Join Donate

Catholic schools may continue discriminating against teachers on religious grounds after legal bid denied

Religious schools, including state-funded schools, will continue unlawfully discriminating against teachers on religious grounds after Humanists UK was denied permission to take the Catholic Education Service to the High Court to challenge the practice.

On the face of it, the current law in England and Wales appears to allow religious schools to require all teaching staff to be of a certain religion, which means non-religious teachers or applicants from the ‘wrong’ religion who would otherwise be suitably qualified are often rejected or discouraged from applying because of their ‘lack’ of religious beliefs.

But the UK is also bound by the European Employment Directive which states that employers, including schools, may only discriminate against employees on the basis of religion or belief where there is ‘a genuine, legitimate, and justified occupational requirement’ (GOR) that such discrimination occurs. 

This might mean, for example, that a teacher of religion in a religious school may need to be of the same religion as their school, but not a PE, maths, or science teacher.

However, some schools regularly go beyond this, with the Catholic Education Service in particular telling the 10% of English and Welsh schools it oversees that they can and should attempt to discriminate against every teacher.

The bid to challenge this practice was recently denied on a legal technicality about the amenability of the defendant to judicial review rather than whether the Catholic Education Service’s advice goes against the European Employment Directive. Instead it focused on whether, in issuing mandatory directions on the matter of faith-based employment to its state schools, the CES is fulfilling a public function. Despite the fact that the teachers it employs work in publicly funded schools, and that the schools are duty-bound through their bishops to follow the advice, the court ultimately concluded that it is not. 

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: ‘This disappointing decision means that a Catholic school could be legally obliged to follow the advice of the Catholic Education Service through its trust deed but no-one is able to challenge this advice in the courts if it is in itself unlawful. That surely cannot be right.

‘It also means no end to the discrimination against non-religious teachers and others who, for too long, have been shut out of public sector jobs because they don’t hold the same religious beliefs as their potential employer.

‘State schools rejecting job applicants or staff on the basis of religion is wrong. More than that, we believe it is often also unlawful.

‘There is no genuine occupational requirement for all teachers at a Catholic school to have to be Catholic. A maths, science, or PE teacher who is not religious, or who is from another religion, should generally be treated equally in the application process and given the same rights as a Catholic teacher would have. This decision did not in any way cut against that fact.

‘We will continue to advocate for the rights of non-religious teachers and push for fairer treatment in employment policies so that people are not discriminated against on religious grounds.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham via or 020 7324 3000

 Humanists UK were represented by Louise Whitfield of Deighton Pierce Glynn and David Wolfe QC of Matrix Chambers

Read more about our campaigns work on faith schools.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

Search Humanists UK