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NI schools teaching too much Christianity high court hears

by Heather Preston

Schools in Northern Ireland are teaching too much Christianity as part of religious education, the high court has heard.

The laws requiring faith-based Christian religious education (RE) and collective worship in schools in Northern Ireland has been challenged by a non-religious family in Belfast who argue Christianity is being wrongly prioritised in the classroom.

The father and daughter bringing the legal challenge claim a favouring of Christianity discriminates against others faiths and is a violation of human rights.

"The arrangements for religious education are not compatible with the convention because they lack pluralism and involve proselytising the Christian faith.

"There is a privileging of Christian religious education to such an extent that it is in practice the exclusive form of religious education in controlled primary schools.

"Secondly, the education is not neutrally presented as merely learning about the Christian faith, but it is also seeking to promote and encourage in children Christian practice and Christian belief," the court heard.

The core syllabus for RE in Northern Ireland was devised by representatives of its four largest Christian denominations in Northern Ireland (Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist) and covers the revelation of God, the Christian Church and (Christian) morality. 

While a world religions section has been introduced for pupils aged 11 to 14 and schools are permitted to teach material outside of the core syllabus, its argued many schools teach from a weighted Christian perspective.

Rev Stephen Terry, chair of the Accord coalition tells Premier a balanced syllabus is vital to a tolerant and inclusive society.

"We live in a multicultural society, with different ideas, different approaches, different faith systems, all equally valid, and all trying to get to some form of understanding of religious truth.

"Any balanced education, whatever your personal views may be, have to take account of the existence of these different approaches, and have to give them a fair hearing in a child or a young person's education."

Rev Terry raised concerns that lacking a well-rounded religious education could encourage "the extreme evangelical perspective that there is one way only and it's our way."

"You need to give a fair hearing and have respect for those who start from different points," he added.

A 2018 report from the Religious Education Council for England and Wales suggested that while Christianity is a vital subject within RE, the varied lived perspective of all faiths and none needs to be better explored.

Deputy chair Ed Pawson told Premier RE should embrace world views and is not a place for Christian evangelism.

"Pupils needs to be able to see themselves in the lessons they are learning, especially about beliefs and values. 

"Schools shouldn't be proselytising."

The case is being brought against the Department of Education.

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