for bullying of any sort. But does it follow that unless someone affirms the righteousness of LGBT+ lifestyles – and actively promotes it as morally virtuous – they are necessarily bullying somebody? Surely we can’t think that to be true, no matter how much we may disagree with the view itself.
But there are other issues here. Are the parents right to suggest that the school is seeking to indoctrinate their children? It is difficult to conclude – being as the school are forcing the children to affirm views the parents do not hold – that it is anything other. There doesn’t seem to be any room for disagreement or discussion. That of itself is surely worrying, whatever the view being pressed upon the children happens to be.
But even if we think the view correct, the question is then whether schools or parents should have the final say over the things their children are taught. Are children in school at the behest of the parents as the final arbiters of what is in their best interests, or are they there at the behest of the state who have ceded little utilitarian units to the care of their biological utilitarian units for the purpose of developing productive members of society. Are schools there to teach children how to think or do they exist to teach children what to think, according to state orthodoxy?
Then there are practical questions to answer. Is it good for schools to encourage children not to bully others? I suspect most people would answer that positively. Is it necessary to home in on certain forms of bullying and insist on affirmation of state dogma or wiser simply to tackle the issue of bullying itself broadly while handling incidents of specific bullying among those who insist on bullying others in that particular way?
For example, I was born with a sub-mucus cleft-pallet that was not picked up until I was 8. This meant I had a fairly pronounced lisp and couldn’t pronounce certain sounds properly for most of my primary years. Coupled to this, I moved from Birkenhead with a fairly strong Merseyside drawl to South Oxfordshire with its decidedly different accent. Suffice to say, I was bullied quite a lot in school because of it. Most people would recognise that bullying was not good. The school, to be fair to them, were very good and trying to address the problem.
What they did not do, however, was roll out a series of directives across the country designed to clamp down on everyone who dared make fun of my voice. Nor, incidentally, did they bother doing that across the school. They, instead, spoke more generally about bullying in public and addressed specific incidents related to me in private. Incidentally, they did not insist that everybody now had to affirm that my voice didn’t sound stupid. It did sound funny, so they would have been on a loser anyway. I’m sure there were some who didn’t think so, but most people wouldn’t have seen it that way. No, they didn’t insist everyone who thought it funny was necessarily bullying me. They got public addressed bullying (in general) and privately dealt with specific incidents of bullying against me. It was a simple but effective strategy.
So what are we to make of the particular case before us? It doesn’t seem right that a handful of parents who don’t want their children involved in something should stop the majority from doing what the school think is valuable and whose parents either agree or don’t care either way. But, so far as I can see, that isn’t what happened in this case. The parents involved weren’t trying to stop the school or anybody else from joining in a Gay Pride event.
At the same time, it doesn’t seem right that the school can ride roughshod over the views and convictions of parents, especially where such views do not impact on any other pupils. It seems worse still that a school can insist a pupil must affirm what the parents manifestly do not believe their children should affirm. If the ruling in the Asher’s Bakery ‘Gay Cake’ case tells us anything (see here), in the words of the judgement itself, ‘nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe.’
If we are to decry bullying in all its forms, what exactly does the school call this? In the name of its anti-homophobic-bullying campaign, the school appears to have bullied these parents into forcing their children to affirm views with which they disagree and subsequently, when they raised such concerns, bullied them out of the school. Seems a touch ironic, don’t you think?