Thursday, December 14, 2006

'Sing about Jesus and you'll lose your grant'

'Sing about Jesus and you'll lose your grant'
By Graeme Wilson, Political Correspondent

A toddlers' group has been warned it will lose its funding unless children stop singing songs about Jesus and it removes the word "Christian" from its title.

A senior official at Haringey council issued the warning in a letter to the group, which was set up four years ago by the Polish community in the north London borough.

The council intervened after the group contacted officials to say they had decided to change its name from the Polish Drop-in Centre to the Polish and Eastern European Christian Family Centre.

Officials immediately protested about the decision to include the word "Christian" in its title and said the name-change could jeopardise the £7,000 it receives from the council.

Following further investigations, they also ordered Gosia Shannon, the centre's organiser, to stop singing songs about Jesus with the children and accused her of making "negative" comments about gay people.

The Labour-run council's concerns were spelt out in a letter sent to a local community leader by Debbie Biss, the head of Haringey's Noel Park Children's Centre, which funded the family centre.

She voiced unease about the decision to use the word "Christian" in the family centre's title and warned that this would affect "your ability to retain the funding we provide… and to raise funding for your activities in general."

Miss Biss went on to criticise the way children were encouraged to sing about Jesus.

"We expect all our services to be inclusive and without religious content, so I was concerned to learn that Gosia leads the singing of a song about loving Jesus in every session," she said. "I asked Gosia to leave this song out in future but she has refused to do so." Miss Biss added that: "Gosia's attitudes towards gay parents worry me," and highlighted a letter she had sent to councillors "which included negative comments about homosexuality." She warned that funding would be withdrawn from the family centre unless it agreed that all its activities "will in future be strictly of a non-religious nature."

She added that the centre must rewrite its constitution to say that it will provide activities regardless of a person's "race, gender, culture, religion, sexual orientation, disability or means".

Mrs Shannon, a 37-year-old mother of one, said she was stunned when she received the letter.

"We could not understand why our funding was going to be cut. This is part of our Roman Catholic tradition in Poland . We sing songs about Jesus and we try to raise our children in a Christian way," she said.

"I have always said that we will welcome people who are gay but we will not promote gay values in the group. But we are not negative towards gay people."

Mrs Shannon said that around nine out of 10 families who used the centre were from Poland , with the remainder being drawn from other Eastern European countries.

Haringey council later moved to defuse the row by saying it had withdrawn the threat to cut the funding.

A spokeswoman said: "The letter has been withdrawn immediately. It was not appropriate for this officer to be writing such a letter linking funding with the issues mentioned in the letter.

"We have contacted this group asking them to disregard the letter and invited them to meet a senior officer to discuss the funding."

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