Protestant churches concerned about protection of religious education in Northern Ireland

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A Belfast High Court judge has ruled that basic Christian education taught in primary schools is ‘unlawful and violates human rights’

A Belfast High Court judge has ruled that the basic Christian education taught in primary schools was “unlawful and violates human rights”.

The verdict came as part of a legal challenge mounted by a non-Christian father and his seven-year-old daughter against the current faith curriculum in controlled primary schools.

The judge said: “The illegality identified necessitates a reconsideration of the core curriculum and impugned legislation with respect to the teaching of religious education (RE) and the provision of corporate worship (CW).”

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Religion in predominantly Protestant state-controlled schools in Northern Ireland is administered by the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist denominations through a system of assigning representatives, which has been in place since 1936 when the Protestant churches ceded control of the schools in the northern era. Irish Government at Stormont. The Department of Education Ordinance of 1936 effectively protected the ethos, buildings, and control of education for the Protestant community.

In contrast, Roman Catholic schools in the province came under the control of the Maintained Catholic System, with the religious ethos of that denomination being protected and maintained. It is unclear whether Catholic schools will be affected by the latest court ruling.

Regarding the court decision, the assignor’s Council of Representatives said: “The teaching of religious education and collective worship in controlled primary schools is an important issue. It should be noted in this case that the judge will give the parties time to reflect on his judgment.

“Although the transferred churches are not directly parties to this matter, nevertheless, as this is an important and significant matter, we will consider the decision over the next few weeks. We will also need to take the time to discuss the issue as churches together.

Last month Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist representatives from the Transferor Representatives’ Council (TRC), as well as the Controlled Schools’ Support Council, met with the Minister for Education of Northern Ireland, Michelle McIlveen, MP, when a range of issues in the audited education sector in Northern Ireland were discussed.

In 1936, the three churches transferred most of their schools to state control—hence the terms “relinquishing” and “controlled”—in exchange for assurances of the schools’ Christian ethos and a continued role in their governance.

The Grantor’s Council of Representatives is made up of 11 representatives appointed by the three churches.

The Controlled Sector is the largest education sector, representing 49% of all schools in Northern Ireland, including 63 nursery schools, 380 primary schools and 69 post-primary schools. Controlled schools are open to children of all faiths and none, bringing a rich diversity and inclusive ethos reflecting the many different communities they serve in today’s society.

In light of the court’s decision, which is expected to be reviewed by the presiding judge, another meeting between DUP Minister McIlveen, her advisers and representatives of the transferor may be necessary. The Christian teaching in our public schools must be protected.

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