In the early 1980s the struggle for the freedom of parents to send their children to the school of their choice was at its height. Under the rallying call of Free or Nothing at All (Jew b’ Xejn jew Xejn), a Labour government closed Catholic schools and sent police officers at their gates to prevent entry of students, pupils, and teachers; vile tactics which attracted the opprobrium of the large majority of the population.
Today the attack is more subtle. No physical violence. No mobs parading the streets; no forces of order at the gates; the vile attack is now through apparently innocuous legislation. Parliament is currently debating in committee stage the so-called equality bills. In principle, the draft laws aim at ensuring the absence of discrimination in several sectors.
Where the bills are defective, to the point of being dangerous, is their apparent hostility to faith-based organisations and educational institutions. There is no provision for conscientious objection, but worse there is no provision for the right of Churches to run their own schools according to their own ethos.
The bills only leave so-called religious schools to freely run the teaching of religion; but as those who govern us should know, Catholic schools are not so styled because they teach religion, after all, even state schools are constitutionally obliged to do so, but because they provide a Catholic vision of the entire gamut of subjects.
Certainly, there is a Catholic vision of history, and one relating to philosophy, ethics or biology. Interfering in a Church school’s curriculum when it comes to providing a particular faith-based education in all subjects is also an infringement of the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention provides that: “The state shall respect the rights of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”
The danger of the so-called equality bills is that they declare themselves to be supreme; and any law, practices or measures which run counter to their provisions are automatically without effect.
So what would happen if the Church schools – apart from the religious lessons – teach Catholic thinking on liberty, the commencement of life in biology, the Catholic vision of the development of historical events, the definition of traditional marriage: the bills only protect such teaching in religion… not to mention the ludicrous provision that only religious symbols “of a cultural value” are immune from the provisions of the bills. This means that those symbols which, though religious, are not of cultural value, can be subjected to a plethora of legal actions by liberal lobbies who consider them as offensive to the convictions of those who do not have any religion at all.
There is no provision in these bills for the right of Churches to run their own schools according to their own ethos- Tonio Borg
The Church has not been silent as to these bills. In 2016 when the first drafts were published for consultation – most of the provisions three years later have remained the same – the Catholic Church in Malta issued a position paper endorsed by leading lay jurists such as Judge Giovanni Bonello and Prof. Kevin Aquilina, as well as other members of the Maltese intelligentia.
It stated that: “The proposed legislation will be placing a very broad responsibility on educational establishments and vocational training entities with no clear and definite boundaries of what would be legally prohibited or permitted.
“These establishments or entities shall be obliged not just to ensure that curricula and textbooks do not propagate discrimination (which is already a legal obligation with a wide scope and very general criteria to follow) but also to promote diversity and respect towards all persons regardless of whether they fall under any one or more of the protected characteristics (which is a legal obligation that is much wider and confusing by tying together the two principles of ‘promotion of diversity’ and ‘promotion of respect’).”
What then aggravates matters even further is that the Draft European Union Directive on Equality expressly states that the directive would not be applicable to how the member states may wish, among other things, to set up and manage educational institutions, the content of teaching and of educational activities and the development of curricula and it would not be applicable also “to differences of treatment based on a person’s religion or belief in respect of admission to educational institutions, the ethos of which is based on religion or belief, in accordance with national laws, traditions and practices”.
In October 2016 the Church rightly remarked in a published position paper on the matter that: “It is unfortunate that the freedom which the European Union is allowing its member states under the current Equality Directives and envisaging under the proposed Equality Treatment Directive in the implementation of the equality principle will apparently be used by the Maltese government to restrain the freedom which the Catholic Church, other Churches and other religious organisations currently have in the administration of their respective institutions.”
Where do we go from here? The opposition has tabled an amendment to this provision on equality in education. It states that the duty to provide for equality in faith-based schools “should be within the limits of their competence and ethos of such establishment or entity”.
This would ensure equality and religious freedom. It has gained the support of non-governmental organisations and religious groups – not necessarily Catholic.
The conscience of parents, teachers and administrators, even of secular schools which, though not belonging to the Church have adopted a Catholic ethos, should be awakened to this hidden threat which tries to stealthily render regimented our thinking and the education of our children. If these bills are passed as they are, we shall have only ourselves to blame if we do not raise our voices without fear and resist their unjust intrusion with the full force of our being.
Tonio Borg is former European commissioner.