Two parents are taking their children’s primary school to the High Court, claiming that regular Christian prayers and bible re-enactments are in breach of their children’s human rights.
In a landmark case, Lee Harris and his wife Lizanne argue that Burford Primary School are acting ‘unlawfully’. They are bringing a judicial review against Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST), who took over the running of the community school in 2015.
As reported by The Telegraph, the couple say they started to notice ‘harmful aspects of evangelism spreading into assembly’ and other areas of the pupils’ education following ODST’s takeover.
By law, all church and community schools must provide a ‘daily act of collective worship’. The couple say that Burford Primary School’s daily assembly doesn’t cater to the beliefs of their children, aged eight and 10, and features ‘exclusively Christian prayer’.
They add that there’s a longer assembly once a week, involving an external Christian group acting out stories, such as Jesus’ crucifixion and dressing up as biblical characters.
The couple asked to withdraw their children from the religious assembly. However, instead of providing an alternative that is ‘of equal educational worth’, they were allegedly left to ‘play with an iPad’. This, they argue, is a breach of the school’s public sector equality duty to give due regard to everyone’s beliefs.
In a joint statement, the parents said they are bringing the case ‘reluctantly’, but also ‘feel strongly that we need to try to make our children’s education as inclusive as possible’.
The statement reads:
We enrolled our children into a state community school – which is meant to have no religious character – but over time we noticed harmful aspects of evangelism spreading into assembly and other parts of the school which goes against our children’s rights to receive an education free from religious interference.
When our children go to school they shouldn’t have to participate in Christian prayers, or watch biblical scenes such as the crucifixion being acted out, nor should they have to hear from evangelical preachers who spout harmful and often divisive messages.
ODST is a multi-academy trust which oversees 33 schools, all of which fall under the Church of England; bar four, including Burford, which is considered to be a ‘non-religious community school’.
The trust says on their website:
We are motivated by our Christian values to serve our local communities, but we do not impose those values.
The school also holds several events in a church, such as a Year Six leavers event, where pupils are given a bible.
Mr and Mrs Harris argue that their children are essentially being discriminated against by not being offered a non-religious equivalent. They say these Christian-based events leave their children ‘deprived of the benefit of what should be important elements of school and community life’.
Humanists UK are supporting the couple, and say this will be a challenge to schools who fail to provide an adequate alternative to daily acts of Christian worship.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, told The Telegraph:
We are the only sovereign state in the world to require schools to hold daily Christian worship, yet 80% of our young people and 75% of people of parental age are not Christians.
Copson argues that marginalising children who cannot perform in religious worship due to their beliefs ignores their right to freedom of belief.
The UK is the only country in the world to impose compulsory Christian worship in state schools. Sign our petition now to tell the Government: replace compulsory worship with inclusive assemblies! https://t.co/VySv4lm8Ae
— Humanists UK (@Humanists_UK) July 29, 2019
Anne Davey, chief executive of ODST, said it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on legal proceedings whilst ongoing. However, she did say: ‘ODST is confident that Burford Primary School has acted entirely appropriately, and has followed statute in ways that are similar to all local or indeed national schools.’
It has provided exactly what the law requires, which includes provision for children to be withdrawn if parents so request.
In the primary school’s recent Ofsted report, Burford was judged to be ‘good’. Inspectors commented that pupils ‘speak with confidence about different faiths and cultures’ and said they ‘have a keen sense of equalities and their work demonstrates a deep understanding of British Values’.
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