Humanist court challenge on school worship in Northern Ireland: Catholic schools ‘may be exempt’ as humanist calls for assemblies for all religions and beliefs

A High Court ruling which could see compulsory multi-faith school worship events in NI may not be binding on Catholic schools, it is claimed.

By Philip Bradfield
Wednesday, 6th July 2022, 6:08 pm
Updated Friday, 8th July 2022, 3:53 pm

Yesterday the High Court ruled that an exclusively Christian-focused religious education in primary schools is unlawful, after a challenge by an anonymous ‘non-religious’ parent from Belfast for their seven-year-old daughter.

However, the High Court did not conclude what the implications of the ruling would be and has asked lawyers from interested parties to submit their views.

Legal commentator Joshua Rozenburg told the Nolan Show today that the court “left open the question of remedy”, allowing the parties time to reflect on the judgment and invited further submissions from lawyers before making a final order.

Boyd Sleator, Coordinator for Northern Ireland Humanists.

Religious schools such as those under the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools in NI could be exempt, because parents knew in advance that they were opting for a school with a religious ethos, he said. He added the ruling “may well be subject of an appeal” and that it “raises many questions”.

Among those reacting was Boyd Sleator, coordinator for NI Humanists, who now says he would like to see school assemblies incorporating all religions and beliefs. He told the News Letter he did not think separate assemblies for children of different religious views or beliefs was the way forward. “We would like to see assemblies for all children”, he said. A new group, The Coalition for Inclusive Education, is about to start campaigning for this, he added.

Former DUP MP Jim Wells told the Nolan Show that 97% of the NI population was from a Catholic or Protestant background and that it would “confuse” children to teach them other religions. But Mr Sleator said the Life and Times Survey showed 22% of the population now identify themselves as “non-religious”.

The Transferors’ Representative Council is made up of the main Protestant churches which originally owned the majority of today’s state schools but transferred them into state care with assurances that they would retain influence. They said: “While the transferring churches are not direct parties to this case, nonetheless, as this is an important and significant issue we will also be reflecting on today’s decision over the coming weeks, and any subsequent final order that Mr Justice Colton may make. We will also need to take the time to discuss the matter as churches together.”

Peter Lynas, UK Director of the Evangelical Alliance said the implications of the ruling “aren’t yet clear”. He said the law gives both humanist and Christian children the right to education which conforms with their own convictions.

DUP MP Carla Lockhart said principals, teachers and parents expressed “strong opposition” to the ruling. She asked if the “rapid creep” of courts into Government policies meant judges should replace elected legislators. TUV leader Jim Allister said the ruling was “a frontal attack” on the Christian ethos of schools. Both he and Ms Lockhart said pupils have a right to opt out of Christian teaching.