Solely Christian Religious Education in NI Elementary Schools Illegal, Judge Says
Exclusively Christian religious education in primary schools in Northern Ireland is illegal, a High Court judge ruled today.
r Justice Colton held that requiring the core curriculum to be based on scripture violates human rights.
The verdict came amid a legal challenge brought by a father and daughter against the current controlled primary schools curriculum.
He said, “The illegality…identified necessitates a re-examination of the core curriculum and the impugned legislation with respect to the teaching of religious education (RE) and the provision of corporate worship (CW).
Judicial review proceedings have been brought against the Department for Education on behalf of a seven-year-old girl who attends school in Belfast.
His lawyers have argued that the emphasis on Christianity in RE and CW, to the exclusion of all other faiths, violates education rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Described as a non-religious family, the child’s parents have expressed concerns that she may adopt a specific worldview.
Although they do not object to the main emphasis being on Christianity, they have alleged that no meaningful alternative education is available in Ireland’s state-funded primary schools. North.
In a challenge centered on the provisions of the Education and Libraries (NI) Ordinance 1986, it has been argued that the current provisions lack pluralism and involve the proselytizing of the Christian faith.
The ministry’s lawyer insisted that the system is flexible and legal, with a possibility of supplementing the statutory program.
But Justice Colton said: ‘It is no answer that the core curriculum be a minimum requirement if it has the effect of failing to provide religious education in an objective, critical and pluralistic way.’
He cited a statement that the Department does not know whether individual schools provide students with additional opportunities to learn about other religions or none.
“This is a damning admission and, in the opinion of the court, underscores the need for a reassessment of the core curriculum as it relates to ER and the schools’ provision of CW,” the judge concluded. .
While the girl’s father feared that she would be isolated or bullied if he made the decision to exclude her from religious education or group worship activities, Judge Colton found that these concerns were well founded.
“While an absolute right to exclusion is available, it is not a sufficient response to the lack of pluralism identified by the court,” he said.
“There is a danger that parents will be deterred from requesting exclusion for a child. Above all, it also runs the risk of stigmatizing their children.
He confirmed: “The court therefore finds that the impugned legislation violates
the rights of the two applicants under Article 2 of the first ECHR protocol read in conjunction with Article 9 ECHR.
A lawyer representing the family predicted the judgment will have wider significance for religious education in schools in Northern Ireland.
Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law said: ‘The Court has ruled that the core curriculum must be changed so that it teaches children Christianity, instead of being Christians – that is not the job of a school.
“This now needs to be adjusted so that children learn Christianity, but are not indoctrinated or proselytized to be Christians.”
He added, “Religious education should be made fair and objective, which as a result would reflect the wider society in which we now live.”