Right to Choose Coalition: Religious Observance in Schools

By Fraser Sutherland, Campaigns and Communications Manager at Humanist Society Scotland. 

Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) and our members have long believed that the current status of religion in Scotland’s education system does not respect the true make-up of Scottish society.  We are clear that this is not about ending the educational understanding of religious faiths, beliefs and practices. Humanists fully support and encourage a clear, balanced and informative Religious, Moral and Philosophical education that helps our children and young people understand and respect others views on belief and topical issues.  What is out of step with modern Scotland is mandatory attendance at Religious Observance in educational settings.

Children and young people in Scotland, unlike senior pupils in England and Wales, have no right to opt out of Religious Observance.  The current law in Scotland says parents can opt their child out, but children and young people themselves have no choice.  Last year, young people at Taylor High School who dared to challenge this and refused to attend a religious service without parental permission faced detention as punishment.

When young people are entrusted to take up employment, get married, have children, vote in elections and commit to our armed forces, how can we say they don’t have the capacity to decide what Religious preaching to attend?

We believe that not offering that choice is in conflict with the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).  This view is supported by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s 2016 recommendation which calls on the Scottish Government to extend the opt-out for religious observance to children and young people, in line with the right to be heard (Article 12) and with children’s evolving capacities (Article 5) as set out in the UNCRC.

HSS had previously tried and failed to affect change through traditional campaigning methods and found ourselves frustrated and frozen out as the Scottish Government continued to ignore calls for reform.  As a result, HSS launched a judicial review on the decision by Scottish Ministers not to extend the opt-out to children and young people.  By refusing to update guidance to head teachers on Religious Observance, the Scottish Government were — we argued in court — acting unlawfully.

After our Judicial Review was allowed to proceed by the Court of Session in October 2016, the Scottish Government committed to consulting on and reviewing the guidance.  We agreed to put our court action on hold to begin with and then withdrew it after the publication of the new guidance earlier this year.

But while this little victory in new guidance will offer a voice for pupils, it crucially still does not allow that fundamental choice to opt out.  A fundamental choice the Society will continue to seek.  The rights of Scotland’s children and young people deserve to be respected and this is a battle we intend to continue.

That is why we have now started to gather members of children’s and rights based organisations in a Right to Choose Coalition to further campaign for this fundamental right to freedom on religion or belief.  This group of organisations have agreed with the following principle:

Children and Young People should have the right to individually opt-out of religious observance in Scottish schools

That’s it.  It simply gives children and young people the choice they deserve, rather than ‘banning religion’ or ‘undermining Scottish Christian heritage’.  This is a choice the Scottish Government are happy to give when it comes to the ballot box but seemingly not the confessional one.

We want an education system where all Scotland’s pupils of all faiths and none feel comfortable and included.  By not respecting children and young people’s choices when it comes to religion or belief, we are failing to protect a key international right that has been signed up to by our government.

HSS are pleased to have Together (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights) as one of our first Right To Choose coalition members.  We are also pleased to be speaking to members of the Scottish Youth Parliament about their experiences and taking stock of the campaign run by young people themselves in Wales.

If your organisation would be interested in joining the coalition please contact fraser@humanism.scot All we ask is your organisation publicly supports the principle that children and young people should have a choice when it comes to religious observance.


Humanist Society Scotland promotes Humanist values to people in Scotland, campaigns for an ethical, rational and secular future and gives voice to the millions of people in Scotland who live without religion.

We support a community of 15,000 members working together for a compassionate, dignified and respectful vision of Scotland and the world. We provide services such as ceremonies and school visitors, which enable people to discover Humanism and live their lives as Humanists.

Website: https://www.humanism.scot/

Together have committed to being a member of the HSS Right to Choose coalition.  

The topic of religious observance in schools was covered on page 45 of our 2016 State of Children’s Rights report.  Together also responded to a HSS consultation earlier this year which was used for input into the Scottish Government consultation on Religious Observance guidance.

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