31 Jan 2011

Secularists campaign to change UK law that makes religious assemblies in schools compulsory, government and church resist

Secular News Daily - March 1, 2011

Freedom Bill ‘ideal vehicle to scrap law on compulsory worship in schools’

by British Humanist Association

The Protection of Freedoms Bill, which MPs will be debating for the first time today, is ‘an ideal vehicle’ for the law requiring collective worship in schools to be scrapped, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has commented today.

Following an online consultation, the BHA included the views of ordinary people in its briefing which it distributed widely to MPs to help them prepare for the debate.

In England all state maintained schools are legally required to provide a daily act of collective worship for all of their pupils. In community schools the majority of the acts of daily collective worship provided in a given term are legally required to be of a ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’. In ‘faith schools’ the act of worship is provided in accordance with the school’s trust deed or the tenets and practices of the religion of the school.

The law is widely unpopular. In November 2010, leading teaching unions and education campaigners joined together with the BHA and religious representatives to call on the Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, to scrap collective worship in schools and replace it with inclusive assemblies.

While parents have the right to withdraw children from worship – many respondents to the consultation expressed unease at singling out their child for removal. The inability for children under sixteen to withdraw themselves has been criticised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in 2008 as violating fundamental freedoms.

BHA Education Campaigns Officer Jenny Pennington commented, ‘There is no good argument for retaining a law which compels schools to hold daily acts of worship; a law which infringes on children’s rights and which most secondary schools struggle to observe. We were unsurprised to see many people expressing their desire to have this restrictive law scrapped under the much vaunted Freedom Bill through the Government’s ‘Your Freedom’ website. It is extremely disappointing therefore that the government has chosen to ignore the wishes of many people by so far failing to include the repeal of the law in the Bill.

‘If the government wishes to free schools from prescriptive legal regimes, then it is difficult to see why the law on collective worship, should not be one of the first laws to be thrown on the bonfire.’

For more information please contact Jenny Pennington jenny@humanism.org.uk or 020 7462 4993.

Just a few reasons to scrap the law on collective worship:

* It’s widely unpopular: teachers, parents and pupils themselves have repeatedly opposed this legal requirement.

* It infringes on young peoples’ rights to freedom of belief by forcing them to worship.

* Scrapping the law would reduce bureaucracy in schools and unnecessary obligations on hard-pressed teachers.

* The law impedes schools’ ability to provide good inclusive assemblies.

* The parental right of withdrawal is not a satisfactory solution – most pupils cannot opt themselves out.

* Teachers are often put in an invidious position, having to lead acts of worship which may not reflect their own beliefs.

* The removal of the compulsory nature of collective worship would not prevent faith schools from holding assemblies which reflect their religious character. Scrapping the law would simply mean that schools could decide for themselves what kind of assembly is best for their pupils.


Read our briefing for the Commons Second Reading of the Protection of Freedoms Bill

You can Take Action! on the issue of compulsory collective worship in schools.

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Daily Mail - UK December 28, 2010

Christian assemblies in schools face axe over claims they infringe children's human rights

Christian assemblies in schools could be scrapped if campaigning atheists and teachers get their way.

According to the National Secular Society, a legal requirement for pupils to take part in a daily act of collective worship ‘of a broadly Christian character’ discriminates against young atheists and non-Christians, and infringes human rights.

And the campaign has support from headmasters who claim that many schools already ignore the requirement, despite it being set in stone since the passing of the 1944 Education Act.

The Association of School and College Leaders has also suggested assemblies should end, and the British Humanist Association is campaigning on the subject.

But the most direct attack on religious assemblies, which represents yet another assault on Britain’s historic Christian culture, has come in a letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove from Keith Porteous, executive director of the National Secular Society.

Mr Porteous wrote: ‘We believe that the mandatory daily acts of mainly Christian worship and, in particular, the imposition on children to take part in such acts, represent an infringement of rights.

‘We recognise that assemblies with an ethical framework have a vital contribution to make to school life.

‘We do, however, object to collective worship in principle, as not being a legitimate activity of a state-funded institution.

‘We are confident that you would not wish to perpetuate a law that is routinely disregarded. We hope that, under your leadership, the law will be changed so that it is brought out of disrepute.’

The letter goes on to urge the Education Secretary to scrap the requirement to stage Christian assemblies in an education bill due to be produced next year.

Although parents can withdraw their children from such assemblies simply by writing a letter to the headmaster or headmistress, the atheist campaigners claim many fear such letters could make their children targets for bullying.

The National Secular Society had already prompted outrage this year by launching legal action using the much-derided Human Rights Act to stop councils beginning meetings with prayers.

If such action was taken through the appropriate courts, religious assemblies could ultimately be ruled illegal.

The campaigning atheists have willing supporters inside the school system, with many of them saying schools do not have big enough halls to accommodate all their pupils every morning.

Paul Kelley, the headmaster of Monkseaton High School, Tyne and Wear, has claimed that most schools ignore the requirement to stage a daily collective act of worship anyway.

Five years ago, he lobbied the Labour government to scrap the requirement, but was told the House of Lords would never approve such a move.

The Association of School and College Leaders has also backed calls for an end to the law on daily religious assemblies, saying that in reality they often simply did not happen.

ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman said: ‘Many schools aren’t doing the daily act of worship and theoretically they are breaking the law.’

The Church of England, however, is strongly opposed to changing the law.

A spokesman said: ‘To deny children the entitlement to take part in worship at school is to deny them a learning experience that is increasingly important in the modern world.’

And the Department for Education said the Government was not planning to bring an end to compulsory Christian assemblies.

A spokesman said: ‘The Government believes that the requirement for collective worship in schools encourages pupils to reflect on the concept of belief and the role it plays in the traditions and values of this country.

‘Schools have the flexibility to design provision that is appropriate to the age and background of their pupils.

‘If a headteacher feels it is inappropriate to have Christian collective worship, the school can apply to have this changed.’

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