Girls' Brigade taught homosexuality is a sin - equal to murder, stealing and adultery
Youth organisation reported to police by upset mother
The Girls Brigade for Northern Ireland has been caught up in a row after children took part in a religious lesson in which homosexuality was described as a sin.
Young girls were told during a recent spiritual course run by the GB that homosexuality was as great a 'sin' as deliberately taking someone's life.
A mother whose daughters attended the lesson reported the Christian organisation to the PSNI for an alleged hate crime. She said she believed the teachings were "bigoted" and "tantamount to incitement to hatred".
The PSNI said last night that following legal advice no action could be taken.
Chief Inspector Kyle Gordon, PSNI area commander for Newtownards, said: "Police received a report from a member of the public on March 30. It was the subject of a detailed examination by police in accordance with our policy and procedures concerning hate incidents. Legal advice was also sought. It was concluded that no further action could be taken by police in relation to this report."
The Girls' Brigade said that "given the interdenominational nature of GBNI", they do not hold an official position on homosexuality.
"There are a range of views and interpretations of scripture within different churches and denominations and the organisation, leadership and Christian teaching of a GB company is entirely the responsibility of the local church," a spokeswoman said.
She added that a team of volunteer members develop the scripture course each year and the "extent to which the resources are used and how it is taught is a matter for the volunteer GB leaders in the local churches".
"The objective of the learning activity that the parent complained about was to stimulate discussion and to help girls to consider the Christian teaching that there is no 'hierarchy of sins' and that a loving God can forgive all sin," she said.
"This activity was not intended to be about homosexuality but designed to demonstrate the love of God. On reflection, given the way it has been misinterpreted, we have concluded that the learning could have been achieved more effectively in a different way."
The complaint arises from two scripture classes held by Ards GB in February.
Children were asked to order a number of "sins" that included homosexuality, adultery, stealing and murder. At the end of the teaching the children were told that all of the sins were equal in the eyes of God.
"When I collected my daughters they were very upset that homosexuality was firstly classed as a sin and secondly that it was equated with murder. Someone's sexuality is certainly not regarded as a sin in our family as they have an uncle who is not only gay, but openly lives with his partner whom they love dearly," the Newtownards woman said.
She added: "Everyone is entitled to their opinion. It is the fact they are teaching this to impressionable young children, that is where my worry comes from.
"As a mother I believe this is a serious safeguard issue for children. LGB teens and young adults are at a much greater risk of suicide. They are telling children as young as 11 that homosexuality is a sin. That could have very serious consequences.
"I want to make parents aware that this Christian organisation is teaching children as young as 11 this type of thing.
"If I had known that this type of stuff was going to form part of their lessons I would never have sent my daughters."
The Girls Brigade is a worldwide organisation operating in 52 countries for over 120 years.
In Northern Ireland the GB has almost 23,000 members and is the province's largest youth organisation.
There are various aspects to activities including spiritual training, physical education and the Duke of Edinburgh's Award.
The vision of GBNI is to be "recognised as a dynamic, relevant, Christ-centred organisation effectively reaching out to all girls to value, nurture and equip them for life".
Their aim is "to help girls to become followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, and through self-control, reverence and a sense of responsibility, to find true enrichment of life."
One of the organisation's main principles is: "The Brigade witnesses to the standard set by Jesus Christ and gives positive teaching on the Christian attitude to life. The Brigade promotes a just society where all people are equally valued."
All over the world, Girls' Brigade members wear the same badge, which has four main elements - a cross, a lamp, a crown and a torch.
The deep concern of one woman and the sleepless nights of another
It was a religious course compiled to help guide young Christian girls within the Girls' Brigade in their spiritual development.
However, the content and delivery of the course has led to a bitter row between the Girls' Brigade and the mother of four of its members, as well as a complaint to police. The controversy first erupted in January when teenage GB members in Ards were asked to place a list of 'sins' in order, from the worst to the least.
Included in the list were murder, theft, homosexuality and adultery. When two of the girls placed homosexuality at the bottom of the list they were told by a leader that all of the 'sins' were equal in the eyes of God and that people who sin should seek God's forgiveness.
The lesson was repeated the following week with a younger group aged between 11 and 14.
The mother of four GB members, three of whom were involved in the lessons, said her daughters were left "very upset and angry" that homosexuality was not only classed as a sin, but that it was "equated with murder".
She wrote a letter of complaint to the GB, saying: "Surely as a parent, I should have been advised in advance that these topics were going to be discussed and afforded the opportunity to consent beforehand?
"I would also be keen to establish what training was given to the leaders, prior to delivering such sensitive topics to a group of children within this most impressionable age group."
The Newtownards woman raised concern in her letter "regarding the potential impact this lesson might have upon a child who may be struggling with their own sexual identity, especially since this is not uncommon within this age group".
She added: "I am fearful that the lessons being taught may have the very real potential to not only cause them confusion but could, potentially, be extremely harmful to their development and general wellbeing."
She also asked for assurance that "no other girls will be subjected to this".
"Furthermore, in my view it is tantamount to inciting hatred," she added.
Following the complaint, the GB's Spiritual Team held two meetings to discuss the issues raised. On March 17 a member of the Spiritual Team wrote to the complainant and said that they had received "several letters of concern regarding this lesson".
"Having carefully reviewed the lesson in question and considered the feedback that we have received, it is clear that the exercise was not the most effective and appropriate methodology for achieving the learning objective of the lesson," the team member wrote.
She added: "The objective was to help girls to consider the Christian teaching that there is no 'hierarchy of sins' and that a loving God can forgive all sin.
"This lesson was not intended to be about homosexuality and we have concluded that the learning could have been more effectively achieved in a different way." The GB's Spiritual Team, which is made up of volunteers, provides the Scripture Course resources "with the aim of providing leaders with tools to support and encourage girls to understand, consider and discuss what the Bible says and to explore their values and beliefs in their daily lives," she said.
The GB woman added: "I have had many sleepless nights worrying that any parent would see the GB as 'bigoted' and 'inciting hatred' and 'in breach of human rights legislation' as a result of an exercise that we could have designed better.
"I would like to appeal to your generosity to understand that we are simply trying to do our best to help girls explore what the Bible says, that we sometimes make mistakes but that our overwhelming desire is for the physical, educational, emotional and spiritual development of girls in GB."
The complainant said that the response did not resolve the issues she had raised and that she was concerned that the GB had not apologised "for the hurt occasioned by including homosexuality as a sin".
She made a formal complaint to the PSNI, but following legal advice it was decided that no further action could be taken.
'It was not intended to be about homosexuality'
Statement from Carolyn Pauley, Team Leader, GBNI Spiritual Team
Given the interdenominational nature of Girls' Brigade Northern Ireland (GBNI), we do not hold an 'official position' on homosexuality. There are a range of views and interpretations of Scripture within different churches and denominations, and the organisation, leadership and Christian teaching of a GB company is entirely the responsibility of the local church.
We provide the Scripture Course resources with the aim of providing leaders with tools to support and encourage girls to understand, consider and discuss what the Bible says and to explore their values and beliefs in their daily lives as part of their spiritual development. We believe it is important to include contemporary topics that affect girls and this can include issues such as sex, relationships, mental health, drugs and alcohol, human trafficking etc.
However, we want to do this in an age-appropriate way (this lesson was designed for older girls in second-level education) and with the support of parents.
GBNI provides training to over 500 leaders each year and this includes support on how to handle sensitive issues. We already equip our leaders with resources and training days but we are planning other ways to equip and inspire our 3,000 dedicated voluntary leaders further.
The Scripture Course is developed by a team of volunteer members each year and the extent to which the resources are used and how it is taught is a matter for the volunteer GB leaders in the local churches. The objective of the learning activity that the parent complained about was to stimulate discussion and to help girls to consider the Christian teaching that there is no 'hierarchy of sins' and that a loving God can forgive all sin.
This activity was not intended to be about homosexuality but designed to demonstrate the love of God. On reflection, given the way it has been misinterpreted, we have concluded that the learning could have been achieved more effectively in a different way.
From a membership of 23,000 we received many positive comments and three complaints regarding this year's Scripture Course; two from parents and one from a member. Our Spiritual Team gave the concerns raised serious consideration and replied to each of the three complaints in detail. One parent warmly welcomed our response and one parent was dissatisfied with our explanation. We understand it is the one dissatisfied parent's allegations that the Belfast Telegraph has decided to publish.
We will continue to listen to feedback from parents, young people and churches to help us to review how we develop and present our Scripture Course and to continually improve how we prepare volunteers for these sessions.
Linda Bryans: why I'm proud to be a patron of the Girls' Brigade
"I have been a patron for Girls Brigade Northern Ireland for a number of years and proudly so.
"I was also a member of 1st Saintfield GB when I was a little girl. I have very fond memories of my time there.
"The GB has changed a lot since my time there, very much for the better. The projects that the girls take part in are all very relevant to their lives today. Very difficult subjects are covered like mental health, depression, human trafficking, marginalised communities etc, all the things that affect teenagers and young girls today.
"The girls work very hard and develop many essential skills that will stay with them for the rest of their lives, such as leadership skills, management skills, self-development. These are all important skills that employers are looking for.
"The GB has a lot to offer young girls and its volunteers work extremely hard to assist in their physical, educational, emotional and spiritual development."
- Linda Bryans is a journalist and television presenter