Exclusively Christian RE and worship in Northern Ireland schools is discriminatory, High Court rules

5 July, 2022

Laws requiring all schools in Northern Ireland to provide faith-based Christian religious education (RE) and collective worship breach human rights legislation, the High Court has found. In a landmark judgment handed down in the High Court in Northern Ireland today, Mr Justice Colton ruled that the exclusively Christian nature of RE and worship violates the freedom of religion or belief of a non-religious family.

Northern Ireland Humanists, which has long campaigned for objective teaching about religion and belief in schools, said it was ‘delighted’ by the news. The judgment marks a huge victory in securing inclusive education in Northern Ireland, it added.

Humanists UK has said that governments all around the UK must now act to follow this judgment.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘We’re thrilled with the judgment from the High Court today. This landmark case now marks a turning point in securing the rights of non-Christians in Northern Ireland, and indeed across the UK.

‘This is a huge step forward for inclusive education. In order to build a Northern Ireland that is fit for the 21st century, we need a single education system that fosters community integration and treats all children equally regardless of background.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘This ruling should resound around the UK as a lesson to every jurisdiction that our current laws on religion in education are not only unfit for purpose in light of today’s diverse society but they are also unlawful. Parliaments across the UK should take action now.’

The case was brought by a Belfast-based father and his child. Both were granted anonymity by the Court. Lawyers for the family argued that the privileged status of Christianity across the school system is discriminatory on the basis of religion or belief under the Human Rights Act. They also highlighted the lack of a meaningful educational alternative to Christian worship and RE for children who have been withdrawn from this provision on grounds of conscience.

At present, the RE curriculum in Northern Ireland is almost entirely taught from a Christian perspective. Schools use a syllabus that was written by the four main churches in 2007. The only teaching about other beliefs is a single unit on ‘World Religions’ that is included in the later stages of the secondary curriculum. But the child involved in the case is still at primary school and does not even have access to this. What is more, there is no teaching at all about humanism. This is despite the fact that the number of non-religious people in Northern Ireland is surging. The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 27% of people identify as having no religion. That figure has more than doubled in the last decade.

The case was brought against both the Department of Education and the child’s school. But, the family’s legal team stressed that it is Northern Ireland’s education laws that are the central issue. By requiring a focus on Christianity and excluding other religions and beliefs, schools are led to breach human rights law.

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at richy@humanists.uk  or 07534 248596

Read the High Court judgment (pdf).

Read the summary of the judgment.

Read our most recent news item on the family winning the right to challenge law on Christian RE and worship in Northern Ireland schools.

Read our recent article on the massive rise in non-religious identity in Northern Ireland.

Read our news item on the High Court ruling saying the UK Government broke the law in excluding humanism from school curriculum.

Read our piece on the successful legal challenge taken to secure a meaningful alternative to collective worship in England.

Read our article on the UN pressing the UK to repeal compulsory collective worship laws.

Read our article on how segregation and religious bias in education poses a major threat to children’s rights in Northern Ireland.

Read more about our work on religious education & collective worship.

Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 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.

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