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New bill proposes to replace compulsory religious worship with inclusive assemblies 

A new bill that proposes to scrap compulsory religious worship and replace it with inclusive assemblies has today been put forward in the House of Lords with support from Humanists UK.

Peer and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Baroness Burt introduced the Private Members’ Bill – known as the Education (Assemblies) Bill 2020 – which seeks to amend the current legal requirement for a daily act of collective worship in state schools, replacing it with a requirement to provide assemblies that develop the ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural education’ of pupils regardless of religion or belief. If adopted, the change will only apply to schools in England without a designated religious character.

The bill, which was entered into a ballot for bills to be heard in the House of Lords in the new parliament on Friday and will be introduced to the House on 23 January, also explicitly states that no compulsory acts of worship or other religious observance should be organised by (or on behalf of) schools. However, pupils will be permitted to opt-in to voluntary acts of worship if they so wish, with parents retaining the right to withdraw those aged under 16 from such sessions.

Humanists UK, which has long campaigned for an end to collective worship and is backing the bill, today welcomed its introduction. The bill comes just one month after it supported two parents, Lee and Lizanne Harris, to successfully challenge the collective worship policy at their children’s school in a prominent legal case which saw the school concede and agree to provide an alternative assembly with no religious acts of worship.

The current collective worship law, a version of which has been in place in England and Wales since 1944, requires all state schools to provide a daily act of worship. Even in schools with no designated religious character, this must be ‘of a broadly Christian character.’

While research shows that many schools break the law by not holding a daily act of worship, others stick rigidly to the requirement. Parents may currently withdraw their children from worship but this is often difficult and, in many cases, no meaningful alternative is provided. Indeed, Humanists UK reports that it receives more complaints from parents about this issue than any other.

If the bill is given sufficient support in the House of Lords and supported by an MP, it will then be debated in the House of Commons and may become law.

Humanists UK recently published an information pack for parents at other schools outlining their rights to request a meaningful alternative to collective worship. It has also launched the first model of inclusive assemblies for schools: Assemblies for All. A poll released in August showed that parents believe religious worship is the least appropriate activity for school assemblies, ranking it last among 13 possible topics or activities.

Humanists UK’s Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham said: ‘We firmly support the introduction of Baroness Burt’s Assemblies Bill. It is about time that the outdated legal requirement for all schools to carry out acts of collective worship is replaced with something more appropriate for the diverse society in which we live; namely, inclusive assemblies that do not seek to impose a particular worldview but are suitable for all children regardless of background or belief. Hopefully, this bill will be the first step towards making this ideal a reality in schools across England.’

NOTES:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3078 or 07393 344293.

Read more about the Harris’ legal case.

Read more about Humanist UK’s work on collective worship.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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