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Oxfordshire: Lee and Lizanne Harris challenged compulsory religious worship in school assembly and they won the right for a secular alternative for their children. A Church of England multi-academy decided to allow the children to withdraw from the assembly and prayers, as it was confirmed last Wednesday.
Lee and Lizanne Harris’ children would be provided with a prayer-free, secular class, away from the usual assembly in their Burford primary school, in Oxfordshire. Humanist UK backed the Harris family and said that the decision marked a “significant win” in ensuring that schools did not force religious worship on children.
The Harrises discovered that their children were being made to pray and watch re-enactments of Bible scenes, including the crucifixion, although Burford primary school has no religious character. As the Guardian reports, the couple later withdrew their children from assemblies but no alternative activities were arranged by the school. In their submission to the high court in London, the parents argued that Christian worship at the school constituted indoctrination and was in breach of their right to freedom of belief under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights.
The school must now inform parents that their children have an alternative to religious assemblies. Religious observance and referring to “god as truth” will be able to take place only in designated collective worship sessions.
According to Schools Week, more than 20,000 children started at faith schools in England this September, despite choosing secular schools as their first preference, the National Secular Society has said. Humanists UK already launched the program, called Assemblies for All (which will promote no particular religion or belief) — making it suitable for all pupils regardless of their religious or non-religious background.
The Harrises said: “We are delighted that the school has backed down and agreed to provide our children with an alternative, inclusive, assembly of equal educational worth.
“Ultimately, we took this case to ensure our children receive an inclusive education without the indoctrination of one enforced religion. We believe this isn’t just the right of our children, but all children. The defendant’s reluctance to take this to court in our view shows the growing fragility of this outdated law and those who choose to enforce it. This case is hugely significant as it has established that schools have a duty to make inclusive assemblies available to all pupils who want them.”
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, said: “The 75-year-old English law requiring daily religious worship is so antiquated that it has collapsed in the face of its first legal challenge, without the case being seen through to court. Parliament should now act to replace it with a new requirement for inclusive assemblies in keeping with the nature of our plural society, and government should take a lead in that.”
Unfortunately, the Department for Education stressed that the settlement was only between the parents and this school, and that it had no implications for schools across England.