THE regulations in Northern Ireland which required that religious education and collective worship in grant-aided schools should be based on “the holy scriptures” were in breach of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion guaranteed by the Human Rights Act, a judge ruled in the High Court in Belfast.
The legal challenge in the court was brought by a seven-year-old child, identified only as JR87, and her parents, who are non-religious. She attended a grant-aided primary school in Belfast. Her parents were concerned that she had absorbed and adopted a religious (specifically Christian) world-view that was not consistent with their own beliefs.
The parents said that, in the absence of any religious exposure at home, their daughter now believed that God made the world, and she repeated and practised a prayer, or grace, that she had been taught at snack time. Her father’s concern was that JR87 was learning Christianity and not learning “about” Christianity in a school context that effectively assumed its absolute truth, and which, whether intentionally or otherwise, encouraged her to do the same.
It was argued on behalf of JR87 and her parents that the core syllabus for primary schools had been drafted by the four main Churches, that it prioritised and promoted the Christian faith, and that there was no reference to any other faiths or non-believers until the secondary stage.
The Department of Education submitted that the syllabus was drafted in such a way that pupils should be taught “about” God, “about” Jesus Christ, and “about” the Bible, and what teachers were asked to do was to provide opportunities for pupils to know that “for” Christians the Bible was the word of God.
The judge, Mr Justice Colton, said that the court “should be careful to avoid an overly factual analysis of what is provided in the syllabus”, but that “on any analysis” the syllabus could “only have the effect of promoting Christianity and encouraging its practice”.
In regard to collective worship in JR87’s school, her father said that it involved hearing Christian clergy give regular sermons, singing hymns, and celebrating the major Christian festivals, all of which were to promote Christian ideas and were in the context of an exclusively Christian education.
The judge said that it appeared from the evidence that the only external persons invited to attend assembly were exclusively Christian, including representatives of Evangelical Christian organisations that had a specific mission to proselytise. The conclusion was that, as with the case of the religious-education curriculum, collective worship was not conveyed in an objective, critical, and pluralist manner.
An important feature of the human-rights regime was the extent to which national law permitted parents to withdraw their children from religious education. The Department of Education and the Education Authority emphasised that the Northern Ireland Regulations provided an unfettered right for parents to withdraw their children from attendance at religious education or collective worship, or both. Those provisions, they said, provided an answer to JR87’s parents’ challenge.
The parents said that if JR87 were to be excluded from religious education and collective worship, she would be the only child in the school to be so excluded, that that would have the result of her being singled out from her peers, and that consequently she might be bullied or isolated.
The judge said that the parents’ concerns were valid. The availability of an unfettered right to exclusion was “not a sufficient answer to the lack of pluralism”. It risked “placing undue burdens on parents”, and also ran the risk of “stigmatisation of their children”.
The unlawfulness identified required a “reconsideration of the core curriculum and the impugned legislation in relation to the teaching of religious education and the provision of collective worship”.
The court did not make any order against the school and said that it had acted reasonably in the exercise of the powers conferred, or the performance of the duties imposed on it by the statutory provisions relating to religious education and collective worship.