Northern Ireland Humanists responds to Court of Appeal ruling on RE and collective worship

2 May, 2024

Pictured: Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast, Wikimedia Commons, distributed under a CC-BY 3.0 license.

The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland has upheld a High Court ruling that ‘religious education and collective worship are not conveyed in an objective, critical or pluralist manner in Northern Ireland [schools].’ However, it also ruled that this is lawful because of parental rights to withdraw their children from these subjects. Northern Ireland Humanists intervened in the case, which was taken by a father and daughter, and today has expressed deep concern about the second aspect of the Court’s decision.  

Northern Ireland Humanists’ legal representatives argued that the core syllabus of RE in controlled schools, which is taught from a Christian point of view, needs to reflect the increasingly diverse and pluralistic society in Northern Ireland. The current curriculum should instead teach about the wide range of religions and humanism present in Northern Ireland.

The conclusion stated:

‘Accordingly, we uphold the trial judge’s finding that the curriculum at issue in the present case is not conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. However, we hold that no breach of A2P1 has been established because of the existence of the unqualified statutory right of the parents to have their child excused wholly or partly from attendance at religious education or collective worship, or both in accordance with their request.’

The decision to uphold the right of withdrawal as an adequate measure fails to recognise the practical implications of such a step. Withdrawing a child from RE and collective worship can stigmatise them and reveal their family’s religious or philosophical convictions, potentially leading to isolation or discrimination among peers.

It is unknown whether the father and daughter who are the claimants in the case are intending to appeal the matter to the Supreme Court.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘This judgment misses a crucial opportunity to promote inclusivity and respect for diversity in our educational institutions. The right to withdraw does not address the root issue: the need for an education system that teaches about a variety of religious and humanist views on equal footing. Education should broaden minds and prepare children for a diverse world rather than endorsing a singular religious perspective.

‘We will continue to advocate for a curriculum that fosters respect and understanding across different beliefs, supporting a truly pluralistic society.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at or phone 07918 975795.

The lawyers acting for Northern Ireland Humanists/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.

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 over 120,000 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.