Humanists UK intervening in high-profile religious education court case today

25 October, 2023

Pictured: Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast, flickr ©sminkers, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Humanists UK is intervening in a landmark education case today at Northern Ireland Court of Appeal. This high-profile legal proceeding on Religious Education has advanced to this stage due to the Department for Education’s decision to appeal a ruling from May 2022. The previous judgment determined that the practice of exclusively Christian religious education (RE) and worship in Northern Ireland schools ‘amounts to discrimination’. Humanists UK, which operates in Northern Ireland as Northern Ireland Humanists with 5,500 members and supporters, stated that it is intervening to bring ‘significant new evidence to the table’.

The original judgment, which has become known as JR87, was in a case 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highlighted the lack of a meaningful educational alternative to Christian worship and RE for children who have been withdrawn from this provision on grounds of conscience. In his judgment, Mr Justice Colton agreed, and accordingly ruled that the current arrangements were unlawful. However, the Department for Education chose to appeal, and the case will be heard in the Court of Appeal in Belfast over two days, today (25 October) and tomorrow.

The lawyers acting for Humanists UK in its intervention are: Jude Bunting KC and Conan Fegan BL of Doughty Street Chambers, Lara Smyth BL of the Bar Library in Northern Ireland, and Ciaran O’Hare of McIvor Farrell solicitors. The intervention is focusing on international human rights law, expert research in the field from NI academics, and significant demographic change demonstrating that in Northern Ireland one in six people, and two in five 16 year-olds, have no religion.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator said:

‘Mr Justice Colton’s original judgment was sound: RE and collective worship in Northern Ireland has long been known to be discriminatory against children from non-Christian backgrounds. Furthermore the recent Bowen judgment on RE in England demonstrates that human rights arguments around inclusive education are also sound. The Department of Education chose to appeal, and this has given us the opportunity to bring some significant new evidence to the table today. 

‘I am sincerely grateful to our legal team, who have all offered to work on this case pro bono, for their excellent work in preparing this intervention. If the judgment is upheld, it could also have a significant impact on education law across the UK, in particular the outdated collective worship requirements in England and Wales.’

Ciaran O’Hare of McIvor Farrell Solicitors commented:

‘My client Humanists UK has been successful in its application to the Court to intervene in this significant systemic case. My client is passionate about the issues that have been raised and submits to the Court that the State has a duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner, and that the state must accord equal respect to different religious convictions and to non-religious beliefs. This case is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland and it is likely the Court’s ruling will have profound ramifications.’

Further information

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, and has more than doubled in the last decade.


For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at or phone 07918975795.

Read our story about the JR87 judgment.

Read our story about the Bowen judgment.

Read our story about changing demographics in Northern Ireland.

Read more about our work in Northern Ireland.

Read more about our work on religious education.

Read more about our work on collective worship.

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.