SCOTLAND must ditch a “historical hangover” of allowing unelected church representatives to vote on education matters, campaigners have insisted.

A 50-year-old law obliges every council in the country to appoint three religious representatives to their education committees – one from the Church of Scotland, Catholic church and one other denomination in the area.

Although it has never been laid out in legislation that these representatives must have a vote, they still have voting rights in 27 of Scotland’s local authorities.

Only three councils in recent years – Perth and Kinross, Orkney and Highland – have actively removed these voting rights, while the Scottish Borders and Moray have had a long-standing agreement that church representatives do not vote.

The Humanist Society Scotland has insisted it is now time to move on and get rid of this system which it believes no longer makes sense in today’s society.

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Not only do the group believe the system is undemocratic -  given the electorate has no say in who the religious representatives are as they are nominated by the church – Scotland is also now a country where an increasing number of people regard themselves as non-religious.

The Scottish Household Survey from 2019 showed more than half of adults did not belong to any faith. The Church of Scotland recently reported it had lost half its membership since 2000, while the Catholic church has said it is facing a “perfect storm” of financial pressures resulting partly from falling attendances.

Yet, the influence of religious representatives has often proved pivotal in decision-making on education committees, such as when a school in Perth and Kinross was closed purely due to their votes.

Fraser Sutherland, CEO of the Humanist Society Scotland, said: “What kicked this [our campaign] into gear was a decision in Perth and Kinross Council around a school closure - the elected councillors voted to keep it open but the religious reps overturned it.

“I think it’s really important when it comes to decisions of local democracy that decisions are taken by people who are accountable.

“Councillors are accountable because they are elected every five years and you can write to them and question them, but representatives from the churches are not accountable to the electorate or local people, only to their own institution and I don’t think that’s right when the vast majority of people in Scotland are now non-religious.

“I can understand back in the 1800s when the churches first passed the schools over to the government to run that perhaps that was part of the agreement, that they wanted to have a say in how they are run. You can understand why that decision was reached because the vast majority of the population went to church every week.

“That’s not the society we live in now but we still have this system that effectively harks back to the 19th century.

“This is a historical hangover and I think for groups like ourselves, we look at this and scratch our heads and say if you were designing the system today there’s no way you would set it up like that.

“I don’t agree there should be a special place for the reps on the committees at all, but I understand that is the law councils are dealing with.

“However, there is an argument to say they shouldn’t be having voting rights on things like school closures or teacher numbers or guidance around LGBT exclusive education.

“We have seen in the past religious reps oppose LGBT inclusive education and that’s worrying that influence is there when society and the broader public wouldn’t have that view.”

There have been attempts to remove church representatives from education committees in the past. Ex-Green MSP John Finnie proposed a Private Members Bill to remove the requirement for local authorities in 2013, but it was dropped the following year after a consultation only garnered 207 replies – just 17% of which agreed with the move.

A petition to the Scottish Parliament on the same subject in 2014 was also closed because of that bill.

Since then, it has been up to councillors to introduce change, but the fact only three have actively removed voting rights in the years that have followed – with Fife also in discussions about it now – doesn’t fill Sutherland with great confidence.

He said: “I think for a long time councillors have been disgruntled this exists but I think there’s been unease about challenging religious privilege.

“Often religious groups and the churches are quite angry about their position being challenged and you get anti-religious accusations flung around. It’s not about that with most councillors, it's about ensuing equality of access.

“Why are one particular religion given a special place [on committees]? Scotland is more diverse now than it’s ever been, there’s much more faith groups of non-Christian origin and the vast majority is non-religious.

“Do I think removing voting rights will happen in every council area? No. There will be a lot of heat brought by religious groups. But it would be a positive step for Scotland to change this.”

The defence of the Catholic church and the Church of Scotland is that often, while representatives have voting rights, they will not exercise them.

But Sutherland said in most councils church representatives are still able to influence decisions just by having a seat at the table.

He added: “I don’t see any argument as to why they are more important than everyone else other than ‘because we’ve always been there’, and that’s not a strong argument to why you should continue something.

“It’s not to say churches shouldn’t have a say in education but they should have the same say as anyone else.”

A spokesperson for the Catholic Church said: “This action is part of a process to remove faith education from schools in Scotland. Church representatives are valuable members of local authority education committees, and their position is enshrined in law.

“To deprive them of voting rights, when they represent both the Catholic Church and families - of all faiths and none- who make an active choice of Catholic education, will cause local constituents to question the commitment of councils to the future of Catholic schools.”

A spokesman for the Church of Scotland said: “Church representatives have a wealth of experience and seek to be good community partners and offer support and encouragement.

“They want to support good local government by building relationships through sharing ideas and scrutinising plans. 

“They are there to serve the wider community, not to impose their will.”