The Global Religious Right and its War on Relationship and Sex Education
Sian Norris explores how a libertarian and ‘family values’ narrative is being used to normalise and mainstream far-right attacks on women and minority communities
A network of groups presenting themselves as “concerned parents and educators” backed by powerful players in the global religious right, are waging war on on the teaching of LGBTIQ-inclusive relationships and sex education in schools.
This summer, they claimed a “victory” when their petition to delay the implementation of a Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum, due to the Coronavirus crisis, “bore fruit”. The curriculum was due to be made compulsory in 2020’s autumn term but schools can now delay adopting it until summer 2021.
However, the groups behind the campaign are founded and backed by powerful organisations and individuals in the Christian Right movement, including religious freedom and anti-abortion giants, designated US ‘hate groups’, and anti-abortion MPs.
Together, they frame inclusive and comprehensive RSE as an infringement on a parent’s right to manage their child’s education, and share misinformation about the curriculum’s content.
Groups such as Parent Power, Authentic RSE, 40 Days, and the School Gate Campaign provide a Trojan horse for beliefs around ‘family rights’ and so-called ‘gender ideology’ – a term used by the far and religious right to discredit the fight for reproductive and sexual rights. Their attacks on RSE help to mainstream a narrative attacking women’s and LGBTIQ rights.
They argue that RSE “sexualises” children, exposes students to the LGBT “agenda” and encourages primary age pupils to masturbate. They also accuse the curriculum of exposing children to graphic images.
But these claims are inaccurate.
The RSE curriculum specifies ‘relationships’ education for primary-aged children, with sex and relationships education introduced only at secondary schools. Primary education focuses on “teaching the fundamental building blocks and characteristics of positive relationships”, including with friends and family. For secondary school students, the focus is on giving “young people the information they need to help them develop healthy, nurturing relationships of all kinds, not just intimate relationships”. Schools can formulate their own policy, including choosing whether to teach about sex to primary students. Parents will still have a right to excuse their children from lessons, and it is up to schools at what age they introduce LGBTIQ content.
According to Mo Wiltshire, director of education and youth at the charity Stonewall, inclusive RSE “will have an enormous impact in helping young LGBT people to feel like they belong in school, and know that they are welcome. We also know that LGBT-inclusive education and support helps reduce anti-LGBT bullying across schools”.
According to research published by Stonewall in 2017, nearly half of LGBT+ pupils (45%) are bullied for being LGBT+.
The Sex Education forum believes that “all children and young people are entitled to inclusive RSE which is up-to-date and accurate about the world we live in”.
A spokesperson for the forum explained how “unfortunately, bullying and poor mental health affects LGBT+ young people at alarming rates” and that “LGBT+ inclusive RSE can contribute to tackling this, as part of a whole-school approach to tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying”.
One teacher told Byline Times that “RSE ensures students are able to make informed choices. Ignorance makes people vulnerable, and makes them doubt their rights around consent”.
But, for the anti-RSE campaigners, inclusive sex education “indoctrinates children in LGBT dogma”. At the most extreme, a video shared by the School Gate Campaign claims that “comprehensive sex education” materials are “pornography”, while ParentPower accuses LGBTIQ lessons of being “subtle and insidious”.
ParentPower was set up by a coalition of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC); Christian Concern; Christian Education Europe; and Voice for Justice UK (VFJ UK), an organisation run by Reverend Lynda Rose. The two share an address.
Rose and VFJ UK’s Robert Harris co-convened the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group, chaired by DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, which produced a report in response to the public consultation on RSE. The report called the rationale behind the curriculum “fundamentally flawed”.
Meanwhile, SPUC is the oldest anti-abortion campaign in the UK, with an annual income of circa £2 million. It has links to MPs, has made submissions to the Pro-Life All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) and has hosted the APPG’s members – Conservative Fiona Bruce and Labour’s Mary Glindon – at its conferences. In its 2019 annual report, the organisation claimed it played a “major role” in gathering anti-RSE responses to a public consultation organised by the Department for Education.
Fellow ParentPower coalition member Christian Concern shares administration with anti-abortion group CBR UK. Last year, CBR UK hit the headlines for posting graphic images outside Labour MP Stella Creasy’s office. Christian Concern is also connected to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who hosted the launch of ParentPower in Westminster.
Donaldson also attended the Westminster launch of the Values Foundation in 2018, hosted by its patron, the Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh. The Foundation is behind two anti-RSE initiatives: Authentic RSE and 40 Days. The former provides educational resources to parents concerned about the RSE curriculum, while the latter is a lobbying group. The Values Foundation told Byline Times that these campaigns are “grassroots”, not least because they receive “no Government funding”.
Through personnel and a shared address, the Values Foundation is linked to one of the most powerful far-right religious freedom organisations in the world: Alliance Defending Freedom.
The Foundation’s committee member Roger Kiska was Vice-President of Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF), a US religious freedom giant which has campaigned against women’s and LGBTIQ rights in Europe, Africa and Latin America. He is now legal counsel for Christian Concern. The Values Foundation told Byline Times that “over the past three years he has not worked with or cooperated with ADF International” and “it is not uncommon for a lawyer, like Roger Kiska, who has been working for nearly 20 years in this area to be affiliated with different organisations”.
ADF has been designated as an extremist ‘hate group’ by the human rights organisation Southern Poverty Law Centre due to their support of recriminalising sexual acts between LGBTIQ individuals, and its linking of LGBTIQ people to paedophilia.
Then there’s LoveWise, a charity promoted by both Authentic RSE and ParentPower which produces pamphlets titled ‘Staying Pure Online’ and ‘Growing Up God’s Way’, among others. Its teen-dedicated website for teenagers says that, when a woman has an abortion, her hands have “shed innocent blood” and that masturbation is “mental adultery”.
One of the trustees of LoveWise is Dr Christopher Richards, who is also listed as a trustee of the charity Foundation for Life. The latter charity runs a crisis pregnancy centre (CPC) and a satellite in the north-east of England. LoveWise and the CPC share a registered address.
Both centres promote misinformation about abortion, including that abortion can cause fertility problems; guilt, shame, grief, depression, anxiety and panic; while men can experience feelings of guilt, self-doubt and pain; and relationship problems.
The misinformation about abortion shared by Foundation for Life can be tracked back to the US anti-abortion giant Heartbeat International, which the two CPCs are affiliated to. Affiliation to Heartbeat International gives CPCs discounts on its training materials, support with web design, a retirement plan and the vague “comprehensive services” among other benefits. In January 2020, openDemocracy exposed how Heartbeat International target women with inaccurate information about abortion worldwide, including in Europe and now the UK.
Through its collaboration with Authentic RSE and its personnel links to Foundation for Life, LoveWise is therefore connected to two of the biggest anti-abortion players in the US.
‘Our Concern is Education’
The Sex Education Forum pointed out that “the majority of parents and carers are supportive of schools teaching RSE and are interested to know how the school goes about teaching the subject”.
It added: “Open communication with parents and carers about plans for RSE help to build understanding and can be an important way to deal with any misinformation”. It also noted that the new curriculum provides “a really important lever for making sure that teachers are well supported and trained” in how to deliver RSE.
But by using a Trojan horse of parental freedom and moral panic, the UK’s religious right has created a network of astroturf groups that provide cover for a far-right ‘family rights’ agenda.
Parent Power repeats the ‘Satanic’ conspiracy theory when referring to a music video about the clitoris. This is a far-right staple, spread by QAnon and repeated by extremists such as The Knights Templar movement.
The Values Foundation’s Roger Kiska gave a talk at a conference promoted by Parent Power and run by the Marriage, Sex, Culture group called ‘Roots of cultural Marxism’. The conference also featured speakers advocating conversion therapy for gay and lesbian people. LoveWise’s materials tell girls that abortion is murder and warns boys that, if they have a friend who is gay, their friend may sexually desire them.
The Values Foundation told Byline Times: “Whilst those who support LBTIQ-inclusive RSE would want to brand us as homophobic, nothing is further from the truth. Our concern is education and education only and the vast majority of TVF supporters are people of faith who love and respect each person as they present themselves.”
Parent Power and Tyneside Crisis Pregnancy Centre did not respond to a request for comment.
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