Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, pictured May 21, 2015. | Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.
An English bishop has said that a proposed anti-discrimination law could force an island’s Catholic schools to close.
In a letter dated Oct. 23, Bishop Philip Egan said that the new policy “puts all Catholic schools in Guernsey under threat.”
The island in the English Channel, which has a population of 63,000 people, is a self-governing British crown dependency and not part of the United Kingdom.
Egan, head of the Diocese of Portsmouth, which includes the Channel Islands, said that the policy would prevent Catholic schools from requiring that their principals are Catholic.
The architects of the policy — known as the “Discrimination Ordinance: Grounds of (i) Religion or Belief and (ii) Sexual Orientation” — say it aims to ensure that job applicants are protected from discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, or sexual orientation.
The policy, which would only apply to “senior leadership positions in religious/faith schools” five years after its introduction, is proposed by the employment and social security committee of the States of Guernsey, the island’s parliament, which will vote on the measure on Nov. 2.
“While I fully support the wider intention of addressing the discrimination of minority groups, I believe this policy would violate its own principles of anti-discrimination by not recognizing our rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Egan wrote.
“I am deeply disappointed that the policy letter also contains several statements of a discriminatory tone towards the Catholic community and Catholic education, which lack any credible evidence base.”
“In particular, it states that schools of a religious character damage social cohesion, lead to ethnic and socio-economic selection and do not provide a broad and balanced education.”
“This claim is apparently informed by the Humanist UK society, who, unlike the Catholic Church, are not education providers in Guernsey. There is no evidence to substantiate this claim; in fact the opposite is true.”
The 65-year-old bishop urged Catholics to write to their local representatives, urging them to support an amendment tabled by members of the education, culture, and sport committee.
A press release issued by Portsmouth diocese said that the bishop’s representatives met with members of the employment and social security committee on Oct. 12 to resolve the dispute, but “the committee did not demonstrate openness to negotiation.”
“We are proud of our schools and reflect that the Catholic Church has provided free education in Guernsey with the support of the state for over 150 years,” Egan said.
“The dedication and love shown by parishioners, religious sisters, brothers, and teachers in past decades have provided a firm foundation for the flourishing vibrant schools we see today. Our schools continue to reflect significant ethnic diversity, meeting the needs of sizeable minority groups across the island.”
“Indeed, the Catholic schools of Guernsey are all rated either good, very good or excellent in accordance with the state’s or the Independent Schools Inspectorate’s own criteria for a broad and balanced education and the best educational outcomes are achieved which contribute to the prosperity of the island as a whole.”
In a letter dated Oct. 12, Peter Ferbrache, Guernsey’s Chief Minister, urged deputies “to consider carefully the unintended consequences” of approving the anti-discrimination policy in its current form.
He raised the possibility of a legal challenge on human rights grounds.
“On this occasion, the policy and resources committee is of the view that a reasonable balance in terms of interference with human rights has not been achieved and there are numerous disadvantages to the proposals, some of which may have long-term and unintended negative consequences for the island,” he wrote.
Liam McKenna, an elected deputy, opposed the proposed policy, saying that it could “unintentionally close all three Catholic schools in Guernsey.”
“If these schools were to close, we would have over 1,000 displaced students,” he wrote.
“Millions of pounds would potentially have to be spent on infrastructure to accommodate these schoolchildren in an argument that should never have come about and has caused great embarrassment to our community.”
He added: “The Catholic Church could go into legal challenge and litigation against the States of Guernsey on human rights grounds, a situation I am told they are desperate to avoid as they have enjoyed a peaceful and harmonious relationship for over 150 years.”
Heather Hauschild, Portsmouth diocese’s chief operating officer, said: “We, as the Catholic community, support fully the broad intentions to combat discrimination and we look forward to collaborating with the States of Guernsey in a meaningful way to ensure all minority groups, including the Catholic community and those they serve, are not discriminated against.”
Concluding his letter, Bishop Egan wrote: “As the Catholic community of Guernsey, I am asking you to raise your democratic voice to protect religious freedom and prevent a law that, far from ending discrimination, would actively discriminate against Catholics and other religious groups.”