HUMANISTS have launched a legal challenge to give pupils the right to opt out of religious observance in Scottish schools.

The Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) is to seek a judicial review at the Court of Session in Edinburgh after the Scottish Government rejected calls for a change to the current rules which permit only parents to opt out on their children’s behalf. The move follows a recent review by the United Nations Children’s Rights Committee which recommended the parental right to opt out of religious observance should be extended to young people.

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The HSS, a charity for non-religious people in Scotland, said the refusal to update guidance in the wake of the UN review meant ministers had potentially acted unlawfully.

Under the legal action submitted the HSS has deliberately not specified at what stage children should be given the right to avoid religious observance in schools, but a number of options are available from 13 upwards.

The Scottish Government believe its position chimes with the European Convention of Human Rights which rules that learning and teaching must take place in a way that respects both religious and non-religious beliefs.

And it has been argued that schools already have a duty to take into account the views of their pupils who would be expected to discuss the issue of withdrawal with their parents.

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In Scotland, all young people require parental permission to pull out of
religious observance, unlike England and Wales where sixth form pupils –
typically aged between 16 and 18 – have the right to opt out.

The law which governs religious observance, originally dating from 1872, has not been updated since 1980 and the latest guidance from the Scottish Government was issued in 2011.

Gordon MacRae, chief executive of the HSS, said: “In Scotland young people are trusted to get married, join the army and vote in elections and for the
constitutional future of Scotland. However, Scottish ministers still do not trust them to make their own decisions about attending religious observance or to give young people the same rights as those living in England and Wales.
“For some time now, we have been calling on the Scottish Government to update its policy on religious observance. I had hoped that if they would not listen to us then at least they would listen to the United Nations.”

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Mr MacRae added: “Sadly our efforts to seek progressive reform of this outdated requirement of Scottish education has failed. The Scottish Government’s policy on religious observance is a mess, a classic political fudge. Our young people deserve better.” 

However, a Scottish Government spokesman said that religious and moral education enables children to “explore, debate and, more importantly, understand” the world’s major religions “as well as approaches to living independent of belief”. 

He added: “Religious observance is a whole-school activity which should be sensitive to traditions and origins, and should seek to reflect these but it must equally be sensitive to individual beliefs, whether these come from a faith or non-faith perspective.”

In its report, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child stresses its concern children in Scotland do not have the right to withdraw from “collective worship without parental permission”.

It concluded: “The committee recommends the state party repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious worship at school.”

In 2012, the HSS said the legal right of parents to withdraw their children from religious education and religious observance was being widely ignored in state schools.

 However, churches believe religious observance in all schools is so inclusive that there would be very few occasions when a parent felt they should exercise the right to opt out. Since 2005, Scottish schools have been required to make parents aware they can remove their children from
religious education and observance.

According to the 2011 Census Scotland is moving away from Christianity. Figures showed 54 per cent of residents saw themselves as Christian – down 11 per cent on 2001.