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Times are a-changin’ and judgment on religious teaching in schools should be embraced

Dan Gordon


Christian-focused teachings in schools have been ruled unlawful

Christian-focused teachings in schools have been ruled unlawful

The case was taken by a concerned parent

The case was taken by a concerned parent


Christian-focused teachings in schools have been ruled unlawful

Religious Education in Northern Ireland that is ‘exclusively focused’ on Christian teaching has been deemed unlawful by the High Court.

It’s a significant ruling this week against the Department of Education. The core curriculum in our Controlled (State) Primary Schools focuses solely on the Christian faith. As well as playing a main role in religious education, it is used for the basis of collective worship and isn’t delivered in “an objective, critical and pluralist manner”.

This was part of the judgment in a case taken on behalf of a seven-year-old child via a concerned parent who describes their family as ‘non-religious’. Options of exclusion or sitting-out were considered unreasonable as there are real concerns the child might be isolated or bullied.

It looks like a ball has started rolling. The main Protestant churches appear to be particularly affected. School populations and times have changed radically and continue to evolve. Back in the day when we all sat cross-legged on the floor of school assembly halls belting out “Give me oil in my lamp keep it burning” or “The wise man built his house upon the rock” we knew no different. In those days when prayer was announced,  any head not bowed or eyes not closed could easily attract a slap round the legs or the lugs.

It was the way it was. We parroted commandments and choral speaking about Daniel in the lion’s den, built replicas of Noah’s Ark, crayoned Joseph’s coat of many colours and confused Calvary with Cavalry. The lack of cultural diversity in the system required little else. We were exclusively white and either nominally or fully committed, depending on our parents, to Christian belief systems.

Folk of my vintage might recall the daily class register containing a column listing which particular brand of church we ascribed to. The idea most likely being when our padre paid his (and it was always a man) occasional visit we could be pointed out for special attention. I’ve seen older versions of registers containing a column for ‘Father’s occupation’. I often wondered why that was there and find it difficult to believe it was for anything other than some sinister social classification.

It’ll take time for things to filter through on the back of this judgment and for the powers that be to reassess and redraft. Undoubtedly there’ll be sections of society who’ll challenge change and those who’ll embrace it.

Change is overdue, life looks so much less like it did when the system was set up. This is a week when the Integrated Education Fund hit the headlines as their endeavour was awarded just under two million quid to help with the quest. Let’s not lose perspective though, £2m is a great household lottery win but if you have to build and run schools with it, it won’t get you far — so they still have a way to go.

Much of what many religions are and set out to do is undoubtedly well intentioned and works for a lot of people. It is personal, comforting, important and in the right hands and under the right circumstances teaches a moral code, fellowship, decency and respect. But it’s not for everyone and clearly there are many varieties. There’s a lot about religion that isn’t for all. Intolerance masquerading as righteousness is a popular feature — my way or the highway. Rather than celebrating their own rights and freedoms, followers often use religion to oppress and restrict the rights, freedom and bodily autonomy of others.

It’s a matter of record countless conflicts have been conducted in the name of religion, people subjugated, enslaved, abused and much worse. For all the claims of respect, goodness, kindness, all things bright and beautiful — perhaps the practice of religion is best kept in church/chapel/synagogue/mosque/temple/JediChurchOfTheForce.

Schools can teach about religions without acting as their agents — as Father Ted might say that would be an ecumenical matter.

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