Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Wise heads required in school RE lawsuit

'While we cannot, nor would not, attempt to prejudge the outcome of the legal action, it is legitimate to comment on the circumstances which give rise to it' (stock photo)
'While we cannot, nor would not, attempt to prejudge the outcome of the legal action, it is legitimate to comment on the circumstances which give rise to it' (stock photo)

Editor's Viewpoint

The decision by a non-Christian couple to take legal action over their five-year-old daughter receiving religious education at her school in Northern Ireland is an indication of the changing religious (or non-religious), cultural and racial make-up of society here.

The couple claim that the legislation which makes religious education a compulsory part of the curriculum breaches their human rights.

Parents are unable to withdraw their children on the grounds of conscience.

While we cannot, nor would not, attempt to prejudge the outcome of the legal action, it is legitimate to comment on the circumstances which give rise to it.

This is obviously a delicately balanced conflict between human rights legislation and specific local legislation.

The opposition to compulsory religious education in Northern Ireland certainly comes from a minority, but that does not mean their human rights count for less.

But do human rights take precedence in a conflict like this one? Human rights are very important and must be protected, but there is only one human right - the right to life - which is an obviously pre-eminent right. From life flows all other rights. Given the importance of human rights, it is proper that they are fully respected, both by those who would challenge them and those who use them to argue their case. If a person establishes a human right, it imposes a duty on everyone else, including the recipient, to recognise that right.

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Using human rights legislation to challenge local laws is something that should not be undertaken lightly because of the consequences which flow from it.

There are many parents in Northern Ireland who believe that school is a proper place for the teaching of religious education. Indeed, we have parallel state and Catholic education systems because of that belief. It is right that religious education is not purely denominational in delivery but also includes a world view on religions and beliefs.

These parents will be watching this legal challenge with great interest. They see value in the chiefly Christian teachings which mirror their own beliefs.

But modern society has changed immeasurably in recent decades and the influx of people from other cultures and religions sets new challenges. This legal challenge may require the wisdom of Solomon to resolve.

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