Jan
31

Teaching a “cure” to homosexuality: it’s outside the law

By Kenneth Ooi, 31 January 2012

No doubt you have already heard the allegations that a teacher at JFS showed students a website which claims that sexuality can be ‘cured’.

This story, ‘Jewish pupils taught how to ‘’cure gays’’, reported by the Jewish Chronicle on 19th January 2012, has triggered an outcry from members of the Jewish community, particularly former JFS students and social justice-focused organisations; as well as the broader community.  

The allegation - if true - is shocking.  This is particularly so when you consider the size, reputation for academic performance, and publicly-funded nature of the school.  

What happened in the JFS classroom?

According to the Jewish Chronicle article, a JFS teacher showed students in a lower sixth religious studies lesson a website from a group called Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), which promotes the notion that homosexuality can be ‘cured’ through hocus pocus non-scientific reparative therapy.  The article paraphrases the pupils and asserts that the website was presented as though it was the ‘authoritative statement of the Orthodox view.’  JFS denies this allegation, claiming that the website was presented as one of a range of viewpoints on the issue.

Some of the students are quoted in the article, and contradictions in their statements and the content of the article and its title make it ambiguous as to how the website was presented; for what purpose it was presented; and what, if any, damage was done to the young people in the classroom. 

Analysis

Irrespective of how the website was presented to the class, its content is clearly the kind of thing that homophobes and perpetrators of discrimination would seize on with glee.  What is more, it goes without saying that so-called ‘reparative/conversion’ therapy of the kind put forward by JONAH is discredited and unscientific.

So why then, was this information being presented to a classroom of impressionable students?  We all know how difficult it can be for young people to come to terms with their sexuality, particularly in the school environment where they may often face bullying and ridicule for something that is inherent and part and parcel of their identity.  

On the one hand, education is about expanding one’s way of thinking and exposing one to several different viewpoints.  On the other hand, where a viewpoint is potentially damaging to an audience; scientifically implausible; and learning about it does not seem to in any way further the students’ education, it seems obvious that it should not be presented or even alluded to.

We do not know what actually happened in the classroom and we should not jump to conclusions.  But we do know that on the face of it, referencing JONAH in a lesson to lower sixth students seems at best unwise and insensitive, and at worst, highly damaging.

Where does the law stand on this issue?

On 1 October 2010, the Equality Act 2010  (‘the Act’) replaced all existing equality legislation such as the Race Relations Act, Disability Discrimination Act and Sex Discrimination Act. The effect of the law in this context is that schools cannot unlawfully discriminate against pupils because of their sex, race, disability, religion or belief and sexual orientation. Part 6 of the Act discusses Education specifically.

This Act applies to all maintained and independent schools in England and Wales, including Academies, and maintained and non-maintained special schools. In Scotland it applies to schools managed by education authorities, independent schools and schools receiving grants under section 73(c) or (d) of the Education (Scotland) Act. So it is irrelevant that JFS is a state-funded religious school, they are still covered by the requirements of the Act. Religious status is also not a valid excuse: ‘…Schools with a religious character, like all schools, have a responsibility for the welfare of the children in their care and to adhere to curriculum guidance.’

In other words, whatever Orthodox Judaism does or does not say about homosexuality , the fact that a school is Orthodox does not make it okay for it to in any way breach the Act. And the Act clearly states that it is unlawful for a school to discriminate against a pupil or prospective pupil by treating them less favourably because of their sexual orientation.

It is important to note however that the content of the school curriculum has never been caught by discrimination law, and this Act now states explicitly that it is excluded (section 89(1)). However, the way in which a school provides education – the delivery of the curriculum – is explicitly included under section 91(2).

‘Excluding the content of the curriculum ensures that schools are free to include a full range of issues, ideas and materials in their syllabus, and to expose pupils to thoughts and ideas of all kinds, however challenging or controversial, without fear of legal challenge based on a protected characteristic. But schools will need to ensure that the way in which issues are taught does not subject individual pupils to discrimination.

Therefore, if the curriculum was delivered in a discriminatory way - and by this we mean either directly or indirectly discriminatory – then there is scope to find that the Act was breached.

In addition to the protection provided under the Equality Act 2010, there are also fundamental Human Rights that the UK has committed to. As a Member State of the Council of Europe, the UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Human Rights Act 1998, which came into effect in October 2000, enables all UK courts to protect the rights identified in the ECHR. This protection allows human rights issues to be raised domestically and processed by UK courts, and would offer an additional level of protection to discrimination were it to have taken place in this case.

As the facts come out, it will become clearer what actually happened in the JFS classroom and what its impact was. Regardless of the facts, it is fair to say that the classroom is not the space to be presenting viewpoints such as JONAH’s – it is insensitive, unscientific and entirely unnecessary.


*non statutory advice from the Department for Education. ‘ADVICE FOR SCHOOL LEADERS, SCHOOL STAFF, GOVERNING BODIES AND LOCAL AUTHORITIES’ (http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/e/equality%20act%20guidance%20december%202011.pdf)

Further readings:

Please click here to read the perspective of one of our Activist Enrichment Programme participants, Adam Davidi

Please click here to read Adam Wagner's article on Cartoon Kippah

Please click here to read the original Jewish Chronicle article that broke the story

Please click here to read more about our campaign to save the Human Rights Act