Family to challenge law requiring Christian RE and worship in NI schools
The High Court will consider a challenge to the laws requiring faith-based Christian religious education (RE) and collective worship in schools in Northern Ireland today. A non-religious family is mounting the legal challenge arguing the exclusively Christian nature of RE and worship violates their human rights.
The case is being supported by Northern Ireland Humanists. It has been brought by a Belfast-based father and his child. Both have been granted anonymity by the Court. Lawyers for the family will argue that the privileged status of Christianity across the school system is discriminatory on the basis of religion or belief under the Human Rights Act. They will also highlight the lack of a meaningful educational alternative to Christian worship and RE.
At present, the RE curriculum in Northern Ireland is almost entirely taught from a Christian perspective. Schools use a syllabus that was written by the four main churches in 2007. The only teaching about other beliefs 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 case is being brought against the Department of Education and the child’s school. However, the family’s legal team stressed that the real problem is with Northern Ireland’s education laws. By requiring a focus on Christianity and excluding other religions and beliefs, schools are led to breach human rights law.
A legal representative for the family said:
‘Domestic law requiring Christian RE and worship is at odds with human rights law, which all schools have a duty to follow. Ultimately, this case could have involved any school in Northern Ireland. Until the Government removes the requirement for the ethos and curriculum of state-funded schools to be exclusively Christian, thousands of children and their families will continue to have their right to freedom of religion or belief unfairly violated. We very much hope the Court rules in our favour. If it does, schools in Northern Ireland will finally start to become inclusive of all pupils regardless of their differing beliefs.’
Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:
‘If successful, this case has the potential to be a turning point in securing the rights of non-Christians in Northern Ireland, and indeed across the UK. It would certainly represent a huge step forward for inclusive education. In order to build a Northern Ireland that is fit for the 21st century, we need a single education system that fosters community integration and treats all children equally regardless of background.’
About the case
The family bringing the legal case will argue that the exclusion of their non-religious beliefs in schools is incompatible with the state’s legal duty to teach about religions and humanism in an ‘objective, critical, and pluralistic’ way. 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 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 that the family maintains is discriminatory. There are similar laws requiring worship in Britain. 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