The British Humanist Association (BHA) has added its voice to teachers' unions and some Christians warning against the possibility of segregation and sectarianism resulting from the UK government's new Schools White Paper.
In its evidence to the Education and Skills Select Committee, the BHA advised against the 'creeping gift of the education system to religious interests'. Teaching unions expressed the same concerns in their own evidence.
Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association explained: 'Trusts will be an easy route for religious sponsors to take over community schools - and many sponsors (as the academies programme has already shown) will be fundamentalists with religious axes to grind.'
She added that, under the proposals in the White Paper, 'a small number of religious parents who organize a campaign will be able to command public resources to develop proposals for new religious schools, Local Education Authorities will be under pressure to commission such schools when proposed, and the Schools Commissioner will be mandated to assist.'
The Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and representatives of Jewish, Muslim and other faith communities have backed the further development of faith-based schools through the White Paper. But other Christians and those of minority religious traditions question or oppose them.
Ms Stinson stresses that many humanists are willing to work positively with faith groups in public life, but that the British Humanist Association opposes special privileges for religious communities - or giving them power over those who hold different convictions.
She declared last week: 'All opinion polls show massive resistance - from 64% to 96% - against religious schools and it is time the government brought its policy into line with the wishes of the public.'
The lower figure comes from an ICM poll. The higher one derives from a survey carried out by the New Statesman magazine, which some observers say exaggerates the balance of UK opinion.
Commented Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK Christian think tank, Ekklesia: 'No doubt representatives of some established religious communities will want to argue that properly regulated faith-based schools can contribute towards a plural mix of educational opportunities - but the BHA has put forward a strong case against this view, and Christians who believe that the Christendom mentality harms rather than helps healthy religion are also extremely skeptical.'
Ekklesia has argued a theological case for the disestablishment of the Church of England, an end to a privileged role for religion in public education, removing unelected Episcopal favour in the second chamber, repealing antiquated blasphemy laws, and removing tax advantages and anti-discrimination exemptions from public religious bodies.
In God and the politicians the think-tank says: '[Our challenge] is first and foremost to the churches. Are our Christian communities willing and able, on the basis of the distinctive vocation of the Gospel, to disavow the use of money, power and privilege for their own sectional advantage?'
The British Humanist Association is the largest organization in the UK campaigning for an end to the expansion of faith schools and for the assimilation of those that currently exist into a system of inclusive and accommodating community schools.
In November 2005 BHA took part in, and helped to organize, a series of debates across the country, with secular and religious participants, including Christians and Muslims. In Farnham, the Rev Dick Wolff was one of those arguing against faith-based schools in the state system.
The BHA's response to the Schools White Paper can be read here [*.PDF file].
[Also on Ekklesia: (BHA-related stories) Leading humanist calls for renewed cooperation with believers; Questions raised over St Paul's service for 7/7 victims; Black churches oppose religious hatred bill; Government plans reopen debate on faith schools; (faith schools) Government plans reopen debate on faith schools; Leading Scottish Christian voices opposition to faith schools; Faith and politics controversy ahead of BBC2 documentary; Faithworks urges measures to reduce fear of faith]