Throughout this week and the next, the Birmingham High Court will consider the temporary injunction currently in place that creates an exclusion zone against protests at Anderton Primary School. The protests have raised emotions and tensions to a fever pitch between teachers, parents, religious and LGBTQI communities. It centers on the content of school curriculum, particularly on the teaching of LGBTQI relationships in sex and relationship education.
Drawing on the language of human rights—freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of religion and belief—protesters object to including information on diverse sexuality in the classroom. The application of human rights, however, is not so simple. Human rights do not automatically justify the protests or the removal of LGBTQI content from the curriculum. This blog post will carefully consider the role of human rights in sex education. It argues that the constellation and full application of rights that arise from these protests both mandates the inclusion information of LGBTQI relationships in sex education and potentially the continuation of the exclusion zone around the primary school.
Sex education is a necessary positive measure to protect and fulfil the human rights of children and adolescents. Accurate, evidence-based knowledge on contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, the laws of sexual consent, gender-based violence and cyber-safety are crucial measures to protect the right to life and health of young people. Sex and intimate relationships can replicate heteronormative, patriarchal norms and patterns and be a source of shame. Sex education can be a powerful tool to dismantle these negative cultural norms and transform gender relations, valorise sexual diversity and protect the right to equality for all people.
On the other side of the scales, conservative groups argue that their right to religious freedom and belief means they can insulate their children from human rights-based sex education. The protesters outside the school can also ground their actions in the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Human rights provide a framework to balance these competing claims.
Rights can be limited when under certain conditions, including to protect the safety and rights of others. Sex education fulfils human rights, especially the right to equality of vulnerable groups. It is the weight of the human rights at stake that explains why sex education is a necessary and justiﬁes the limitation of the freedom of religion and belief. The European Court of Human Rights also dismissed religious challenges to comprehensive, human rights-based sex education holding that as long as the school did not criticise religious beliefs, the sex education programme did not violate the human rights of religious parents and children. Thus, the underlying subject of the protest is unlikely to be successful. As a matter of human rights, LGBTQI content must be included in sex education. Here it is important to remember the guidance from the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief: has that the right to religious freedom ‘does not guarantee the right not to be confronted with opinions that are opposed to one’s convictions.’
As to the legality of the exclusion zone, again, the rights underpinning to protest can also be limited. To ensure the security, safety and the rights of teachers and students, the ability to protest at the school and make abusive comments on social media about the teachers can be limited. In the press, the protesters have denied using intimidating tactics. The outcome of the July hearing will, thus, depend greatly on the evidence at trial.
The lack of human rights-based sex education can have a devastating effect on the lives of individuals and perpetuate cycles of sexual orientation disadvantage. Exclusion zones that protect comprehensive sex education can be a justifiable limitation of human rights. The equality of LGBTQI people means it is imperative that sex education empower individuals and challenge discriminatory cultural norms and attitudes.