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BHA: First ever legal case against new religious schools has first day in High Court

The first ever legal case against the approval of new schools because of religious discrimination had its first of two days in the High Court yesterday. The case, British Humanist Association and Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign vs London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster and Secretary of State for Education, is considered of national significance because of the precedent it will set on the processes by which schools can be set up in the future, and how much those schools will be able to religiously discriminate in admissions. It is for these reasons that the Government is intervening in the case.

In his witness statement, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘We do not take this step of initiating legal proceedings lightly. However, the actions taken by the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames Council (the Council) are so wrong and we think unlawful, that we think we have no option but to act… The BHA is concerned that if religious groups are more readily able to agree with Councils to open fully selective Voluntary Aided schools … avoid[ing] competition, this will lead to more school places across England and Wales being reserved for pupils of a particular religion, and hence fewer inclusive places.’ In addition, ‘religiously selective schools will be opened by the back door, without [a] competition process required.’

In his witness statement, Jeremy Rodell, spokesperson for RISC, said, ‘Over 3300 local people signed our petition in 2011 asking Richmond Council to ensure that every state-funded school opening in the borough from now on is inclusive, so that no child can be denied a place in a good local school because of the religion or belief of their parents… Probably the majority of our supporters are parents who are concerned about the lack of availability of good quality, inclusive secondary school places and who feel that the Council’s proposals will restrict their choices while unfairly privileging a favoured minority.

‘Many are against discriminatory faith-based school admissions as a matter of principle and feel that it is simply wrong to set up a new local school that extends this practice further. Some are concerned about the effects of extending religiously segregated schooling on community cohesion – this includes those with direct experience of life in Northern Ireland and some parts of Scotland.’

David Wolfe QC, arguing for the BHA and RISC, said that ‘It is clear that the Council thought there was a need for the Catholic schools.’ Mr Wolfe argued that as a consequence, the decisions taken by the Council to approve the highly discriminatory Voluntary Aided schools were unlawful, because a new law means they therefore should have followed another – more inclusive – process for establishing schools instead. However, Mr Wolfe argued that if the judge concluded the schools are not needed, ‘then the consultation [preceding approval] was misleading, and so either way, the decisions were unlawful.’

The case is due to conclude today, with a decision expected within the following weeks.

Notes

For further comment or information contact BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson on 07534 248596 or at andrew@humanism.org.uk.

A survey by the Accord Coalition published on Monday found that 73% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that ‘state funded schools should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy’, while only 18% disagreed. Read the BHA press release, ‘In week of High Court case, new survey shows overwhelming majority against religious selection in schools’: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1141

Read the previous BHA press release, ‘BHA and local campaigners to clash with Government in High Court over new religious schools’, 14 November 2012: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1142

Read the previous BHA press release, ‘High Court agrees to hear first ever legal challenge to new “faith” schools because of religious discrimination, Government applies to intervene against BHA’, 4 October 2012: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1122

Read more about the British Humanist Association’s work on ‘faith’ schools: http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/faith-schools

Read the BHA’s table of types of school with a religious character: http://www.humanism.org.uk/_uploads/documents/schools-with-a-religious-character.pdf

Visit Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign’s website: http://www.richmondinclusiveschools.org.uk/. For further comment or information contact Jeremy Rodell on 07798 935569 or email communications@richmondinclusiveschools.org.uk.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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