Councillors have reluctantly agreed to proceed with the appointment of three religious representatives to the SIC’s education and families committee, but unease among several members means the council plans to raise the matter with local government umbrella body Cosla.
At today’s Full Council meeting, SIC legal chief Jan Riise reminded members that they had no option but to comply with national legislation in spite of the feeling of many councillors that the law was “outdated”. Education committees throughout Scotland are obliged to have three religious representatives, one of which – in this case the Reverend Tom Macintyre – must be from the Church of Scotland.
The council will now hold talks with the Shetland Churches Council Trust and the Shetland Interfaith Group to determine how to appoint a further two. It means unelected religious representatives will hold more than a fifth of the committee’s voting rights.
Given the small size of the SIC’s committees that was slightly alarming to councillor Florence Grains. She said a “much better balance” needed to be found because three representatives would be neither here nor there in a large city council, but could be significant on a committee featuring only 11 councillors.
Her fellow West Side member Gary Robinson was particularly outspoken in his opposition, saying the law “beggars belief” and jars with the principles of democracy. He was concerned that appointing religious representatives might raise “equalities and human rights issues” and feared the appointments could be challenged if they go ahead.
“We’re living in a place with very few problems with religion, and that we should have something like this foisted upon us … it doesn’t sit well – I think this is something that needs to be challenged,” Mr Robinson said.
But Mr Riise stressed that the council had no choice but to accept the law of the land. The issue reared its head after a letter from the Church of Scotland in August reminding the local authority of its obligations.
Councillor Laura Baisley said she was “willing to accept we don’t have any choice in the matter”, though she didn’t see how humanism or other creeds fitted into such a set-up. She hoped a “more appropriate balance” could be found following May’s council elections.
Former education spokesman Bill Manson pointed out that, as there will be no new legislative changes between now and May, any attempt to resist the law would be “going up a blind alley”. He said all 31 of Scotland’s other local authorities had accepted the position and, given the frequent religious tension in the central belt surrounding Old Firm football matches, it would be a “brave government” that would tackle the issue head on.
It was agreed that representations should be made to Cosla, while education and families committee chairwoman Betty Fullerton suggested any individuals within the community who felt uneasy should contact MSP Tavish Scott.
The council also plans to explore whether the churches council would actually want to exercise its voting right. At the conclusion of the debate, convener Sandy Cluness said: “We’re not entirely happy, but we will do our best to get something that works for the islands.”
Councillor Jonathan Wills was absent from Wednesday’s meeting, but had urged members to consider his proposal to reinstate an education forum “where anyone can come along and make their views known, without presuming that one of the 57 varieties of belief in Shetland is more important than the others”. That plea fell on deaf ears.
Dr Wills had been prevented from making a motion to that effect at last month’s education and families committee meeting, with Mrs Fullerton – who is a Church of Scotland member herself – ruling that a motion advocating breaking Scots law was “incompetent”.
In a letter to all councillors late last week, Dr Wills described the appointments as “a step back towards the 17th century” and said the law was “a relic of medieval theocracy worthy of the Taliban”.