The British Humanist Association (BHA) has called on the government to support the new report from Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights which calls for children to be given the right to withdraw from worship in schools.
The report says that any child of ‘sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding’ to be given the right to withdraw from compulsory religious worship. Currently, only sixth form students have the right to withdraw themselves, and other children can only be withdrawn at the request of their parents, but the Human Rights Committee have said that this violates children’s rights to freedom of belief and conscience.
Writing in support of the Committee’s report to Minister for Schools and Learners, Jim Knight MP, the BHA said: "We agree with the JCHR that the law is clearly inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights and that children of ‘sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding’ should be permitted to withdraw themselves from prayer and other worship."
Andrew Copson, British Humanist Association Director of Education and Public Affairs, commented: "The best situation would be the replacement of the law requiring religious worship with a law requiring inclusive assemblies that would be suitable for all children."
He added: "As long as the current law remains, however, children must be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wish to participate. To compel them to pray, or worship in other ways, is a clear interference with their right to freedom of belief – one of the most important rights that we enjoy."
The Church of England has vigorously sought to defend the continuation of compulsory "mainly Christian in character" acts of religious worship in publicly funded schools, which was a requirement originally established in the 1944 Education Act.
The policy arose from the belief that Britain was a "Christian country", but has come under increasing pressure in a plural age.
A growing number of parents, both those of faith and those of no faith, have expressed concerns about whether compulsory worship is appropriate, or have sought to withdraw their children.
In 2006, several British churches lobbied the government for greater investment in training and resources for school staff charged with organising collective worship.
But the religion and society think tank Ekklesia argued at the time that mandating worship in public institutions confuses the different responsibilities of specifically religious bodies on the one hand, and publicly-funded educational bodies open to people of all faiths and none on the other.
Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow commented: "Mandating common worship is inappropriate for public institutions made up of people from different world views and faith backgrounds. It is also a misrepresentation of what worship actually is. Worship is a freely offered act of faith arising from a believing community. It is not something that can be imposed or required of everybody."