Parents, Pride and schools: what does the law have to say?

(Photo: Pexels/YlaniteKloppens)

Whatever their view on LGBT matters, many parents might be concerned about reports of a Christian mother, Izzy Montague, allegedly being victimised for expressing discomfort when her son was forced to participate in a "Gay Pride parade" at his primary school.

Mrs Montague is now taking legal action against the school, with the support of Christian Concern. It is worth noting that as is often the case, the dispute involved is more complicated than headlines and soundbites might

School authorities have stated that the "Proud to be Me" event was an opportunity for all pupils to express what made them proud of themselves and their families, and was part of their wider teaching on equality, in the same way as projects on black history month or disability.

Nevertheless, families may still be left wondering where the law draws the line. What rights do parents have if teaching on gender or sexuality goes against their religious beliefs? Furthermore, if school policies make them uncomfortable, will they be protected from discrimination if they voice their worries?

When it comes to religious or sex education, parents currently have specific statutory rights to withdraw their children if they so wish. Problems arise however when issues come up in the course of other lessons, as the position here is much more complicated.

As a starting point, parents and children alike have a human right under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, not just to hold beliefs, but to live them out in practical terms. The freedom to manifest beliefs is not absolute, and it may be limited for a good reason, but only to such an extent as is necessary to satisfy whatever objective is cited. So, if parents were to experience negative treatment simply for questioning the content and style of teaching about LGBT matters, the law would undoubtedly step in to protect them. No school is going to successfully argue that it is justifiable to shut down polite concerns or respectful debate.

However, it is important to acknowledge the flip side of the coin. In a public education system, it is simply not viable for parents to demand a la carte schooling. The resources are not available for schools to offer alternative provision for every topic or activity which some parents might find problematic. What is reasonable for the school to do to accommodate religious beliefs is going to depend upon the circumstances. For instance, parents might perhaps request that a particular child did not bring home a Harry Potter novel to write a book report on, if all pupils were being allowed to pick a book from the school library. In contrast, demanding that a whole class project on the Hobbit be cancelled, or special alternative English lessons be provided for families with an objection to stories about magic, might reasonably be refused.

Furthermore, where teaching on equality is concerned, there are also difficult questions about where the boundaries lie. At the extreme end of the spectrum, very few people would wish to enable parents was sincere racist beliefs to be allowed to object to teaching on right of all human beings to equal dignity, regardless of skin colour or culture. Simply signing a blank cheque to parents in relation to freedom of belief is not a viable option in public schools.

In summary, religious needs must be respected according to law, but this does not give parents an absolute right to object to everything they might regard as difficult, including on LGBT matters. Discriminating against parents for expressing concerns however, is very unlikely to be tolerated by the courts.

Helen Hall is a lecturer at Nottingham Law School (part of Nottingham Trent University) and an Anglican priest, with an interest in law and religion, family law and human rights