High Court grants parents permission to challenge school worship law

29 July, 2019

Daily collective worship is compulsory in state-funded schools.

Parents who withdrew their two children from school assemblies after they were made to pray and watch re-enactments of Bible stories, including the crucifixion, have launched a High Court case to challenge the school’s decision to hold a daily act of Christian worship. The parents will argue that the school must also provide a meaningful alternative of equal educational worth for those pupils withdrawn from it. 

Lee and Lizanne Harris withdrew their children from assembly at Burford Primary School after their children expressed unhappiness at watching various Bible stories, including the crucifixion, being acted out as part of collective worship. They are also concerned that, during assemblies, stories of God and Christianity are presented to pupils as ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ and that visiting church officials express harmful views to children.

After withdrawing their children, the Harrises asked the school to provide an alternative of equal educational worth for their children to attend. However, the school refused and their children were left in a separate room with an iPad and teaching assistant to supervise. 

Sign the petition

In its petition, Humanists UK has urged the UK and Welsh Governments end collective worship and introduce a requirement that schools conduct inclusive assemblies, which promote the development of all pupils, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs.

The case will reignite controversy over the requirement for all schools in England and Wales to hold daily religious worship. Humanists UK, which opposed the law when it was introduced in 1944, and has argued since for an alternative requirement for inclusive assemblies, is supporting it.

Burford Primary is meant to have no religious character, and when the children started, it was a community school. But in 2015 it converted to an academy and joined the Church of England’s Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST), who took over the school. The local church, St John the Baptist, regularly hosts worship at the school’s assemblies.

The case of Lee and Lizanne Harris v Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust will be heard on 29 November 2019 and is the first case on school worship to reach the High Court. It hopes to establish that schools must provide a meaningful alternative to collective worship of ‘equal educational worth’ that instead focuses on advancing the spiritual, moral, cultural, and social development of all pupils regardless of religion or belief. They are being represented by law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn.

In their submission to court, the parents also express concerns about Christian indoctrination spreading into other aspects of the school including the school leavers’ ceremony which is held in a church and at which all leaving students receive a bible as a gift and ‘guide to life.’

The Harrises will argue that Christian worship at the school extends far beyond what the law requires and constitutes indoctrination, a practice that violates the rights to freedom of belief of parents and pupils as outlined in the Human Rights Act 1998. They will also argue that the school is in breach of that Act in failing to provide a meaningful alternative.

Lee and Lizanne Harris said: ‘We enrolled our children into a state community school – which is meant to have no religious character – but over time we noticed harmful aspects of evangelism spreading into assembly and other parts of the school which goes against our children’s rights to receive an education free from religious interference. 

‘When our children go to school they shouldn’t have to participate in Christian prayers, or watch biblical scenes such as the crucifixion being acted out, nor should they have to hear from evangelical preachers who spout harmful and often divisive messages. This case is about the day to day reality of what happens when our children go to school and are not in our care. We take this step very reluctantly but feel strongly that we need to try to make our children’s education as inclusive as possible.

‘We also don’t think it’s acceptable that they be left to play with an iPad because we’ve withdrawn them. They should be able to participate in an inclusive assembly that is of equal educational worth and which is welcoming and respectful of all students no matter their background.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: ‘We are the only sovereign state in the world to require schools to hold daily Christian worship, yet 80% of our young people and 75% of people of parental age are not Christians. Our state schools are instead home to children of a broad diversity of cultures and backgrounds and they deserve and need inclusive activities that bring them together as one community. Requiring children to participate in religious worship and then marginalising them if in good conscience they cannot, ignores their right to freedom of religion or belief and is a negation of inclusion.’

Louise Whitfield of Deighton Pierce Glynn said: ‘My clients are extremely pleased that by granting permission and vital costs protection, the Court has already recognised that this is a case of public importance, and that it is in the public interest that these issues are resolved through this judicial review claim. The Harrises want an inclusive education for their children, and for all children; the school should be providing them with that and my clients intend to establish that at the final hearing later this year.’


For more information, including requests for media with the parents, contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanists.uk or 020 7324 3078 or 07393 344293.

Lee and Lizanne Harris are being represented by Louise Whitfield of Deighton Pierce Glynn http://www.dpglaw.co.uk/lawyers/louise-whitfield/ and David Wolfe QC https://www.matrixlaw.co.uk/member/david-wolfe/

Note to media: The couple do not want their children appearing in any media and ask that their privacy be respected.

About collective worship

The current collective worship law, a version of which has been in place in England and Wales since 1944, requires all state schools to provide an act of daily worship. Even in schools with no religious character, this must be ‘of a broadly Christian character’. The UK is the only country in the world to impose compulsory Christian worship as standard in its state schools. 

In 1998 proposals to reform the law in line with what Humanists UK would like to see were supported by all the major teaching unions, the Local Government Association, most national RE bodies including two-thirds of the members of the RE Council, two-thirds of Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Christian Education Movement, the Buddhist Society, the Sikh Education Council, the National Council of Hindu Temples, and all responding members of the Inter Faith Network for the UK. In 2006 legislative proposals to the same end were also supported by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís, the Unitarian Church, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, and the Hindu Academy.

Sixth form pupils can withdraw from compulsory collective worship and parents can also withdraw their children but, as the Harrises found out, schools generally do not provide a suitable educational alternative to collective worship. The Harrises are arguing that human rights laws impose a legal obligation for them to, and it is hoped that this challenge will establish clear case law that this is indeed so.

Humanists UK wants the requirement for collective worship to be repealed, and replaced by a requirement for inclusive assemblies, which forward the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of all pupils, without discriminating against any on the basis of their religion or non-religious beliefs. However, this case has the more modest goal of simply establishing that schools must provide such inclusive assemblies as an alternative to collective worship.

Read more about Humanist UK’s work on collective worship: https://humanists.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/collective-worship/

Read more about collective worship and parents’ rights: https://humanists.uk/education/parents/collective-worship-and-school-assemblies-your-rights/

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.