Why our Human Rights Act Matters...to humanists
Please note, this is a guest blog and views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of BIHR.
Kathy Riddick works for Humanists UK, is a board member of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, executive of the Welsh Association of Standing Advisory Councils and a member of the Welsh Equality and Human Rights Coalition.
I first became involved with Humanists UK when my children started primary school. As a parent I had no idea about the way beliefs were taught and wanted to make sure religions and beliefs were taught fairly and objectively. As well as becoming a school governor, I applied to the local authority to join the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education. SACREs exist in each local authority in England and Wales. They oversee RE and collective worship in state-maintained schools.
It came as a shock when my application was denied because I was a humanist. The decision was taken on the grounds that ‘humanists are not a religious group and therefore cannot be on Committee A of the SACRE. Committee A is for religious and, I thought, humanist representatives. This ignited what has been a passion to make sure non-religious beliefs are treated equally and receive the same respect as religions.
With the support of Humanists UK, I applied for a judicial review of the local authority decision based on Section 3(1) of the Human Rights Act: ‘So far as it is possible to do so, primary legislation and subordinate legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights’, and Section 6(1): ‘It is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right.’ The Convention right in question being Article 9: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.’
My case never made it to court as the Welsh Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, resolved the issue by writing to all local authorities clarifying that it was the view of the Welsh Government that to ensure compatibility with the Human Rights Act the provisions relating to the constitution of SACREs and ASCs in education law had to be interpreted as permitting the appointment of persons who represent holders of non-religious beliefs in the same way as they permit the appointment of persons who represent holders of religious beliefs.
This interpretive obligation – to read ‘religion’ in law and policy as inclusive of humanists – allowed me to join my local SACRE. More than that, this proved to me the importance of the Human Rights Act that anyone who feels they are being treated unfairly because of their beliefs can hold a public body to account.
The Welsh Government have since introduced a balance for religious and non-religious beliefs in legislation throughout the new curriculum (being rolled out this month) and the supporting bodies. This wouldn’t have happened without the Human Rights Act.
But it is only one small way in which humanists need to rely on sections 3 and 6 of the Act.
On 22nd June 2022, the UK Government published a new 'Bill of Rights' Bill, which many are referring to as a Rights Removal Bill. The Bill will ‘ensure courts cannot interpret laws in ways that were never intended by Parliament’. This is a very significant rollback on protections for the non-religious. The Human Rights Act means that public bodies and the courts are able to read additional words into laws and policies, where this is required in order to uphold human rights. In particular, where a law or policy just refers to religion, this must be understood to include non-religious beliefs, even though those words are not written in the law or policy itself. Therefore the Act makes it possible to stop such laws and policies discriminating against the non-religious without anyone having to go to court. And if someone does have to go to court, the court can then fix the problem without the public authority having to change the policy, or Parliament having to amend the law. This Bill looks set to take this power away, making it harder for non-religious people to use the Act to secure their freedom of belief.
In 2005, humanist marriages became legally recognised in Scotland after the registrar general decided he had to make just such a reading in. In 2018, legally recognised humanist marriages in Northern Ireland were brought about after a judge reached the same conclusion. Similarly, in my case in 2018 the Welsh Government concluded that humanism had to be equally included in RE. The same education law also applies in England, and dozens of local authorities have made exactly the same reading in to their RE. There have also been countless instances where individual humanists have won equality for the non-religious without having to go to court. As well as the aforementioned examples, this also includes securing the provision of humanist and non-religious pastoral care in prisons and hospitals.
Nearly all of the advances made towards equality for non-religious people in the past two decades have relied upon the ability of courts and public bodies to interpret references to ‘religion’ as equally applying to the non-religious. Without these powers it would be very difficult for non-religious people to challenge discriminatory policies in education, family life, or public service provision.
And worse than that – the Bill of Rights will even bin existing case law on these matters, unless the Justice Secretary specifically decides to keep it. The fact that many readings in were done without anyone going to court only compounds the problem, as it means that there is no case law that the Justice Secretary can even opt to keep.
Being able to stand up for human rights and equality, challenge unfair decisions, and make sure our society as it is today can (where feasible) be interpreted into existing legislation is vital for everyone. The Human Rights Act has achieved this. The Bill of Rights could undo it all.
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