NI schools ‘teaching 
too much Christianity’

Religious education within Northern Ireland’s schools involves an unlawful and exclusive “proselytising” of Christianity, the High Court heard yesterday.

Tuesday, 23rd November 2021, 7:44 am
Laganside Courts, Chichester Street, Belfast. Picture: Diane Magill

Counsel for a father and daughter challenging the current syllabus claim the faith is being wrongly promoted and privileged in the classroom at the expense of learning about other beliefs.

Described as a non-religious family, the child’s parents have expressed concern that she may adopt a specific world-view. A judge was told the teaching arrangements may require reconsideration by the Stormont Executive.

Judicial review proceedings have been brought against the Department of Education on behalf of a seven-year-old girl who attends a primary school in Belfast.

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Her lawyers allege the core syllabus for Religious Education (RE) and Collective Worship in controlled schools breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.

Opening the case, Ben Jaffey QC stressed it was not an attempt to achieve a secularised system. But he submitted: “The arrangements for religious education are not compatible with the convention because they lack pluralism and involve proselytising the Christian faith.

“There is a privileging of Christian religious education to such an extent that it is in practice the exclusive form of religious education in controlled primary schools.

“Secondly, the education is not neutrally presented as merely learning about the Christian faith, but it is also seeking to promote and encourage in children Christian practice and Christian belief.”

The family does not object to Christianity being on the RE curriculum, but alleges that no meaningful alternative teaching is available in Northern Ireland’s state-funded schools.

The challenge is also directed against the girl’s school, despite an acknowledgment that it is implementing mandatory teaching.

Lawyers for the department insist that the system is flexible and lawful, with potential scope for supplementing the statutory core curriculum.

The court heard the family does not object to the “lion’s share” of RE being focused on Christianity, given its status in Northern Ireland.

“It is perfectly proper and perfectly lawful that the religious education syllabus reflects that,” Mr Jaffey said.

However, the barrister argued that if the challenge ultimately succeeds then changes to the contents of the core syllabus may be needed.

“What the outcome of that reconsideration should be, is neither an issue for (the girl) or her family, or for the courts,” he added.

“Constitutionally, and for good reasons, that reconsideration is for the Executive.”