NI family wins right to challenge law requiring Christian RE and worship in schools

The High Court in Northern Ireland has granted a non-religious parent and child permission to challenge laws requiring faith-based Christian religious education (RE) and collective worship in all schools. Instead, they want the curriculum and school assemblies to be taught in a way inclusive of those of other religions and beliefs.

Northern Ireland Humanists campaigns for an inclusive curriculum that teaches non-religious perspectives on an equal footing with religions. It has welcomed the decision, saying that this could be ‘a landmark case for the rights of non-religious people’. The case will now proceed to full hearing on 22-23 November.

The family have been granted anonymity by the Court. They are bringing the case against their child’s school and the Northern Ireland Department of Education. They argue that, by mandating Christian RE and worship with no meaningful alternative for the non-religious, both the school and the Department have breached their human rights. Specifically, their right to freedom of religion or belief has been breached.

At present, the RE curriculum in Northern Ireland is almost entirely taught from a Christian perspective. It is taught according to a syllabus written by the four main churches. The only exception is a single unit on ‘World Religions’ that is included in the later stages of the secondary curriculum. But the child involved in the case is still at primary school and does not even have access to this. What’s more, there is no teaching at all about humanism. This is despite the fact that the number of non-religious people in Northern Ireland is surging. The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 27% of people identify as having no religion. That figure has more than doubled in the last decade.

The family will argue that, by excluding their non-religious beliefs, the law is incompatible with the state’s legal duty to teach about religions and humanism in a way that is ‘objective, critical, and pluralistic’. This requirement was established through a successful legal case in England. There the High Court found that a curriculum that systematically excluded non-religious views like humanism would be unlawful.

The claimants are also challenging the law on collective worship. Currently, this requires all grant-aided schools to carry out this worship on a daily basis. Parents have a legal right to withdraw their children from these sessions which, like RE, are exclusively Christian in nature. However, this can be isolating and no meaningful educational alternative is offered. This is a fact which the family maintains is discriminatory. There are similar laws requiring worship in England, Wales, and Scotland. But the UK is the only sovereign state to mandate Christian worship by default in state schools, including those that are not faith schools.

This is only the second case dealing with the issue of collective worship to win permission to be heard before the High Court. In 2019, two non-religious parents in England were granted permission to challenge their children’s school over its failure to offer a meaningful alternative to collective worship. They were supported by Humanists UK. The case was eventually settled out of court after the school backed down and offered the parents the alternative provision they wanted. Humanists UK believes that this logically implies the same should be possible in other schools across the UK.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘We are delighted that the High Court has granted permission for this legal challenge to go ahead. There are more people identifying as non-religious in Northern Ireland than ever before. But our archaic laws still require faith-based Christian RE and worship for all. This means that schools do not cover humanism and threaten non-Christians’ freedom of belief.

‘This could be a landmark case in the rights of non-religious people and could represent a huge step forward for inclusive education. If we want a Northern Ireland that is fit for the 21st century, we need an education system that treats all children equally regardless of background or belief.’