Exclusively Christian RE not lawful, says High Court

The exclusively Christian-focused religious education taught at primary schools in Northern Ireland is unlawful, a High Court judge has ruled.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 5th July 2022, 5:24 pm
Updated Tuesday, 5th July 2022, 7:04 pm
The ruling was made at the High Court in Belfast on Tuesday
The ruling was made at the High Court in Belfast on Tuesday

Mr Justice Colton held that an obligation to base the core curriculum on the Holy Scriptures breaches human rights.

The verdict came in a legal challenge mounted by a father and daughter to the current syllabus in controlled primary schools.

The three main Protestant Churches in Northern Ireland — the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches — said in a joint statement issued to the News Letter that they will “reflect” on the court’s decision in the “coming weeks”.

The education department at Stormont has also said it will “want to consider the ruling in detail”.

Mr Justice Colton, meanwhile, said: “The unlawfulness… identified requires a reconsideration of the core curriculum and the impugned legislation in relation to the teaching of Religious Education (RE) and the provision of Collective Worship (CW).”

Judicial review proceedings were brought against the Department of Education on behalf of a seven-year-old girl who attends a school in Belfast. Her lawyers argued that the complete focus on Christianity, to the exclusion of all other faiths, violates education entitlements protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Described as a non-religious family, the child’s parents expressed concerns that she may adopt a specific worldview.

Despite not objecting to most of the focus being on Christianity, they alleged that no meaningful alternative teaching is available in Northern Ireland’s state-funded primary schools.

In a challenge which centred on provisions in the Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1986, it was contended that the current arrangements lack pluralism and involve proselytising the Christian faith.

Counsel for the Department insisted the system is flexible and lawful, with potential scope for supplementing the statutory syllabus.

But Mr Justice Colton said: “It is no answer that the core curriculum is a minimum requirement if it has the effect of failing to provide religious education in an objective, critical and pluralist manner.”

He cited a statement that the Department has no knowledge of whether individual schools provide additional opportunities for pupils to learn about other religions or none.

“This is a damning admission and, in the court’s view, emphasises the need for a reappraisal of the core curriculum in so far as it relates to RE and the provision by schools of CW,” the judge found.

With the girl’s father expressing fears that she could be isolated or bullied if they had taken the step of having her excluded from religious education or collective worship activities, Mr Justice Colton held that those concerns were valid.

“Whilst an unfettered right to exclusion is available it is not a sufficient answer to the lack of pluralism identified by the court,” he said.

“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.”

He confirmed: “The court therefore concludes that the impugned legislation is in breach of both applicants’ rights under Article 2 of the First Protocol ECHR read with Article 9 ECHR.”

A solicitor representing the family predicted the judgment will have wider significance for religious education within Northern Ireland’s schools.

Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law said: “The Court has ruled that the core curriculum needs to be changed so it teaches Children about Christianity, as opposed to being Christians - that is not the job of a school.

“This now needs to be adjusted so that children learn about Christianity, but are not indoctrinated or proselytised into being Christian.”

He added: “Religious education needs to be made fair and objective, which as an outworking, would be reflective of the wider society we now live in.”

But Peter Lynas, UK Director of the Evangelical Alliance and a former lawyer, said that while the ruling was significant “the full implications aren’t yet clear”.

He added: “Christianity has shaped our culture when it comes to dignity, equality and rights and has been part of the school curriculum for over 100 years. Today’s ruling may change that, but the judge has not ordered a remedy at this stage.

“The law does protect the right of parents to ensure education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. That has been used to protect humanist parents in this case, but equally protects Christians and others. The court notes a curriculum review is already under way and no doubt there will be more discussion on this topic. We always encourage parents and carers that they are they should be taking a lead on faith formation not leaving it to schools. There are also lots of opportunities to engage with, and support schools such as serving as a parent governor.”