IN A LANDMARK judgment handed down in the High Court in England on Friday 26 May, humanist Steve Bowen successfully challenged his local authority’s attempt to block him from the council’s religious education committee.

In his decision, Mr Justice Constable concluded that it was ‘unlawful’ for Kent County Council to refuse Bowen’s membership of the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE). The judge said it is: “clearly discriminatory to exclude someone from SACRE Group A solely by reference to the fact that their belief, whilst appropriate to be included within the agreed syllabus for religious education, is a non-religious, rather than a religious, belief.”

Humanists UK, which was responsible for bringing the case and has supported Bowen throughout, applauded the decision, and welcomed its far-reaching impact.

Since 2015 Religious Education (RE) has been required to be inclusive of non-religious worldviews like humanism. But RE syllabuses for many state schools, rather than being set nationally, are agreed at a local level by each SACRE. This new judgment is the first ruling to say that not only must syllabuses not exclude humanism, but also that the local committees overseeing the subject cannot exclude humanists. It was on these grounds that the Court quashed Kent County Council’s refusal to consider Bowen as a full member of its SACRE.

Informing his judgment, Mr Justice Constable found that: “the discriminatory nature of section 390(4) [of the Education Act 1996] as interpreted by KCC is manifestly without reasonable foundation and not justifiable. Indeed, it is antithetical to what the provisions can sensibly be considered as aiming to achieve, when that aim is now to be realised in light of the fact that ‘religious education’ must include some teaching of non-religious beliefs, as confirmed in Fox… As such, section 390(4)(a) as construed by KCC does involve a breach of Article 14 [of the European Convention on Human Rights].”

Therefore he concluded that: “The application for judicial review succeeds. I quash the decision of KCC dated 17 June 2022 on the basis that it was unlawful.”

Humanists UK says the implications of this ruling will be significant for humanism. Firstly, Kent County Council’s SACRE should now move to formally admit Steve Bowen as a full member of group A. Secondly, the law has been clarified and a precedent has been set such that every SACRE in England should now take steps, if it has not already done so, to permit humanists to join group A.

The Court has made it clear that there are no barriers to RE being fully inclusive of humanism, nor to humanists being represented on SACREs. The private member’s Education (Non-religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill, currently in the House of Lords and sponsored by Baroness Burt of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, if passed, would reflect in statute law the accepted position in respect of these two points. Humanists UK has called on the Government to support the Bill.

Steve Bowen, the claimant in the case, and Chair of Kent Humanists, commented: “I’m delighted with the judge’s decision – it means a lot both to me personally, and to Kent Humanists, that humanism has been given the respect it deserves. I always knew that it was logical for it to be possible to appoint a humanist to a SACRE in a world where the RE curriculum now covers non-religious worldviews such as mine, as well as religious ones.

“August 2021, when I first applied to the SACRE, seems a long time ago now, but we have got there in the end. I hope that this judgment will also pave the way for other humanists across England to be given a voice in a similar manner.

“I’d like to thank my legal team and Humanists UK for all their support. Should they choose to appoint me, I’m now looking forward to joining the SACRE, and representing the humanist worldview in its discussions about religious education, for the benefit of the children of Kent.”

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: “I’m thrilled with this judgment – the impact of which will be far reaching – and pleased that Humanists UK was able to support Steve with his case. As a former chair of a SACRE myself, I know how rewarding and important it is for humanists to contribute to their local community in this way.

“Education about religious and non-religious worldviews is an important subject – when taught in an inclusive manner reflecting the diversity of belief in England today. With half of the population now having no religion, we must keep the subject as relevant as possible for young people.

“Humanist representation on SACREs ensures that the non-religious have a voice. While 40 per cent of SACREs already have a humanist as a full member, there has for many years been uncertainty about the issue, as it fell to each local authority to make its own decision on the interpretation of the law. The Court has now given its verdict, and has very clearly agreed with what we have always believed to be the case since the Human Rights Act came into force.

“As an urgent priority, the Government should issue new guidance for all SACREs, stating clearly that there is no impediment to humanists being full members of group A. It should also amend statute law to reflect this now accepted position. Ministers should be delighted to know that all the legwork has already been done: Baroness Burt’s Education Bill is ready and waiting for its next stage in the House of Lords.”

In England, religious education (RE) is a compulsory subject in schools but the curriculum is not devised nationally: syllabuses are set locally by Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs). There are 151 of these in England, one for each education authority. Each SACRE has four subgroups: group A is made up of people to represent the principal religious beliefs in the area (other than the Church of England); group B is for the Church of England; group C is for teacher representatives; group D is for representatives from the local authority.

* Read the full judgment in the case here.

* Source: Humanists UK