High Court Judge Justice Colton has ruled that NI’s education legislation breaches human rights legislation because it requires the core curriculum to be based on the Holy Scriptures.
The Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 requires all grant aided schools to give religious education (RE) and hold daily collective worship (CW). In controlled schools (which aren’t integrated), legislation states this religious education “shall be undenominational religious, that is to say, based upon the Holy Scriptures”.
Mr Justice Colton’s verdict was delivered in a legal challenge mounted by a father and daughter to the current syllabus in NI primary schools. The family opposed what they describe as a complete focus on Christianity in religious education, which excludes other types of faith.
NI’s education legislation does not exclude non-Christian faiths, and also makes provision for both pupils and teachers to opt out of religious education and collective worship. The legislation states RE and CW ” shall be under the control of the Board of Governors of the school and that religious education shall be subject to such arrangements for inspection and examination as the Board of Governors thinks fit”.
According to the Belfast Telegraph, the judge cited a Department of Education statement that it has no knowledge of whether individual schools provide additional opportunities for pupils to learn about other religions or none. The judge described this as “a damning admission” which “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.”
Mr Justice Colton 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).”
“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.”
The Transferor Representatives’ Council (TRC) represents the three main Protestant churches in schools – Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist. A TRC spokesman told the BBC: “The teaching of RE and collective worship in controlled primary schools is an important matter,”
“We will 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.”