Barack Obama criticises ‘segregated’ ‘faith’ schools

20 June, 2013

United States President Barack Obama has called for an end to faith-based schooling in Northern Ireland, criticising ‘segregated schools’ as ‘encouraging division’ and ‘discouraging cooperation’. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed the comments, which come shortly after the BHA co-founded the Fair Admissions Campaign, a campaign that has the single aim of ending religious selection by state schools in England and Wales.

Barack Obama made his comments in a speech ahead of the G8 summit on Monday to an audience of 2,000 young people:

‘Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity—symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others—these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it.

‘If towns remain divided—if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs—if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

‘Ultimately, peace is just not about politics. It’s about attitudes; about a sense of empathy; about breaking down the  divisions that we create for ourselves in our own minds and our own hearts that don’t exist in any objective reality, but that we carry with us generation after generation.

‘And I know, because America, we, too, have had to work hard over the decades, slowly, gradually, sometimes painfully, in fits and starts, to keep perfecting our union. A hundred and fifty years ago, we were torn open by a terrible conflict. Our Civil War was far shorter than The Troubles, but it killed hundreds of thousands of our people. And, of course, the legacy of slavery endured for generations.

‘Even a century after we achieved our own peace, we were not fully united. When I was a boy, many cities still had separate drinking fountains and lunch counters and washrooms for blacks and whites.’

Evidence shows that faith-based admissions also cause ethnic segregation in England and Wales.

Pavan Dhaliwal, BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented, ‘Barack Obama’s groundbreaking comments on the issue of faith-based segregation in schools reveal two things. First of all they show just how unusual the situation appears to an outsider, with Ireland, Israel and Estonia being the only other OECD countries to allow such segregation. And secondly the parallels he draws between segregation by schools on the basis of faith and the race discrimination that has taken place in the United States show the seriousness of the situation. President Obama’s comments must act as a wake up call for politicians across the UK to act on this pressing issue.’

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has also welcomed the speech. IHEU President Sonja Eggerickx added, ‘Comparison to historical racial segregation in the United States is not used lightly. But it is absolutely apt when, as Obama points out, the divide in Northern Ireland is sustained down the generations by labelling children in “faith” schools. They are separated from one another according to presumed, inherited beliefs, an arbitrary difference which is institutionalised and cemented from an early age in the education system. No one would claim that the Troubles in Northern Ireland are reducible entirely to religion. But Obama is absolutely correct to highlight the pernicious role of ‘faith’ schools in sustaining sectarianism and conflict.’


For further comment please contact BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal on 07738 435 059, or email

Visit the Fair Admissions Campaign website at

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on ‘faith’ schools:

View the BHA’s table of types of English and Welsh school with a religious character:

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.