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Spanish Church fears for its freedom in education

11 December 2020

Government insists that law on schools is in need of reform


A demonstration against the new education law in Madrid, on 22 November

A demonstration against the new education law in Madrid, on 22 November

CHURCH and civil-society organisations in Spain are opposing a new education law, one of several radical initiatives by the Socialist-led government, which will downgrade religious teaching and curb the independence of Christian schools.

The 79-page draft law — known as the Celaa Law, after the Education and Professional Training Minister, Isabel Celaa — was tabled in June by the ruling Socialist Party and its coalition partner, Unidas Podemos. It was enacted on 19 November by 178 votes to 147 after a heated debate in the Congreso, the lower house of the Cortes, the Spanish parliament, and will be enforced next March if approved by the upper house, the Senado.

It bars religious classes from being listed in school reports, and introduces a citizenship course for pupils aged six and over, which will include gender equality and “affective-sexual education”.

The law devolves greater control over curricula to Spain’s 17 regions, extending the use of Catalan, Basque, and other minority languages in teaching, and gives local governments stronger representation on school councils.

Children with disabilities, currently attending special colleges, many run by the Roman Catholic Church, will be moved to ordinary state schools, while Spain’s mostly RC private, or “concertada”, schools, which educate a quarter of all pupils, will be forced to diversify their intake or lose public funds.

“This strongly interventionist law-reform restricts civic rights and freedoms, and threatens the educational plurality which is a keystone of democratic society,” said Mas Plurales, a coalition of family and teacher groups, among them Escuelas Católicas, which includes more than 2500 Roman Catholic schools.

“Through this political control of education, we are witnessing an attack on freedom of conscience and the imposition of a secularist ideology inappropriate in a non-denominational state.”

A petition against the law has attracted almost 1.9 million signatures.

The law was also condemned as “ideologically charged” by the secretary-general of Spain’s Independent Education Union, who said that its full “discouraging effects” would be felt in the school year starting in September 2021.

Francisco José del Castillo López, whose union defends freedom of choice, described the law as “an attack on the common citizen’s liberties, including the right of parents to choose where to educate their children”.

Supporters of the reform, including its architect, Ms Celaa, insist that Spain’s existing education law, passed by a centre-Right government, is old-fashioned and outdated. They say that the aim is to provide greater educational opportunities for poorer families, while improving school conditions and standards.

Protesters are planning further 14-hour demonstrations on 20 December and demanding Senate amendments.

In a November statement, the Spanish Catholic Bishops’ Conference expressed regret that the draft law had been fast-tracked during the Covid-19 pandemic, preventing “adequate participation” by parents and educators. Its own reservations, it said, had not been answered by the Education Ministry, and the Bishops “understood and supported” those who had now “mobilised to defend their rights”.

The Archbishop of Valencia, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, warned that the law was in danger of igniting “a school war with very serious consequences”.

The RC Church in Spain, nominally comprising two-thirds of the population of 47 million, is also in conflict with the government over legislation to liberalise abortion, allow state-funded euthanasia, and “recover assets improperly registered to the Church”.

The Archdeacon of Gibraltar in the diocese in Europe, the Ven. David Waller, said that the Church of England’s Spanish chaplaincies valued their “status as guests”, and would continue “working constructively” with government authorities on issues affecting local congregations.

“The diocese in Europe supports a constitutional and legal framework where there is proper minority representation in education, within a broad and diverse education system in Spain,” Archdeacon Waller said.

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