Humanists UK to intervene in crucial NI Court of Appeal religious education case

Next week, Humanists UK will be intervening in a landmark education case at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal. The case has reached this stage because the Department of Education has chosen to appeal the judgment of May 2022, which found that exclusively Christian RE and worship in Northern Ireland schools is discriminatory. Humanists UK, which operates in Northern Ireland as Northern Ireland Humanists with 4,500 members and supporters, stated that it is intervening to bring ‘significant new evidence to the table’.

The original judgment, which has become known as JR87, was in a case brought by a Belfast-based father and his child. Both were granted anonymity by the Court. Lawyers for the family argued 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 also highlighted the lack of a meaningful educational alternative to Christian worship and RE for children who have been withdrawn from this provision on grounds of conscience. In his judgment, Mr Justice Colton agreed, and accordingly ruled that the current arrangements were unlawful. However, the Department of Education chose to appeal, and the case will be heard in the Court of Appeal in Belfast on 25 and 26 October.

The lawyers acting for Humanists UK in its intervention are: Jude Bunting KC and Conan Fegan BL of Doughty Street Chambers, Lara Smyth BL of the Bar Library in Northern Ireland, and Ciaran O’Hare of McIvor Farrell solicitors. The intervention is focusing on: international human rights law, expert research in the field from NI academics, and significant demographic change recently which demonstrates that in Northern Ireland one in six people, and two in five 16 year-olds, have no religion.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said: 

‘Mr Justice Colton’s original judgment was sound: RE and collective worship in Northern Ireland has long been known to be discriminatory against children from non-Christian backgrounds. Furthermore the recent Bowen judgment on RE in England demonstrates that human rights arguments around inclusive education are also sound. The Department of Education chose to appeal, and this has given us the opportunity to bring some significant new evidence to the table next week.

‘I am sincerely grateful to our legal team, who have all offered to work on this case pro bono, for their excellent work in preparing this intervention. If the May 2022 judgment is upheld, it could also have a significant impact on education law across the UK, in particular the outdated collective worship requirements in England and Wales.’

Further information

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 is 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, and has more than doubled in the last decade.