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Academy trust facing legal action over collective worship agrees to provide alternative materials and activities

A Church of England multi-academy trust facing legal action over compulsory collective worship in its schools has agreed to provide alternative inclusive materials and activities featuring no prayers or other acts of Christian worship.

Lee and Lizanne Harris, supported by Humanists UK, had challenged the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust on human rights grounds.

The Trust has also agreed that:

  • Religious observance and referencing ‘God as truth’ will only be able to take place in designated collective worship sessions.
  • Members of the clergy will no longer be allowed to lead any school events unless they are doing it in a non-religious capacity (e.g. as a school governor).
  • It will no longer hold its school leavers’ ceremony in church or gift bibles to all children.

Humanists UK said the claimants brought legal action after learning that their children were being made to pray and watch re-enactments of Bible scenes, including the crucifixion, during assemblies at Burford Primary School, an academy with no religious character.

The Harrises later withdrew their children from assemblies but no alternative activities were arranged by the school.

In a submission to the High Court, the parents argued that Christian worship at the school constituted indoctrination and was in breach of their right to freedom of belief under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: “The 75 year old English law requiring daily religious worship is so antiquated that it has collapsed in the face of its first legal challenge, without the case being seen through to court. Parliament should now act to replace it with a new requirement for inclusive assemblies in keeping with the nature of our plural society and Government should take a lead in that. We will be calling on them to do so.

“In the meantime, defenders of this discriminatory law should not think that, by backing down now, they have protected it from continuing reform and progress. This case makes clear that parents and children have the right to freedom of conscience without disadvantage and we will be appealing to all state schools still mandating unshared religious practices to cease to do so or to provide meaningful inclusive alternatives. The message of today’s result to all schools couldn’t be clearer: the law requires it.”

Louise Whitfield of Deighton Pierce Glynn, who instructed David Wolfe QC of Matrix Chambers to act on the parents’ behalf, said: “Whilst my clients are very pleased that the case has been resolved in a way that enables their children to have an inclusive and meaningful alternative to collective worship, it is extremely disappointing that it took a court case to resolve this. The school has agreed to do everything that my clients had in fact asked for before they took legal advice. They hope that other schools will take a more cooperative and responsible approach to providing non-discriminatory, inclusive alternatives for all children.”

The consent order can be viewed here.

Anne Dellar, CEO of the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST), said: “A small community school has been placed at the sharp end of a national campaign. At a time when school funds are stretched ODST took the pragmatic decision to avoid wholly unnecessary court costs.

"A short-term child-specific arrangement has been agreed between ODST and the parents of two children attending Burford Primary School. The arrangement will lapse when the youngest of the two children leave the school. Burford Primary School is not offering an alternative assembly; rather, a small number of children who are withdrawn from collective worship will be able to access alternative materials, overseen by a teacher.

"Burford Primary School is a happy, successful and inclusive school. While recognising every parent's right to withdraw their child from collective worship, we are saddened that this case has diverted valuable funds and staff time.”