Exclusively Christian RE not a breach of human rights, court rules

Northern Ireland’s Court of Appeal has ruled exclusively Christian-focused religious education and worship at primary schools in Northern Ireland does not breach human rights.

The court upheld a previous finding that the curriculum is “not conveyed in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner”, which could amount to evidence of “forbidden” indoctrination.

However, the court also ruled that no violation of rights was established because parents have the “unqualified right” to withdraw their children from religious education (RE) and collective worship (CW).

The court said that the “unqualified nature” of the right of withdrawal made it capable of being a “safeguard against indoctrination in the school setting”.

The ruling overturns a previous judgement that current arrangements for CW and RE breach Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights .

Article 2 requires the state to “respect the right of parents’ religious and philosophical convictions in respect of education and teaching”.

The law in NI mandates state-funded schools to “include collective worship whether in one or more than one assembly” every day. Parents have the right to withdraw children from CW, but no independent right of withdrawal is available to pupils.

Similar laws exist in England, Scotland and Wales.

RE in NI schools is controlled by religious bodies to a greater extent than anywhere else in the UK, and aims to “develop an awareness, knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the key Christian teachings… and develop an ability to interpret and relate the Bible to life”.

In Northern Ireland, Christian clergy are responsible for inspecting RE. Section 23 of the 1986 Education Order states that the Department of Education should not inspect religious instruction unless specifically called upon to do so by a school’s board of governors.

NSS: ‘Right of withdrawal not a satisfactory solution’

NSS chief executive, Stephen Evans, said:”This judgement confirms RE in Northern Ireland is not objective, critical or pluralistic. Schools that fall short of this standard are doing children a disservice by undermining their freedom to think critically and develop their own beliefs.

“Withdrawal from biased forms of RE and acts of worship has never been a satisfactory solution for pupils or parents, and does not respect principles of equality or uphold freedom of religion or belief. Furthermore, the court’s view that the right of withdrawal is “capable of being a safeguard against indoctrination” implies that that which is being withdrawn from – RE and CW – does resemble a form of indoctrination.”

Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law said: “This raises considerable issues of wider public importance in the sphere of human rights and the cross section with education and religion.

“We now intend to seek permission to have the Supreme Court look at this case as soon as possible given the wider implications.”

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