Humanism and religious education in schools: the landmark case of Bowen

In a guest post, Russell Sandberg analyses the latest judgment on humanism and religious education in schools. 

The High Court decision in R (on the Application of Bowen) v Kent County Council [2023] EWHC 1261 (Admin) makes it clear that local authorities cannot exclude humanist representatives from their Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs). Although many SACREs already include humanists and this interpretation has been articulated in soft law, the judgment of Constable J is unambiguous on that point and presents a significant step forward. However, the judgment also highlights how the protection of non-religious beliefs continues to be controversial and lacking in clarity. This post will explore this welcome decision while highlighting the unresolved matters concerning freedom of non-religious beliefs.

The legal context

Under section 390(4)(a) of the Education Act 1996, Group A of each SACRE is required to be

“a group of persons to represent such Christian denominations and other religions and denominations of such religions as, in the opinion of the authority, will appropriately reflect the principal religious traditions in the area”.

Kent County Council refused to appoint Mr Bowen to Group A on the basis that as a humanist he did not represent “a religion or a denomination of a religion” and so it would have been unlawful for them to do so [2]. Continue reading