No appeal in landmark High Court win for humanism in RE

Kent County Council will not appeal the landmark High Court judgment that found it unlawfully refused humanist Steve Bowen membership of his local religious education (RE) committee. The Bowen judgment will therefore now stand as English case law. Humanists UK, which facilitated Steve in bringing the case, welcomed the news.

What is the Bowen judgment about?

Kent County Council was found to have acted unlawfully by refusing Steve Bowen, Chair of Kent Humanists, a place on group A of its Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE). Every local authority in England has a SACRE and it is responsible for overseeing RE and collective worship in community schools in the area. Its constitutionally similar sister body, the Agreed Syllabus Conference (ASC), is responsible for setting the RE syllabus. Group A consists of religious representatives (other than those from the Church of England who are in a separate group) and, as has now been established, can include humanists too.

 In his decision, Mr Justice Constable concluded that 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.’

In sum, humanists can be members of group A and local authorities should determine whether to admit a humanist as a full member of group A on exactly the same basis as they would determine whether to admit a religious representative.

Bowen is important because at present there is something of a postcode lottery: only 64 of England’s 151 SACREs already had humanists as members of group A. Often the reason why a SACRE would not have a humanist member was a belief that the law did not permit such a thing because humanism, self-evidently, is not a religion. However Bowen is clear that references to religion in the relevant legislation should be read in a way which would ‘read in’ words extending the scope of possible group A members to include humanists. Reading it in this way is required by the Human Rights Act 1998. The law has now been unambiguously clarified in this area.

Furthermore, the new Bowen judgment restates the Fox judgment, that humanism should be included and given ‘equal respect’ in RE syllabuses. In fact, it is even clearer on this point: those syllabuses failing to be inclusive will leave themselves open to legal challenge.

The news that Kent County Council will not be going to the Court of Appeal means that the name Bowen now joins Fox as a key element of English case law upholding the equal respect that must be afforded to humanism in education. It also represents a further instance of the Human Rights Act being used to clarify that humanism should be ‘read in’ to references to religion in other legislation – in this case the Education Act 1996. There may well be further examples in public life where this would apply.

Humanists UK has long campaigned for legal clarity on the inclusion of humanism in RE, and also long provided resources for teachers and SACREs who include humanism in lessons and syllabuses. Including teaching about humanism in RE makes the subject inclusive and relevant to all students. Exploring non-religious as well as religious worldviews helps ensure a broad and balanced education and supports the goals of mutual understanding and social cohesion. It can help enable students to recognise, appreciate, and celebrate diversity. Just as it’s important that non-religious students are aware of the beliefs and practices of religious people, students from religious backgrounds need to develop an understanding of what it means to be a humanist.

The Understanding Humanism website contains a wealth of free resources for teachers as well as the opportunity to book humanist school speakers. Steve Bowen himself is a school speaker in Kent.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said: 

‘In our increasingly non-religious society, the study of humanism is an essential component of a fully inclusive religious education syllabus. Therefore Kent County Council has made a sensible decision not to appeal this judgement. Bowen marks a line in the sand for humanism: from now no local authority in England will be able to attempt to block humanists from joining their SACRE simply because they are a humanist.

‘So we are confident that Bowen will in time lead to all SACREs in England admitting humanists. But to help them with that, we hope the UK Government will produce clear guidance on the matter.’

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

‘I’m pleased to have confirmation that my judicial review now stands as English case law. I look forward to being invited to become a member of Kent’s SACRE soon, and am personally thrilled that my case may well also play a part in currently excluded humanists across the rest of England being included on their local SACREs.

‘I really enjoy my current role as a humanist school speaker – it is so important that children living in my home county can learn about all religions and worldviews in an inclusive manner – being able to be part of the committee that oversees their RE syllabus is the next logical step in that endeavour.’