Religious education being taught in Northern Ireland’s schools involves an unlawful and exclusive “proselytising” of Christianity; the Belfast High Court heard on Monday. A father and his seven-year-old daughter are challenging the current syllabus within school in Northern Ireland, and claim that the Christian faith is wrongly being promoted and privileged in schools at the expense of learning about other beliefs.
A judge was told the teaching arrangements in classrooms across the North may need to be reconsidered by the Stormont Executive.
A judicial review has been launched against the Department of Education on behalf of a girl who attends a Belfast primary school, with her lawyers claiming that the core syllabus for Religious Education (RE) and collective worship in controlled schools is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The school the child attends cannot be identified in order to protect her anonymity.
Back in June, the father and daughter secured High Court permission to challenge exclusively Christian-focused religious education being taught in schools in the province, and were granted leave to seek a judicial review. They claim that teaching of religious education breaches the right to learn about other faiths, and lawyers for the girl’s family allege that the “indoctrination of Christianity is leading to entrenched segregation”.
In contrast, according to the father and daughter’s case, much more pluralistic teaching is in place in England, Wales and Scotland
Opening the case however, Ben Jaffey QC said it was not an attempt to bring about a secularised system in schools. However, he said that the teaching of religious education is “not compatible” with the ECHR, submitting: “The arrangements for religious education are not compatible with the Convention because they lack pluralism and involve proselytising the Christian faith.”
He asserted that Christianity was privileged over other religions in NI schools, adding: “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 child’s family are described in legal papers as being non-religious, with the child’s parents voicing concern that she may adopt a specific world-view because of the teaching of Christianity at school. While the family said they do not object to Christianity being on the RE curriculum, they allege that no meaningful alternative teaching is available in Northern Ireland’s state-funded schools.
The challenge is also directed specifically at the child’s school, despite an acknowledgement that it is putting into practise mandatory teaching.
Lawyers for the Department of Education claim that the system is in fact flexible and lawful, and that there is potential scope for supplementing the statutory core curriculum.
The court heard the family are not opposed 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 is successful, then changes to the contents of the core curriculum may be required.
“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.”
The case continues.