High Court win for humanist leads to new Government guidance for local authorities

22 August, 2023

Humanist Steve Bowen (2nd right) and his legal team outside the Royal Courts of Justice 17 May 2023

Following a landmark win in the High Court by humanist Steve Bowen, the UK Government’s Department for Education (DfE) has written to all councils in England to confirm that new case law now applies to them.

The guidance for local authorities states that humanists can be members of local authority religious education (RE) committees (Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education or ‘SACREs’). Implicit in this advice is that references to religion in education law must from now on be read as including the non-religious worldview of humanism. Humanists UK, which facilitated Steve in bringing the case, has celebrated the news and called for local authorities across the country to take immediate steps to make sure they are complying with the law.

Major Humanists UK success

Thanks to the campaigning work of Humanists UK, Bowen now joins Fox as a key element of the law upholding the equal respect that must be afforded to humanism in education. It also represents a further instance of the Human Rights Act being used to clarify that humanism should be ‘read in’ to references to religion in other legislation – in this case the Education Act 1996.

This is a major win for Humanists UK, which has as one of its six strategically important campaigns to foster ‘balanced approaches to teaching about religions and worldviews in schools’. The DfE’s letter makes explicit that law in England in effect now echoes that of Wales, where humanist representation on local RE committees (known as SACs) is mandatory.

More widely, the legal precedent could also apply to comparable situations right across the UK, including beyond education.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:

‘This short note from the DfE is concise and absolutely clear: it confirms the new case law created by the Bowen judgment. It vindicates Steve’s persistence in pursuing the case, and we are proud to have been able to support him.

‘As a result, no local authority in England should now refuse a humanist who applies to join their SACRE. In our increasingly non-religious society, such inclusion is really important. Humanist involvement with SACREs is vital to ensure that local children can learn about humanism in their RE lessons, taught with equal respect to the major world religions.’

What is the Bowen judgment about?

Kent County Council was found to have acted unlawfully by refusing Steve Bowen a place on group A of its SACRE. Every local authority in England has a SACRE and it is responsible for overseeing RE and collective worship in community schools in the area. Its constitutionally similar sister body, the Agreed Syllabus Conference (ASC), is responsible for setting the RE syllabus. Group A consists of religious representatives (other than those from the Church of England who are in a separate group) and, as has now been established, can include humanists too.

In his decision, Mr Justice Constable concluded that it is:

clearly discriminatory to exclude someone from SACRE Group A solely by reference to the fact that their belief, whilst appropriate to be included within the agreed syllabus for religious education, is a non-religious, rather than a religious, belief.’

In sum, humanists can be full members of a SACRE and local authorities should determine whether to admit a humanist on exactly the same basis as they would determine whether to admit a religious representative. Should any of the 151 SACREs across England now attempt to exclude a humanist they will leave themselves open to successful legal action against such a decision.

How Humanists UK supports parents

RE is already required to give equal respect to humanism – but unfortunately not all syllabuses do this, and Humanists UK works with parents to challenge such non-inclusive syllabuses. Ensuring that all SACREs have a humanist representative as a full voting member is one important way of working towards full inclusion across the country.

Humanists UK has produced guides for non-religious parents, which contain information and advice regarding the content of RE syllabuses. Parents concerned about the content of their child’s RE curriculum are encouraged to read the guides and to get in touch with any concerns.

Humanists UK employs a full-time campaigner who works to reform the law and support parents with issues around religion in schools.

Notes

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read more about our work on religious education.

Read the guidance note from the DfE on Bowen.

Read our story about the Bowen judgment.

Read more about SACREs.

Read more about volunteering to represent humanism on a SACRE.

Read our news item about the Education (Non-religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill.

Read our news item about the passing of the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 110,000 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.