The Arts and Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom says it is necessary to review the law for daily Christian worship at non-religious schools in the country because it might discriminate against other religions and violate children’s freedom of religion and belief. The researchers call for making it clear for students that they have the right to opt out from collective worship practices and to make sure that students in every school have that right.
In non-religious schools across the UK, students participate in collective worship practices or religious observance acts. These practices are Christian in nature but are without any implementation of a specific Christian denomination. The researchers at the University of Leicester say that a work group will help identify the reason these collective worship and religious observances take place, and if no legitimate reason exists, then the acts need to be removed.
The report concludes that collective worship contradicts the schools’ focus on developing a community spirit and instilling in students a shared ethos and values. The researchers say schools need to publicly share the practices involved in collective worship and religious observance acts to make it easier for students and parents to make a decision of consciously participating or withdrawing from the acts, Premier.org.uk reports.
At the moment, many parents are unaware that their students can opt out of these daily religious assemblies.
The National Secular Society (NSS) welcomed the news, as they, too, have been campaigning for years for the need to give students the right to withdraw from these practices if so they wished. The report recommends that schools need to put in place alternative activities for every student opting out.
NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood said the religious practices are obsolete and inappropriate in contexts when students are either non-religious or come from a background of multiple faiths. Wood said:
“Laws that mandate worship are an obvious affront to children’s and young people’s religious freedom, usurp parental rights and go well beyond the legitimate function of the state.”
The law to provide students collective worship or religious observances was introduced in 1945. However, not all schools commit to it. In 2004, the report says, more than 7 in 10 schools were already not offering daily religious assemblies.
In response to the report, the Department for Education says that even for non-religious students, these acts of religious observances and collective worship contribute toward the shaping of core British values including tolerance and respect. At the same time, students taking part in these acts can reflect on the role of faith and belief in life, BBC reports.
Commenting on the study’s recommendations, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain, Chair of the Accord Coalition, says that the report rightly highlights major contradictions and gaps in the present law regarding religious observance in schools. He added that the law disrespects students’, teachers’ and parents’ autonomy and right to choose what religious practices to participate in. The Rabbi said:
“If we are to rescue the opportunity for pupils to communally explore and forge shared values, in a way that is workable and respectful, then the government must show leadership and repeal the collective worship laws as a matter of urgency.”
In regard to schools where the majority of students are not Christian, the school administration has the right to get its Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education office to substitute the Christian-based practices with more appropriate religious observances.