A Conservative Assembly Member for South Wales recently alleged that the local authorities were denying children their religious freedom by not providing them with free transportation to faith schools. Suzy Davies made her point at a debate over Swansea City Council’s decision to stop subsidized transport to six of its faith schools. The National Secular Society was prompt to reject her argument, calling it a cynical attempt at using human rights instruments to demand special privileges for Christians.
Earlier, Swansea City and County Council offered free transportation to students on a discretionary basis irrespective of whether the schools were near or far. However, in the first week of August, councilors voted by 34 to 17 to offer free transportation to only those faith schools where students cannot access a nearer mainstream school.
During a heated debate in the council chamber, Leader of the opposition Chris Holley said, “In the 30 years I have been a councilor I have never had to get up and defend my faith before. We are picking on a small minority. I can assure you that Swansea's Roman Catholic community will remember what you attacked today.”
However, cabinet member for learning and skills Will Evans said that the move was intended to attack parental choices.
“The opportunity for choice for parents is quite clear, they choose any school in Swansea. We have been treating faith schools more favourably over the years by providing free transport,” he said.
Davies brought up the matter in the Welsh Assembly, arguing that many religious families wish for their children to be educated at faith schools. She challenged transport minister Edwina Hart on grounds of the Welsh legislation violating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – an agreement that requires signatories to make sure religious freedom is not restricted unless absolutely necessary.
National Secular Society campaigns manager Stephen Evans said, “Not providing free buses to faith schools in no way interferes with anyone's right to manifest a religion. Parents are free to raise their children as they wish and their different religious and philosophical convictions should be respected in all schools. But, states are under no obligation to provide faith schools, so the idea that not funding transport to them breaches anyone's rights is simply wrong.... Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, cited by Suzy Davies, requires states to respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Rather than separating children into faith schools, the best way to respect this is to ensure children are educated in schools that teach about religion and belief, including non-belief, in an objective and pluralistic manner.”
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