Requiring Religious Leaders to Have a Seat on Scottish School Boards Creates Problems for Both Science Education and Religion

It certainly isn't controversial to assert that one of the responsibilities of society is to educate children. Indeed, article IX of the constitution of my home state of Washington begins with the following: "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex."

It shouldn't be any more controversial to assert that those in charge of making educational decisions for a community be elected by members of that community and/or have some expertise in educational matters. Unfortunately, ever since 1929, this basic principle has been legislatively inoperative in Scotland.

By law each of Scotland's 32 local education committees, the equivalent of local school boards in the United States, must have one member appointed by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and yet another chosen by members of the local council to reflect local religious beliefs. I'm pleased to report that a petition has been submitted to the Scottish Parliament to change the law and eliminate this requirement.

As the petition explains, the education committees have significant power over local educational issues:

Education Committees control a larger part of Council budgets than any other Committee. They are the ultimate employers of School Principals and teachers, as well as being represented on senior teacher selection panels. They decide on the opening and closing of schools, and whether a school should be denominational or non-denominational, and control local practice in such matters as religious education, religious observance, and instruction about sex in human relationships.

There are many reasons why a law of this sort is inappropriate and undemocratic, and you can read most of them in the petition, but rather than focusing on those aspects of the situation, I want to address the potential for serious problems associated with science education. As we have seen in far too many instances, some with deeply held fundamentalist beliefs, beliefs that are well out of both the religious and secular mainstream of society, feel compelled to promote their narrow perspective rather than the consensus of the scientific community. These extreme views are almost always at odds with the religious beliefs that are held just as deeply by the vast majority of the religious community.

What are some of these views? We need to look no further than the creationist organization Answers in Genesis to find that the Earth was created approximately 6,000 years ago, that all of Earth's geology and biogeography must be explained by a world-wide flood that occurred approximately 4,350 years ago, and that humans and dinosaurs comfortably coexisted prior to that flood. Promoting these ideas in science classrooms and laboratories obviously does great damage to science education, but it is equally troubling from a religious perspective.

Given who some of the religious appointees to local education committees have been, these are not idle concerns. One example will make my case. Dr. Nagy Iskander has been a long-time member of the South Lanarkshire Education Committee, appointed via the current law. Ken Ham, the founder and head of Answers in Genesis, described him as follows: "Dr. Iskander is a good friend of AiG and one of Europe's most active creationists." That's not surprising given that Dr. Iskander can be heard on an Answers in Genesis webpage proclaiming that the literal truth of Genesis is foundational to Christianity and that "the cause of the Gospel will be won or lost in the classroom." He can also be found on another of their pages asserting that he is "convinced that creation material based on a young-earth perspective is essential for transforming the church in the Arabic-speaking world."

I hasten to add that the call for the Scottish Parliament to amend the law should not, in any way, be seen as being anti-religious. As I recently explained in a letter I wrote to the Scottish Parliament,

there is absolutely nothing wrong with any particular religious leader serving on a Local Authority Education Committee, if that is the will of the community. As citizens, religious leaders should have all the rights that every other member of the community has. But mandating seats on the Committees for religious leaders simply because of their religious beliefs is unfair and runs the risk of severely compromising the very nature of the education the Local Committees were established to protect.

The Clergy Letter Project
, the organization for which I serve as the Executive Director, consists of more than 15,000 members of the clergy who have come together to clarify issues of just this sort. Members believe that scientific knowledge does not conflict with their religious faith. And, equally important, they believe that it is inappropriate to promote any particular religion in a state-sponsored school. The Clergy Letter Project, quite obviously, cannot be construed as having an anti-religious agenda.

You have until 16 November 2016 to share your opinion with members of the Scottish Parliament. If you agree that the situation is problematic, I encourage you to do so, particularly if you are a citizen of Scotland.