Barring humanists from RE committees is discriminatory, court rules

Posted: Tue, 30th May 2023

Barring humanists from RE committees is discriminatory, court rules

Local advisory committees on religious education may not exclude humanists, the High Court has found.

In a landmark ruling on Friday, the High Court determined that Kent County Council acted unlawfully in barring a humanist from joining a Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) as a full member.

Judge Adam Constable quashed the council's decision, finding it in breach of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits discrimination.

The case was raised by Stephen Bowen, a humanist with 'observer status' on Kent SACRE which meant he did not have voting rights.

SACREs oversee the agreed syllabus for religious education – the only part of the curriculum which is locally determined. All community schools, voluntary controlled schools and foundation schools must follow the agreed syllabus.

In 2021, Bowen requested full membership of Kent SACRE alongside religious representatives, which would give him voting rights. The council voted to refuse, arguing that religious representatives could not include members of non-religious belief communities.

According to Humanists UK, which supported Bowen, 66 SACREs have humanist full members.

Bowden argued that the Census 2021 found there are more humanists in Kent than members of the Baha'i religion, which did have a representative on the SACRE.

The judge found that the agreed syllabus "must include non-religious worldviews".

He said it was "clearly discriminatory to exclude" someone from full membership "solely by reference to the fact that their belief, whilst appropriate to be included within the agreed syllabus for religious education, is a non-religious, rather than a religious, belief".

He concluded that Kent County Council's discriminatory interpretation of the law regarding SACRE membership "is manifestly without reasonable foundation and not justifiable".

He added: "Indeed, it is antithetical to what the provisions can sensibly be considered as aiming to achieve, when that aim is now to be realised in light of the fact that 'religious education' must include some teaching of non-religious beliefs".

NSS: Case 'shines light on unsustainable and anachronistic RE'

Megan Manson, head of campaigns at the National Secular Society, said: "This is a welcome ruling, and not only because it establishes non-religious worldviews have a place in religious education and the committees which advise RE.

"It also emphasises that non-religious people are just as entitled to protection from discrimination as religious people. This is important to reiterate, as too often the principles of religious freedom and equality are narrowly and wrongly interpreted to exclude the non-religious.

"The case also shines a light on the unsustainable and anachronistic nature of religious education. A locally determined subject largely controlled by religious interest groups is inappropriate in 21st century schools. Reform is clearly more necessary than ever."

Tags: RE