The Court of Appeal in Belfast is now in the process of reviewing a game-changing Religious Education (RE) and collective worship case after a two-day hearing. Humanists UK intervened in the high-profile case, which took place 25-26 October, and provided evidence to the court. The court will now assess all evidence. The judgment, however, is not anticipated until 2024.
Why Humanists UK intervened
The case, known as JR87, reached Belfast Court of Appeal because the Department of Education appealed a High Court ruling from 2022. The ruling stated that ‘exclusively Christian RE and worship’ in Northern Ireland’s schools was discriminatory against non-Christian children and their families.
The ruling is one of the most important things to have happened in favour of inclusive education in Northern Ireland. All state-funded schools in Northern Ireland, in effect, have a Christian ethos, even integrated schools. Humanists UK argued that the 2022 High Court ruling was sound and provided further evidence in favour of it.
What did the Department of Education argue?
During the hearing, lawyers for the Department of Education argued that, as there is a parental right of withdrawal from RE in Northern Ireland, this is sufficient for upholding the freedom of religion or belief of non-Christians objecting to the Christian-centred RE and worship in schools. Furthermore, the Department of Education claimed that the statutory curriculum is merely the minimum required, and that schools can choose to include more topics. They further argued that human rights law had been misinterpreted by the original judgment.
‘Risk of stigmatisation’ for children excluded from RE
All of these points were strongly contested by lawyers acting for the original applicants, a Belfast-based father and his child. In particular the applicant’s lawyers argued that Mr Justice Colton was correct in his assessment in May 2022 that:
‘…Whilst an unfettered right to exclusion is available it is not a sufficient answer to the lack of pluralism identified by the court. It runs the risk of placing undue burdens on parents. There is a danger that parents will be deterred from seeking exclusion for a child. Importantly, it also runs the risk of stigmatisation of their children.’
What Humanists UK said
Humanists UK focused on international human rights law, expert research in the field from academics in Northern Ireland, and significant demographic change demonstrating that one in six people in Northern Ireland, and two in five 16 year-olds, have ‘no religion’.
The right to withdraw from ‘exclusively Christian’ RE is not sufficient to uphold freedom of religion or belief of non-religious people, Humanists UK said. It carries a risk of isolation and stigmatisation. Instead ‘meaningful alternatives’ should be provided.
In 2019, Humanists UK supported parents in Oxfordshire whose legal action persuaded their child’s faith school to provide educationally equivalent alternatives to collective worship. While in England, one third of state-funded schools are faith schools, in Northern Ireland this figure is, in effect, 100%. Therefore RE and worship requirements are Christian-focused by default.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:
‘After two days of intense scrutiny of the May 2022 judgment from both sides, we await the outcome of this appeal with great interest. In our view 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. I am pleased that the Department of Education’s decision to appeal gave us the opportunity to bring some new evidence to the table this week.
‘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 submit 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.’
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.
The original judgment being appealed this week, 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 was heard in the Court of Appeal in Belfast over two days on 25 and 26 October.
The lawyers acting for Humanists UK in its intervention were: 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.
Know your rights and download our practical guides for parents
Humanists UK operates in Northern Ireland as Northern Ireland Humanists with 5,500 members and supporters. For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at email@example.com 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.