ONE of the biggest problems with a liberal society is that in order for people to be allowed freedom of speech and behaviour – within the bounds of the law of course – it is sometimes necessary to impose controls on others.

Glasgow Council’s ban on a number of Loyalist and Republican marches and parades in the city last weekend led not to an outbreak of peace, as had been hoped, but to an angry demonstration in George Square.

According to Tom Wood, former Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders police, the scenes of vociferous protest were reminiscent of the gilets jaunes in France, or recent pro-democracy clashes with police in Hong Kong. Wood denounced the council’s decision to block the parades as “stupid”. This seems harsh, although the immediate backlash does show this cautionary step backfired. As Wood commented in a newspaper article, outright bans simply allow resentment to fester and violence to erupt elsewhere.

Explosions of sectarian aggression and abuse are an obvious outrage, but even entirely peaceful religious marches through Glasgow are a blot on the city’s reputation. Whenever a Grand Orange Lodge goes past, banging drums, playing flutes and waving banners, I feel I have stepped back three centuries. In theory, Orange marches are harmless and legitimate expressions of faith and historical commemoration. In practice, in the west of the country at least, they are the unlit end of a fuse that doesn’t take much to ignite. Everyone knows these are potentially inflammatory occasions, and a marching season that passes without incident is the very definition of a miracle.

As is all too evident, sectarian prejudice is alive and well. Those who say it is nearly extinct are either optimists or judge today’s level of confrontation against a much bloodier and more ignorant past. By that measure, certainly, things are considerably better than they were even as recently as when I joined this newspaper when on my first day a new colleague commented on the arrival of yet another Protestant. Anti-discrimination laws have helped promote more enlightened attitudes, but even without this statutory inducement to scrupulous fairness, the majority of us these days make no distinction between Catholic and Protestant, if indeed we even notice it at all.

READ MORE: Faith no more? Have catholic schools had their day, asks Kevin McKenna 

The country has come a long way since the Church of Scotland’s disgraceful and virulent anti-Catholicism in the 1920s, and the barefaced discrimination and hurtful jibes Catholics of all ranks endured. No wonder separate schools were considered necessary. Yet while levels of abuse and discrimination are dramatically lower than before, in some quarters hoary old grievances and antediluvian attitudes continue to smoulder.

You could argue that the answer is education: an ongoing challenging of closed minds that will eventually lead to a state where nobody cares what religion other people follow. It is Tom Wood’s contention, however, that in order to eradicate sectarianism we need to abolish Catholic schools. These, he believes, are the root of the problem.

With some reluctance, I have to agree their time is up. This, despite knowing that endorsing this view would appear to be rejecting the liberal values that I consider essential for a fair and well-run country. If parents wish to send their children to a school whose principles are guided by the Catholic faith – or any other for that matter – surely they should be allowed that choice? By all accounts, the education students receive in Catholic schools is impressive, and in some cases so enviable that lapsed members of the church appear to have a Damascene reawakening in order to get their offspring into the classroom.

Yet the existence of this archaic system of schooling is tangible evidence of a problem that refuses to wither. From early childhood, separate schools reinforce the idea of difference, segregation and distinction. Whatever side of that school fence you walk, you are made aware from Primary One onwards of the concept of Them and Us.

There’s another distasteful aspect of segregated schools too. Richard Dawkins’s new book, Outgrowing God, which is aimed at young readers, tries to help “break the cycle” of indoctrination. That word will be offensive to those who think they are doing their best by their children in instructing them in their own religious beliefs and culture, be they Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jew. But, even when done with the best intentions, sending a child to a school affiliated to a church is a form of intellectual and emotional programming. It represents the opposite of liberal values.

READ MORE: Catholic schools are rated higher by inspectors 

For as long as it is possible to put a child through a denominational education, society is tacitly acknowledging the power of religion to define who people are. In an age when the state is increasingly non-religious in its decision-making, in order to maintain strict neutrality and equality, it makes no sense. When single-sex institutions are frowned upon as out-dated, when discrimination based on ethnicity, background or sexual orientation is considered abhorrent, it seems odd that this particular expression of difference is allowed to continue. Only if sectarianism were unheard of, rather than a persistent blight, would it – just about – be acceptable.

Back in the real world, the existence of educational pigeon-holes like these means there is little hope of religious bigotry being eradicated. Those on either side of the school gates live in an environment that allows this shameful stain on our country to persist, and even flourish. Initiatives to raise awareness or to banish deep-rooted prejudices can never be wholly successful so long as the public statement of religious identity is allowed such a state-sanctioned platform.

This is not to attack faith itself. What individuals choose to believe, and the ways in which they introduce children to their religion or creed at home, is their business. Nor should schools cease to teach pupils about world religions, or to help them understand the huge cultural influence that Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has exerted on countless aspects of our lives, for good and ill.

Complete integration, however, should be the goal. The building blocks of society must mirror the kind of world we want future generations to inherit. No matter how you look at it, denominational schools have become an anomaly. If sectarianism is to become a thing of the past, then so should they.