Edinburgh Secular Society challenges undemocratic religious representatives

Edinburgh Secular Society Vice-chair Colin Emerson has submitted a petition to The Scottish Parliament to ask it to instruct The Scottish Government to bring forward legislation to remove the legislation which places a requirement on the all 32 local authorities in Scotland to appoint three ‘religious representatives’ to their education committees.

Earlier this year, Edinburgh Secular Society took the unprecedented decision to publish details of all of Scotland’s 96 unelected, unaccountable and undemocratic religious representatives. You can view the details here.

There are several reasons why Edinburgh Secular Society is calling for the removal of this centuries-old religious privilege.

Changing religious demographics

The religious demographics of Scotland have changed dramatically since 1872, when the provision for religious representatives was first created.  In that year, the state took control over education provision from the Church of Scotland, with the Catholic Church retaining a controlling influence over its own ‘denominational schools’.

Religious affiliation among the Scottish population has changed significantly since then. The Scottish 2011 census shows that, in respect of religious belief, non-believers are the largest group, with more than those who belong to the Church of Scotland.

There are two ways to approach this issue of the shifting demographics of Scottish society: we can choose to alter the make-up of religious representatives along the lines of current religious demographics in society or we can simply remove the requirement entirely.

The first option would present many problems. Who would represent the views of the sizable proportion of non-religious people in society? Given the rise of minority faith groups in Scotland, such as Muslims, how would we ensure a system of religious representation which captures the sentiments of all involved? There are many subtle differences even within religious denominations, so it’s not even clear that a representative from, say, the Catholic Church in Scotland could completely represent the views of most Catholics.

Therefore, it seems clear that the most progressive and coherent option is to remove the requirement to appoint religious representatives. If a local electorate wish their religious views to be represented in the local authority, then they should vote for a candidate who represents their views, or if no such candidate exists, they could consider standing for election themselves.

Democracy, a matter of principle

The current legislation places a requirement on local authorities to appoint religious representatives willy-nilly. In the case of the Roman Catholic and Church of Scotland representatives, neither the local electorate nor the elected members have any say on who is appointed to these positions.

Both the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Parliamentary Office have clear policies to lobby The Scottish Government on behalf of their members. Edinburgh Secular Society recognises their right to represent the views of their institutions and their members.  However, we object to the privileged platform afforded to these churches by law.

When Edinburgh Secular Society or any other secular lobby group gives evidence to elected representatives, it does so as an assembly of citizens. However, due to historical privilege, the churches are able to take advantage of speaking from within the decision making structures on a par with the elected representatives.

Edinburgh Secular Society believes that democracy in Scotland is better served from a basis of equality of belief and opportunity.

Religious privilege is an insult to non-Christians

Edinburgh Secular Society recognises the historic role that religious institutions, particularly Christian ones, have played in the development of the state education system in Scotland.  However, the argument put forward by Rev Sally Foster-Fulton of the Church of Scotland, that it’s religious representatives are “…hardworking and dedicated people who put in long hours and bring a breadth of experience and knowledge of community and educational life which helps local authority committees come to decisions[1]”, is actually an insult to the non-religious or those of other faiths. It may well be the case that the Church of Scotland’s unelected religious representatives are as Foster-Fulton describes, but so too are many other denominations of Christians, and other religious groups, as well as humanists and atheists.  The fact that the Church of Scotland is statutorily obliged to appoint at least 32 representatives sends the message that their guidance or advice is somehow more valuable than that of others.

Edinburgh Secular Society calls for the end of this religious privilege because it believes that this message is a totally inappropriate one for The Scottish Government to send

Edinburgh Secular Society calls on all the citizens of Scotland who value democracy to support this petition.


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-23349729

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