Landmark High Court win for humanist: judge rules he cannot be excluded from local RE committee

In a landmark judgment handed down in the High Court on Friday 26 May, humanist Steve Bowen has successfully challenged his local authority’s refusal to admit him to the council’s religious education committee. In his decision, Mr Justice Constable concluded that it was ‘unlawful’ for Kent County Council to refuse Steve’s application for membership of the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE), and said it is:

‘clearly discriminatory to exclude someone from SACRE group A solely by reference to the fact that their belief, whilst appropriate to be included within the agreed syllabus for religious education, is a non-religious, rather than a religious, belief.’

Humanists UK, which was responsible for bringing the case and has supported Steve throughout, has applauded the decision, and welcomed its far-reaching impact.

Since 2015 Religious Education (RE) has been required to be inclusive of non-religious worldviews like humanism. But RE syllabuses for many state schools, rather than being set nationally, are agreed at a local level by each SACRE. This new judgment is important because it is the first ruling to say that: not only must syllabuses not exclude humanism, but also that the local committees overseeing the subject cannot exclude humanists. It was on these grounds that the court has quashed Kent County Council’s refusal to consider Steve as a full member of its SACRE.

Informing his judgment, Mr Justice Constable found that:

‘the discriminatory nature of section 390(4) [of the Education Act 1996] as interpreted by KCC is manifestly without reasonable foundation and not justifiable. Indeed, it is antithetical to what the provisions can sensibly be considered as aiming to achieve, when that aim is now to be realised in light of the fact that ‘religious education’ must include some teaching of non-religious beliefs, as confirmed in Fox… As such, section 390(4)(a) as construed by KCC does involve a breach of Article 14 [of the European Convention on Human Rights].’

Therefore he concluded that, ‘The application for judicial review succeeds. I quash the decision of KCC dated 17 June 2022 on the basis that it was unlawful.’

The implications of this ruling will be significant for humanism. Firstly, Kent County Council’s SACRE should now move to formally admit Steve as a full member of group A. Secondly, the law has been clarified and a precedent has been set such that every SACRE in England should now take steps, if it has not already done so, to permit humanists to join group A.

The Court has now made it clear that there are no barriers to RE being fully inclusive of humanism, or to humanists being represented on SACREs. The private member’s Education (Non-religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill, currently in the House of Lords and sponsored by Baroness Burt of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, if passed, would reflect in statute law the accepted position in respect of these two points. Humanists UK has called on the Government to support the Bill.

Steve Bowen, the claimant in the case, and Chair of Kent Humanists, commented:

‘I’m delighted with the judge’s decision – it means a lot both to me personally, and to Kent Humanists, that humanism has been given the respect it deserves. I always knew that it was logical for it to be possible to appoint a humanist to a SACRE in a world where the RE curriculum now covers non-religious worldviews such as mine, as well as religious ones.

‘August 2021, when I first applied to the SACRE, seems a long time ago now, but we have got there in the end. I hope that this judgment will also pave the way for other humanists across England to be given a voice in a similar manner.

‘I’d like to thank my legal team and Humanists UK for all their support. Should they choose to appoint me, I’m now looking forward to joining the SACRE, and representing the humanist worldview in its discussions about religious education, for the benefit of the children of Kent.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: 

‘I’m thrilled with this judgment – the impact of which will be far reaching – and pleased that Humanists UK was able to support Steve with his case. As a former chair of a SACRE myself, I know how rewarding and important it is for humanists to contribute to their local community in this way.

‘Education about religious and non-religious worldviews is an important subject – when taught in an inclusive manner reflecting the diversity of belief in England today. With half of the population now having no religion, we must keep the subject as relevant as possible for young people. Humanist representation on SACREs ensures that the non-religious have a voice. While 40% of SACREs already have a humanist as a full member, there has for many years been uncertainty about the issue, as it fell to each local authority to make its own decision on the interpretation of the law. The Court has now given its verdict, and has very clearly agreed with what we have always believed to be the case since the Human Rights Act came into force.

‘As an urgent priority, the Government should issue new guidance for all SACREs, stating clearly that there is no impediment to humanists being full members of group A. It should also amend statute law to reflect this now accepted position. Ministers should be delighted to know that all the legwork has already been done: Baroness Burt’s Education Bill is ready and waiting for its next stage in the House of Lords.’

Dan Rosenberg of Simpson Millar LLP, who represented Steve Bowen, said:

‘This is a very positive decision.  The Court has agreed with our client’s point, in that to read the legislation compatibly with the Human Rights Act, membership of Group A of a SACRE can extend to those with non-religious worldviews such as humanism, and membership of that group is not just limited to those representing religions.

‘Given non-religious worldviews such as humanism are now part of the RE curriculum, children can only benefit from having someone who holds those views being able to add their expertise and experience in the room when discussions are had about how to teach it.’

About Religious Education in England

In England, religious education (RE) is a compulsory subject in schools but the curriculum is not devised nationally: syllabuses are set locally by Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs). There are 151 of these in England, one for each education authority. Each SACRE has four subgroups: group A is made up of people to represent the principal religious beliefs in the area (other than the Church of England); group B is for the Church of England; group C is for teacher representatives; group D is for representatives from the local authority.

Background to the case

It is long-established that non-religious worldviews such as humanism should be included and given equal respect on RE syllabuses. Unfortunately not all syllabuses are inclusive in this manner. Therefore the Chair of Kent Humanists Steve Bowen, supported by Humanists UK and represented by David Wolfe KC and Katy Sheridan of Matrix Chambers, and Dan Rosenberg of Simpson Millar, applied to become a member of group A of Kent SACRE in August 2021. Steve is also a humanist school speaker. He applied to join the SACRE because he felt that it was important for somebody who can articulate a non-religious worldview to have a say in how that syllabus was put together. At present in Kent there is no such person. After considerable delays, Kent County Council finally refused permission in June 2022, claiming that to admit him would be unlawful – and Steve decided to judicially review that decision with support from Humanists UK.

The legal argument for a humanist to be represented on group A of a SACRE

Fundamentally the case was won because, since the passing of the Human Rights Act in 1998, domestic legislation should be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which provides for non-religious worldviews such as humanism to be ‘read in’ to most instances where ‘religion’ is used in current law. So, while the wording of the 1996 legislation on the constitution of SACREs states that group A is to ‘represent such Christian denominations and other religions and denominations of such religions as, in the opinion of the authority, will appropriately reflect the principal religious traditions in the area’, the judge ruled that this should be interpreted as also including representatives of non-religious worldviews such as humanism.

In a similar vein and adding weight to Steve’s argument was the judgment in the Fox case in 2015, which concluded that the word ‘religious education’ in section 90 of the 2002 Education Act included education relating to non-religious viewpoints. This ruling means that RE syllabuses must provide equal respect to non-religious worldviews like humanism, and be taught in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner.

Furthermore, it was argued that to permit humanists representatives on group A of a SACRE does not go against the grain of a fundamental feature of the legislation, indeed, it is consistent with it. The purpose of SACREs is to devise the curriculum of religious education  – which necessarily includes non-religious viewpoints. That purpose is not hindered by the possibility of permitting humanist membership, indeed, it is furthered.

Mr Justice Constable agreed, and Kent County Council’s refusal to admit Steve to group A of the SACRE was accordingly ruled unlawful.