UK Government confirms new case law created by High Court win for humanists

Following a landmark win in the High Court by humanist Steve Bowen, the UK Government’s Department for Education (DfE) has written to all councils in England to confirm that new case law now applies to them.

The guidance to local authorities states that humanists can be members of local authority religious education (RE) committees (Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education, or ‘SACREs’). Implicit in this advice is that references to religion in education law must from now on be read as including the non-religious worldview of humanism. Humanists UK, which facilitated Steve in bringing the case, has celebrated the news and called for local authorities across the country to take immediate steps to make sure they are complying with the law.

Major Humanists UK success

Thanks to the campaigning work of Humanists UK, Bowen now joins Fox as a key element of the 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.

This is a major win for Humanists UK, which has as one of its six strategically important campaigns to foster ‘balanced approaches to teaching about religions and worldviews in schools’. The DfE’s letter makes explicit that law in England in effect now echoes that of Wales, where humanist representation on local RE committees (known as SACs) is mandatory.

More widely, the legal precedent could also apply to comparable situations right across the UK, including beyond education.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:

‘This short note from the DfE is concise and absolutely clear: it confirms the new case law created by the Bowen judgment. It vindicates Steve’s persistence in pursuing the case, and we are proud to have been able to support him.

‘As a result, no local authority in England should now refuse a humanist who applies to join their SACRE. In our increasingly non-religious society, such inclusion is really important. Humanist involvement with SACREs is vital to ensure that local children can learn about humanism in their RE lessons, taught with equal respect to the major world religions.’

What is the Bowen judgment about?

Kent County Council was found to have acted unlawfully by refusing Steve Bowen a place on group A of its 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 full members of a SACRE and local authorities should determine whether to admit a humanist on exactly the same basis as they would determine whether to admit a religious representative. Should any of the 151 SACREs across England now attempt to exclude a humanist they will leave themselves open to successful legal action against such a decision.

How Humanists UK supports parents

RE is already required to give equal respect to humanism – but unfortunately not all syllabuses do this, and Humanists UK works with parents to challenge such non-inclusive syllabuses. Ensuring that all SACREs have a humanist representative as a full voting member is one important way of working towards full inclusion across the country.

Humanists UK has produced guides for non-religious parents, which contain information and advice regarding the content of RE syllabuses. Parents concerned about the content of their child’s RE curriculum are encouraged to read the guides and to get in touch with any concerns.