C: Jonathan Borba

Christian-focused education in NI primary schools’ ‘unlawful’, High Court rules

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

Making the judgement on Tuesday, Mr Justice Colton held that an obligation to base the core curriculum on Christianity ‘breaches’ human rights.

The case was taken on behalf of a seven-year-old girl who attends a primary school in the North; the father and daughter sought to challenge the current syllabus in controlled primary schools in the region. The family at the centre of the landmark case have been described as non-religious, and the child’s parents were of the view that their child may adopt a ‘specific’ worldview because of being taught a Christian-based religious education programme. 

The judge 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).”

The case resulted in a Judicial review being brought against Northern Ireland’s Department of Education on behalf of the child, who attends a primary school in Belfast. 

Lawyers representing the child argued that the focus on Christianity in RE and CW resulted in the exclusion of other faiths, and violated education entitlements protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). 

The parents argued that they did not object to the majority of the focus of the teaching being on Christianity, but claimed that there was no ‘meaningful alternative’ teaching available to children in state-funded primary schools in the North. 

During the challenge which centred on provisions in the Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1986, it was asserted that the current arrangements for religious education in the region lacked pluralism and involved ‘proselytising’ the Christian faith. 

Counsel for the Department of Education, however, insisted that the system for religious education in primary schools in the north was flexible and lawful, and there was potential scope for supplementing the statutory syllabus. 

However, the judge maintained that the core curriculum for religious education had produced the effect of ‘failing to provide religious education in an objective, critical and pluralist manner”.

He added that the court’s view was that there was a need for a reappraisal of the core curriculum in so far as it relates to RE and the provision by schools for CW. 

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

Confirming the decision, Justice Colton said: 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.”

Following the verdict, a solicitor representing the child’s family predicted the judgement ‘will have wider significance for religious education within Northern Ireland’s schools’. 

Darragh Mackin of Phoenix law stated: “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.” 

Mr Mackin, representing the family, said that religious education must be ‘made fair and objective’ which he said ‘would be reflective of the wider society we now live in’.

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