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Case Study: Child traumatised by collective worship

This is the fourth in a series of anonymous case studies from parents, teachers and others who have approached the British Humanist Association (BHA) to help deal with how the education of their children has been unfairly disrupted, or even damaged, by religion in the state school system.

Currently the law requires all state schools, including schools without a religious character, to provide an act of daily worship which is ‘of a broadly Christian character’. Parents are allowed to ask for their children to be removed but this can often make a child feel singled out from their friends and it may mean they miss school notices as well as other secular spiritual, moral, social and cultural aspects of assembly. Additionally, forcing children to pray ignores their own right to freedom of religious belief. Here is a case where a community school ignored the wishes of a parent to remove her daughter from RE and religious assemblies, resulting in severe distress to the child.

A mother wrote to us about her seven year old daughter. Claire is an atheist and does not teach her beliefs to Sarah but was concerned about her being subjected to religious proselytising in school. In particular, Claire asked the head teacher if Sarah could be withdrawn from ‘any collective worship which would not be PG if it was a film as she was worried about the effects some biblical stories might have.

Claire’s request was ignored, and her daughter was told about a god who killed first born children, turned rivers into blood and murdered millions in floods. Sarah believed that all of these stories were real and so became terrified that at any moment God would kill her or torture her in hell. Claire described how Sarah was unable to sleep and became ‘a fearful and anxious child who she had to refer to anxiety counselling.

In this case, the BHA reminded the parent of their rights to remove their child from RE, but also advised the parent to ask the school if they would consider reducing the religious content of their assemblies to 51%, and considered making the rest inclusive – as is permitted by the law.

BHA Education Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘Although not all children might have such a strong reaction, it seems grossly hypocritical that schools which would condemn violent fictional films and television programmes as unsuitable for children have no hesitation in presenting as true equally gruesome material in RE classes and assemblies. Most importantly, though, the right of the parent to remove her daughter from collective worship was ignored by the school, at considerable cost to the child.

‘The BHA is campaigning to end the law requiring all state-maintained schools to hold Christian collective worship which we believe goes against pupils’ rights to freedom of belief. Instead, we would like schools to have assemblies which deliver important ethical and philosophical messages whilst catering to all religions and beliefs, and so make them more inclusive.’


TAKE ACTION! You too can help our campaign against collective worship by signing our e-petition calling for it to be abolished.

For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson on 020 7462 4993.

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on collective worship and religious education.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of ethically concerned, non-religious people in the UK. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.

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