Atheist parents win fight to make church school hold non-religious assemblies

An atheist couple who pulled their children from assemblies at a Church of England school have won a court battle to force it to provide non-religious ceremonies.

Lee and Lizanne Harris, from Oxfordshire, removed their children from morning gatherings at Burford Primary School claiming it was religious ‘indoctrination’.

They also claimed the assemblies at the 111-pupil academy involved watching Bible stories including the crucifixion, reports WalesOnline.

They won permission to bring a judicial review against Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST) which runs the religious academy trust run school.

The pair said God and Christianity were presented to pupils as ‘fact’.

Their claim was due to be heard at the High Court on November 29 – but ahead of the hearing the trust said it has come to an out-of-court agreement to avoid costly legal bills.

As part of the settlement the school has agreed to ‘provide a meaningful alternative assembly of equal educational worth for all pupils withdrawn from compulsory prayers’.

It also said Burford Primary will ‘no longer hold its school leavers’ ceremony in church or gift Bibles to all children’.

And members of the clergy will also no longer be allowed to lead any school events unless they are doing it in a non-religious capacity.

Following the result Mr and Mrs Harris said in a statement: “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.

“The defendant’s reluctance to take this to court, in our view, shows the growing fragility of this outdated law and those who choose to enforce it.”

In a statement, the trust said: “Without accepting any liability, we have made an out-of-court agreement to ensure we safeguard public funds for the education of children, and avoid a potentially expensive court case.

“Costs incurred in reaching this settlement will be not be met from Burford Primary School’s budget.”

The case was backed by Humanists UK, which said this would have been the first case on school worship to reach the High Court.

In a statement today, the organisation described the settlement as a ‘shock climb down’.

The school was a community school when the children joined, but in 2015 it converted to an academy and joined the trust.

When Mr and Mrs Harris withdrew their children from assemblies, they said they were left to ‘play with an iPad’ with a supervisor.

The judiciary was asked to review decisions made by the governors’ complaints panel.

What’s the law on religion in schools?

Collective worship that is ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ is a statutory requirement in all state-funded schools in England and Wales, including schools that do not have a designated religious character.

Campaigners have branded the rule ‘antiquated’ and called for it to be abolished.

Ofsted stopped inspecting collective worship in 2004, after the vast majority of schools were found to be non-compliant.

Humanists UK’s chief executive Andrew Copson 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.

“Defenders of this discriminatory law should not think that, by backing down now, they have protected it from continuing reform and progress.”

The statement from ODST said the school and trust have ‘always acted in the best interests of children’.

It added: “The needs of children sit firmly at the heart of decision-making.

“We are successful in offering broad cultural and academic experiences, and last year Ofsted highlighted how our pupils ‘speak with confidence about different faiths and cultures’, ‘have a keen sense of equalities’ and demonstrate ‘a deep understanding of British Values.’

“We are satisfied that the judicial review application has been withdrawn and we continue to strive to provide a high quality, equal and inclusive education for all the children in our care.”

First published 20.11.19: https://www.examinerlive.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/atheist-parents-win-fight-make-17288238

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