As we have previously noted, children in Scotland (and in Northern Ireland) do not have the right to withdraw themselves from collective school worship without parental permission even if they are aged sixteen or over. Originally dating from 1872, the current law on religious observance in Scottish schools is set out in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, as amended, and the latest guidance from the Scottish Government was issued in 2011 – though since 2005, Scottish schools have been required to make parents aware that they can remove their children from religious education and observance.
After that situation was roundly criticised by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Humanist Society Scotland launched a judicial review of the Scottish Government’s refusal to allow sixth-form students to opt out of religious observance. The Scottish Government objected to the grounds of the judicial review and, in an unreported Court of Session ruling on 14 October, the Lord Ordinary [Lord Armstrong] decided at the permission stage that Humanist Society Scotland should be allowed to proceed with its petition.
The Herald now reports that the Scottish Government is to examine the possibility of changing the law. Under Rule 58.11(1) of the Court of Session Rules chapter 58 (Judicial Review), when permission is granted the Keeper of the Rolls must, in consultation with the Lord Ordinary, fix—
(a) a date for the substantive hearing, which must be no later than 12 weeks from the date on which permission is granted, except where the Lord Ordinary is satisfied that a longer period is necessary; and
(b) a date for the procedural hearing (unless the Lord Ordinary is satisfied that a procedural hearing is unnecessary), which must be no later than 6 weeks from the date on which permission is granted, except where the Lord Ordinary is satisfied that a longer period is necessary.
The Herald says that “the hearing will now be shelved for three months while the Government review gets under way”. So it would appear that Lord Armstrong was minded to give the Government the maximum possible time in which to consider its position. Also according to The Herald, a Scottish Government spokesman said:
“We believe religious observance in schools should support the values of a diverse, outward-looking Scotland, which encourages young people to develop their own beliefs and values and understand and respect the beliefs and values of others. Listening to the views of young people themselves on all aspects of education is very important, as we have clearly recognised through our approach in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 and the current Education Governance Review. We welcome the opportunity to work with key interests to discuss how we ensure this approach is fully reflected through religious observance guidance.”