Humanists win first battle over religion in schools

Web teen girl reading a bible

The Humanist Society Scotland has been granted permission to proceed with a judicial review into a Scottish Government decision denying pupils the right to opt out of religious observance

Paul Cardwell's photo

17th October 2016 by Paul Cardwell 0 Comments

The Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) has won the first court battle in its bid to force the Scottish Government into a u-turn over religious observance in schools.

The Court of Session has granted the HSS permission to proceed with a judicial review challenging Scottish ministers over their decision not to allow pupils to decide for themselves whether they take part in religious activities occurring in schools.

Currently pupils in Scotland have to get their parent or guardian to excuse them from religious observance, but a recent review by the UN Children’s Rights Committee called on the extension of the parental right to opt-out of religious observance to young people.

In England and Wales pupils aged 16 and over are allowed to opt-out by themselves.

It is disappointing that the Scottish Government is continuing with its attempts to block our arguments for children's rights being heard

The HSS says by refusing to update its guidance to teachers to allow young people to opt-out in Scotland, the Scottish Government is potentially acting unlawfully.

"Today’s decision is a green light to continue our efforts to ensure that young people in Scotland are able to enjoy the same rights as adults to freedom of thought, belief and religion,” HSS chief executive Gordon MacRae said.

"It is disappointing that the Scottish Government is continuing with its attempts to block our arguments for children's rights being heard. We are delighted that the overwhelming case for children’s rights continues.”

Permission to proceed was granted by Lord Armstrong in a preliminary hearing at the Court of Session on Friday.

The preliminary hearing was called after the Scottish Government objected to the grounds of the judicial review.

It was held just two weeks after up to 50 pupils were given detentions by Taylor High School in Motherwell for truanting and skipping Mass.

MacRae added: "It was never our preference to have to rely on the courts to ensure that the rights of young people in Scotland are respected and enforced. However, having exhausted every other avenue available to us, we feel it is time to clarify this issue once and for all.

"It remains clear to us that the Scottish Government has acted unlawfully by refusing to update its guidance on religious observance. However, we remain open to offers to work together and resolve the matter directly." 

No date has been set for a substantive hearing, but it is expected to be in early 2017.

The Scottish Government said it is not appropriate for it to comment specifically in relation to the ongoing court proceedings.

However a spokesperson added: "Parents are legally entitled to withdraw their children from religious observance in all Scottish schools and the flexible approach afforded by Curriculum for Excellence encourages schools to discuss options with both parents and their children, including in relation to a decision to withdraw from religious observance.

"Religious observance, which many schools refer to as time for reflection, is considered a whole school activity that should be open and inclusive to all faith and non-faith pupils unless a parent has withdrawn their child."