What do you do when the local public elementary school becomes part of a Church of England network and pushes religion on your kids? That’s what’s happening with Lee Harris and his wife Lizanne.
Lee explained the situation back in December. He sent his kids to Burford Primary School in Nottingham, partly because it wasn’t a religious school. But in 2015, the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST) took over the place, and the way religion was handled changed dramatically. Instead of merely offering generic religious teachings (which are legal there), the assemblies were very clearly Christian.
The Harrises asked for their children to be removed from those assemblies, as is their right, but the school didn’t offer any decent alternative. It’s as if they took the kids who didn’t want to be there and just shoved them in a separate room until it was all over.
Our children told us they were encouraged to participate in active prayer, Christianity was positioned as truth and Bible stories were ‘acted out’ including beatings and crucifixion.
Our children felt increasingly excluded from assemblies and school activities, left to sit in side rooms for long periods of time with a teaching assistant until we came to pick them up.
More and more it felt like our children were being discriminated against. Daily activities that could help to provide an inclusive environment were seemingly being ignored. Each time the headteacher said she was serving the “majority” of the children and preparing them for life in a “Christian country”.
The Harrises eventually turned to the school’s governors with a few simple requests. They wanted the school to “justify its current policy of collective worship” and stop having the local church run assemblies. They wanted teachers to run those events instead. They also asked for the school to “maintain a community school ethos, as opposed to a faith-based ethos” and not alienate kids who didn’t want to participate.
The governors rejected those requests.
But now they may have to take those requests seriously because the High Court has agreed to hear this case. (Which is like a U.S. District Court allowing a case to proceed. It’s the first step in what could be a long process, but it’s a vital one.) The hearing will take place on November 29.
Humanists UK, which is supporting Mr and Mrs Harris, believe this will be a test case to challenge schools which hold a daily act of Christian worship without providing a suitable alternative for non-Christians.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, said: “We are the only sovereign state in the world to require schools to hold daily Christian worship, yet 80 per cent of our young people and 75 per cent of people of parental age are not Christians.”
He added that requiring children to participate in religious worship and then “marginalising them if in good conscience they cannot”, ignores their right to freedom of religion or belief.
Where are all those conservative Christian voices who are always calling for religious freedom…?
Any education system that puts religious beliefs over actual learning is messed up to begin with, but even a traditional, more ecumenical faith can underlie the work a school does without putting targets on some students’ backs. When non-Christian students are made to feel like outcasts because they don’t accept the myths that are being forced upon them, it’s the school’s fault.
The question now is whether this school’s actions have crossed the line. The Harrises are saying that’s the case. Humanists UK agrees. The only people who say otherwise are the people in charge of running the school. It’ll be up to the courts to sort this out. It shouldn’t be that difficult.
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