‘See you in court’: Humanists’ legal challenge to compulsory school religion accepted


Lack of ‘opt-out’ from observance has been criticised by United Nations Children’s Rights Committee

SECULAR CAMPAIGNERS who launched a legal challenge against the Scottish Government over the compulsory nature of religious worship in schools have had their right to serve a petition accepted by legal authorities.

CommonSpace has learnt that Court of Session judge Lord Pentland has approved the initial draft of the legal challenge, which will now be passed onto the government for a response. The Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS) is seeking a judicial review at the Court of Session after the government refused to carry out a review of current guidelines on religious observance, specifically over whether pupils can opt out of observance. HSS claims current guidelines represent a breach of human rights law.

Schools are compelled to include time for religious observance within their curriculums due to the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. Parents can decide to ‘opt-out’ of observance on behalf of their children – but pupils themselves have no ‘opt-out’ right. 

In England pupils aged 16-18 can ‘opt-out’ – but that right is not available within Scottish guidance. 

HSS chief executive Gordon MacRae said: “Today in Scotland young people are trusted to get married, join the army and vote in elections and for the constitutional future of Scotland . However, Scottish ministers still do not trust them to make their own decisions about attending religious observance or to give young people the same rights as those living in England and Wales.

For God's sake: University report identifies religious privileges in Scots law

“For sometime now Humanist Society Scotland has been calling on the Scottish Government to update its policy on religious observance. I had hoped that if they would not listen to us then at least they would listen to the United Nations Children’s Rights Committee.”

“Sadly our efforts to seek progressive reform of this outdated requirement of Scottish education has failed. The Scottish Government’s policy on religious observance is a mess, a classic political fudge. Our young people deserve better,” he added.

The origins of the observance policy date back to 1872. Religious groups still receive three unelected positions on Scottish council authority education boards, despite public views becoming less religious over past decades.

A June report by the United Nations Children’s Rights Committee called on UK governments to “repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious worship at school”.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “Religious observance should be sensitive to individual beliefs, whether these come from a faith or non-faith perspective.

“Parents are legally entitled to withdraw their children from religious observance in our schools.

“While there is currently no legal basis for children to remove themselves from religious observance, the flexible approach to learning and teaching afforded by Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland encourages schools to discuss options with both parents and their children, this could also include allowing pupils to withdraw from religious observance if they wish.”

The number of people in Scotland who identify as 'non-religious' has increased from 40 per cent to 54 per cent between 1999 and 2013, according to the Scottish Social Attitude Survey. Young people are the least likely to follow a religion.

Picture courtesy of Wayne Grazio

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.