French Education Minister Vincent Peillon recently sent a letter to the nation’s 8,300 Catholic schools, urging them to remain neutral on the question of same-sex marriage as the government begins to advance equality legislation. Peillon noted that the Catholic school system, which serves about a fifth of France’s children, is state contracted, and that seizing an opportunity to preach the Church’s anti-gay beliefs could be very harmful to children:
It doesn’t seem appropriate to bring the debate over equal marriage rights into schools. I have the deepest respect for the Catholic school system. But, the institution, which is under contract with the state, must respect the principle that everyone has the right to a neutral and free thought… We must never forget that we are dealing with young people and that attempted suicides are five times higher among teenagers who realize they are homosexual than others.
Over the weekend, President François Hollande defended Peillon’s letter, pointing out that pupils in the nation’s Catholic schools are no less entitled to free thought:
HOLLANDE: Secularism is a Republican value. We have to make sure that all ways of thinking are respected and that all religions can be practiced. But, we also have to [respect] the fact that we all live in the same place, and that the state, as well as both private and public educational institutions, adheres to a principle called neutrality.
Peillon’s critics allege he’s creating different standards for public and private schools and defaming Catholic schools. Nevertheless, the Catholic leadership in France and even Pope Benedict himself have urged followers to oppose the marriage equality and same-sex adoption initiatives. A poll conducted last week found that 69 percent of French people would like the opportunity to vote on same-sex marriage, but a December poll showed that 62 percent support marriage equality.