English council backs down after legal challenge to exclusion of humanist from RE body

2 August, 2019

Humanists UK has won a proposed legal challenge against a London council that rejected a humanist representative’s application to join the council’s religious education (RE) body, in a decision likely to pave the way for more humanists to sit on such bodies across England.

Humanist Rachel Taggart-Ryan applied for full membership to Greenwich Council’s Standing Advisory Council on RE (SACRE), the body that oversees the RE curriculum in the local area and which has members from many religious groups. But its sitting members voted against giving her full membership and voting rights because she is non-religious, with the Council backing this decision on the grounds that humanism is not a religion, in spite of clear case law which requires the state to give equal treatment to humanists. 

The legal battle in England followed an identical legal challenge in Wales in 2017 which saw Vale of Glamorgan Council back down and decide to admit humanist Kathy Riddick as a full member. This prompted the Welsh Government to issue guidance clarifying that human rights law means humanists have the right to be full members. The Welsh Government has more recently decided to change the underlying education law in Wales to explicitly reflect the need to treat humanists and humanism equally in RE. 

After being refused by Greenwich Council, Rachel sent a letter before action to them, the first step in the proposed judicial review claim, arguing that she had been discriminated against because she was a humanist. The Council again refused to admit her as a member. Humanists UK then instructed solicitors, who notified the Council of their intention to apply to the High Court to take a case. At this stage, the Council decided to take a fresh decision.

In that fresh decision, the Council has backed down, acknowledging that there is a legal basis on which humanists can be full members of SACREs. Rachel has now been admitted as a full member.

Commenting on the decision, Rachel Taggart-Ryan, who is also Humanists UK’s Campaigns Officer, said: ‘I applied to my local SACRE because I believe it’s important that children have the opportunity to learn about a broad range of beliefs in RE including humanism. The key way to get involved in this is to join the local SACRE, but I was completely dismayed when the panel rejected my application solely because I am a humanist. This issue is a matter of fairness and equality so I am glad that I now have the right to participate and vote in my SACRE.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: ‘It is now very clear that SACREs cannot discriminate against humanists by refusing them membership. Like religious representatives, humanists must be allowed to contribute and vote on decisions regarding the RE syllabus and we are glad that common sense has prevailed in this case. Hopefully, it will also ensure that more pupils in schools across England receive a broader RE syllabus where they learn about humanism alongside the major religions, which is a vital part of their education.’


For more information, contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3078.

Humanists UK and Rachel Taggart-Ryan were represented by Louise Whitfield of Deighton Pierce Glynn and David Wolfe QC of Matrix Chambers.

Read the Welsh’s Council’s decision here: https://humanists.uk/2018/11/08/humanist-representatives-will-be-included-on-schools-re-body-welsh-council-rules/

Read the Wales SACRE Vale of Glamorgan decision here: https://humanists.uk/2018/11/08/humanist-representatives-will-be-included-on-schools-re-body-welsh-council-rules/

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

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.