Christian teachers face legal action, warns barrister

10 June 2009

by Margaret Holness Education Correspondent

AN EMPLOYMENT lawyer has warned that teachers who hold religious beliefs could be at risk of disciplinary action if the General Teaching Council’s draft Code of Conduct and Practice is not amended before the final version is published in the autumn.

The lawyer, John Bowers QC, editor of Blackstone’s Employment Law, raises questions about the possible effects of the draft code in a legal opinion commissioned by the Christian Institute, a conservative Evangelical organisation. “The draft code of conduct risks not so much a return to the imposition of a religious test for admission to the teaching profession, but the imposition of a test of professional commitment to secu­larism,” he writes.

The opinion identifies, in par­ticular, principle four of the draft of the code, which appears to require teachers to promote a range of lifestyles, ethical positions, and reli­gious principles as having equal value, and demands that they challenge any apparent discrimination. Encour­aging teachers to “challenge” each other in this way would not be conducive to harmony, the opinion says.

Moreover, it continues, the prin­ciple could undermine social co­hesion by pitting those of different religious and ethical views against one another, and could lead to divisive disciplinary cases.

Concerns over the provisions of the code were raised by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Association of Christian Teachers, in responses to the consultation, now ended, on the code.

While there is consensus that the provisions are benevolent in inten­tion, there is concern that they could form the basis of vexatious com­plaints. The Board of Education’s response, for example, draws atten­tion to potential conflicts between teachers’ professional responsibilities and their personal faith inherent in the draft code’s requirement for teachers to promote equality and value diversity.

“As drafted, this potentially enables school leaders to expect teachers to act beyond the bounds of their con­science, particularly in relation to religious belief and behaviour, or moral and ethical issues,” the Board says. Among the churches there is widespread agreement that the terms of the code need to be defined according to specific legal norms.

Mike Judge, of the Christian Instit­ute, agrees. He envisages situations where dissent from a range of moral positions could be interpreted as discrimination. “Given recent ex­amples of Christians being disciplined in the workplace for discussing their faith, the concerns raised by this legal opinion are realistic and need to be addressed.”

Encouragement. The Shadow Education Secretary, Michael Gove, was expected to tell C of E diocesan directors of education this week that the Church would be offered an enhanced part in an expanded acade­mies programme, if the Conserva­tives win the next General Election. Mr Gove was due to address the directors at a conference in War­wickshire yesterday.

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