By Jessica Elgot
Atheist campaigners along with several prominent religious leaders have launched a controversial new campaign to ban schools from selecting children on the basis of faith.
The 'Fair Admissions' campaign was launched on Thursday by a coalition of groups including the British Humanist Association, Muslims for Secular Democracy, Christian think tank Ekklesia and the Lib Dem education association.
Perhaps surprisingly, support for a change in the law comes from across the religious spectrum, from Christians, to Jews, to Hindus.
The group hopes ultimately for a change in the law to ban faith-based selection, it said in a statement, but its short-term goal is to empower local campaigners to change the policies of their own schools.
"The unfairness starts right at the school gates in terms of who is admitted - those with the 'right faith' - and who is barred - those with the 'wrong faith' or no faith, even if they are local children," Rabbi Jonathan Romain, of the Accord Coalition, told HuffPost UK.
"The problem is that we are so used to it, that we fail to realise how offensive it is. Why should schools be the one part of the public sector that is legally able to discriminate in the case of religion? Can you imagine the uproar if it was allowed anywhere else ?
"The idea of no Catholics to be allowed in the army, no Jews to be social workers, no Muslims as doctors and no Sikhs as librarians is so unthinkable as to be laughable."
"Again and again the public have expressed their opposition to discriminatory school admissions," the BHA's Andrew Copson told HuffPost UK.
"One survey carried out last year showed that public opposition was as great as four to one. It's time that the reality caught up with popular opinion and religious selection is consigned to history."
But a Church of England spokesperson said its schools remained "hugely popular", and took children of all faiths and none. “Church of England schools serve the local community and have done for more than 200 years being the first provider of free education for all," a spokeswoman told HuffPost UK.
"They are often over-subscribed and take pupils of all faiths and none providing a high quality, effective and inclusive education with a distinctive Christian ethos.“
A new website developed by the group offers guidance for parents denied access to the school of their choice because of their faith, and advice on how to challenge admissions policies. The group also hopes to create a map of the country's schools, with information on admissions criteria.
The coalition insists they are not opposed to faith schools in principle.
"This campaign is solely focused on the issue of religious selection in admissions," the group said in a statement. "Some of our supporters have wider concerns about faith-based schools, and some do not think they should receive state funding at all.
"Others support the presence of faith schools in the state sector and believe they are an important feature of diverse provision. But all are united in their opposition to faith-based admissions policies, which we collectively believe are discriminatory and divisive, in terms of religion, ethnicity and socio-economic background."