United Kingdom

Last Updated 12 November 2019

The United Kingdom (UK) is a constitutional monarchy comprising Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland, with a total population of about 64 million people. England with the largest population, 53 million, is home to a bi-cameral UK parliament which has devolved a range of powers to the other 3 nations. There are specific legislative differences in the 4 nations, exercised by their own parliaments or assemblies, reflecting the historical and cultural differences in those nations. A referendum vote in 2016 to “leave the European Union” is widely regarded as having exposed social divisions and as creating political and economic uncertainty.

Systemic Discrimination
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Constitution and government

UK laws and policies protect freedom of religion or belief, as well as freedom of expression, association and assembly. However, religious privileges and legal exemptions, some linked to the established state church, are cause for concern.

National churches

The Church of England was created in a schism from Rome in the 16th century when the king made himself head of the church. The monarch must by law be a confirmed member of the Church of England and is described as the ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’ as well as being Head of State. Though usually considered “ceremonial”, this religiously-restricted and hereditary role does have some non-trivial powers. The monarch approves the appointment of Bishops.

The Church of Scotland is not formally established, however the Church of Scotland’s role as the “national church” is enshrined in legislation, and senior ministers from the Church play a prominent role in national ceremonial matters. The monarch takes an oath to preserve and defend the Church of Scotland. In Wales and Northern Ireland there are no constitutional links between churches and monarchy, but Northern Ireland Protestants assert a loyalty to the monarch (often considered part of their case for remaining in the UK).

Religious privileges and exemptions

26 ‘Lords Spiritual’ (consisting of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, plus 24 diocesan bishops from the Church of England) sit in the House of Lords (the upper chamber of parliament) as of right, where they speak and vote on legislation – a privilege not awarded to any other group, and without public accountability.

The UK state provides preferential treatment in the finance of church buildings. In 2012, places of worship were singled out for compensation for the removal of the zero Value Added Tax (VAT) rating concession for alterations to listed buildings. The government also helps fund the repair and maintenance of all listed places of worship for religious groups nationwide (without any comparable funding for secular alternatives) and contributes to the budget of the Church Conservation Trust, which preserves disused Church of England buildings of architectural or historic significance.

Exemptions from employment equality legislation allow employers with a “religious ethos” to discriminate in their employment practices on grounds of religion or belief. This extends to recruitment, promotion and disciplinary practices. However, UK law additionally allows discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Moreover, religious groups are increasingly being contracted by the central and local government to run services for the general public and are allowed to exercise these exemptions even when running such public services. These exemptions are separate from those where a “genuine occupational requirement” can be shown for a postholder to be of a particular religion or belief.

Education and children’s rights

Faith schools, discrimination, and selection

Faith schools (including Church schools) are a significant part of the UK education system. 34% of state-funded schools in England, 14% (denominational) in Scotland, 15% in Wales and 94% in Northern Ireland are designated with a religious character, and in Great Britain their proportion is increasing. Wales and Northern Ireland have both Catholic and Protestant schools; England additionally has Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and other Christian schools.

In Scotland all state schools are to a degree ‘faith schools’. Most schools in Scotland are non-denominational Christian schools. There is no provision for secular schooling in the Scottish state school system. In 2017 there were 370 state-funded denominational schools in Scotland, of which 51 were secondary schools. Most denominational schools in Scotland are Roman Catholic Schools.

A high proportion of these state-funded religious schools (the legislation is complex) can discriminate against students in their admissions policies, and against some or all teachers in their employment policies, on religious grounds. In October 2015, a report from the Fair Admissions Campaign found “near-universal noncompliance” with the statutory rules on admission of pupils by religiously-selective state schools in England.

This added to earlier findings that showed that religious selection causes extensive socio-economic and ethnic segregation.

Eventually, in 2019, the UK Government announced it will lift a 50% limit on religious selection in admissions that has applied to all new state-funded schools in England since 2007, with a new 100%-selective school currently in the pipeline.

Furthermore, religious schools in Great Britain are currently allowed to discriminate more broadly than EU law permits. In a report published in late December 2016, the Equality and Human Rights Commission for the UK stated that it considers the existing exceptions permitting a religious requirement for all teacher recruitment to be too broad. The Commission recommended that the provisions should be reviewed by both the Department for Education and the Scottish Government to make them compatible with the EU Employment Equality Directive.<equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/religion-or-belief-report-december-2016.pdf>

Religious education

In England and Wales, all state schools are obliged to teach religious education (RE). Most religious schools can give confessional education (meaning that confessional teaching is funded by the state) but legislation mandates that RE is non-confessional in other state schools where the syllabus is required to “reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain” (these are generally taken to be Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism). Detailed syllabuses for RE are prepared for individual local authorities by advisory bodies they are required to set up on which local religious interests sit with teachers and local councillors.

Increasingly, humanism is included in RE. Indeed, in 2018, the landmark report of the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed that the subject be renamed Religion and Worldviews to make it clear that it should be inclusive of non-religious perspectives. However the UK Department for Education (DfE), which is responsible for England, has stated that it does not intend to make the recommended changes on the grounds that some religious stakeholders believe they will ‘dilute’ the subject. And previously, in 2015, the Government excluded humanism from age 16+ examination syllabuses, in spite of majority public support (including almost 90% of consultation respondents) for its inclusion.

The DfE’s claim that this narrow examination syllabus would meet the statutory requirement for RE was challenged on the basis of human rights law in a case brought by three humanist families with support from the Humanists UK. In November 2015 the High Court ruled against the DfE, saying that non-religious views such as Humanism must be given parity with religions in RE; the judge described the Government’s claims to the contrary as an “error of law”. The judgment potentially has significant implications, establishing a duty on the state to treat religious and non-religious worldviews with equal respect; however, to date the DfE has refused to acknowledge anything more than a technical defeat.

In Wales, the Government is currently consulting on a new curriculum, and is proposing to legislate to make explicit that RE must include humanism on an equal basis to the major religions to ensure compliance with human rights law. This change follows from a successful challenge to a local council’s decision to refuse a humanist representative permission to become a full member of the local body that decides on what goes on the RE syllabus. This prompted the Welsh Government to issue guidance to ensure that these bodies are fully inclusive. The Government in England refuses to issue similar guidance, preferring to defer decisions about who may sit on these bodies to local councils

In Scotland, Religious Observance and Religious Education are statutory requirements in every year of schooling. In non-denominational schools, which must still reflect Scotland’s Christian (Presbyterian) heritage most faith schools are Roman Catholic in nature. The Roman Catholic Bishop’s Conference in Scotland retains the right to set the religious education curriculum (RERC) and sex and relationships education. Whilst only 15% of schools in Scotland are ‘denominational’ in nature, all of Scotland’s state schools have, to a greater or lesser extent, a Christian influence.

Despite this Religious and Moral Education (RME), sometimes known as Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies (RMPS), in non-denominational schools does include understanding of non-religious viewpoints alongside traditional teaching of faith positions.

In Northern Ireland, all religious education is Christian in nature, with the core syllabus having one module that mandates the teaching of two world religions, but otherwise only focusing, from a faith-based perspective, on Christianity.

No opt out from religious education for students

Students cannot opt out of RE in any state school (including religious schools) but parents do have the absolute right to withdraw their children. This likely breaks children’s human rights, with case law on what is known as Gillick competence seeming to suggest that once a child obtains sufficient understanding and intelligence to be mature enough to make up their own mind on the matter, a child’s right to make their own decisions overrides their parents’ rights over them.

Required collective worship

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, every state-funded school is legally required to hold a daily act of “collective worship”. In religious schools this is in line with the faith of the school but in schools not designated with a religious character, worship must be “wholly or mainly… broadly Christian”, subject to variations approved by their local authority to reflect the school’s population – but they cannot substitute a secular equivalent. Parents have the same right to withdraw their children from worship as from RE, save that in England and Wales the right is transferred to the pupil in the sixth form (i.e., at 16+). However, the right is rarely used because it singles out students from their peers and may mean they miss out on secular aspects of the assembly. In Scotland religious observance is required six times a year and older pupils do not have the right of withdrawal.

Humanists UK reports being frequently contacted by parents whose children have experienced proselytising in school, either because their child attends a religiously designated school, or because of the Christian collective worship that every English and Welsh school has to hold. And, in 2019, the charity supported two parents – Lee and Lizanne Harris – to challenge the way worship is conducted at their children’s school at the High Court with a view to establishing a requirement for a meaningful alternative to the practice for those who are withdrawn.

In Scotland, all schools are required to hold occasions for Religious Observance, however there is no minimum number of sessions, with guidance suggesting it takes place “sufficiently frequently to have an impact on the spiritual development of the school community”. Religious Observance is defined by the government as: “Community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school’s community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school Community”.

Children and Young People are not given the right to opt out of these religious observance sessions, however parents and guardians can withdraw their children. If pupils do not attend sessions due to parental opt out, government guidance states they must be provided with “a meaningful alternative” by the school.

Humanist Society Scotland has campaigned for children and young people to have their own right to opt-out of Religious Observance and have previously taken legal action on the subject in line with recommendations from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. In 2016 Humanist Society Scotland led a court challenge to require Scottish Ministers change the law to ensure young people can realise their own right to freedom of thought, belief and religion. The charity were not able to test the human rights arguments however they did force the Scottish Government to issue updated guidance to give young people a voice in the process for the first time.

Family, community and society

There has been a marked decline in people’s declared religious affiliation, particularly in Great Britain. The 2011 Census found 59% ticking the Christian box (down from 72% in 2001), 25% (15%) ticking no religion, and 5% (3%) ticking Muslim. Other religions totalled 4% (3%) and 7% (8%) declined to answer.

In contrast to the Census, the British Social Attitudes survey measures religious belonging; in 2018 it found 52% declaring no religion (up from 49% declaring in 2014). A 2016 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found 58% have no religion, rising to 74% of 18 to 34 year olds.

There is a wide range of humanist and other non-religious organisations.

Marriage law discrimination

Religious people in the UK have a choice between being married by a civil registrar and being married by a representative of their religion who shares their approach to life. Except in Scotland and Northern Ireland, non-religious people have no option other than the civil registrar. Each year thousands of people in England and Wales choose to have a wedding ceremony performed by a humanist celebrant but their weddings are not legally recognised.

In Scotland, however, humanist marriages have been legally recognised since 2005, and in Northern Ireland this has been the case since 2018. In 2015, the total number of Humanist weddings in Scotland exceeded Church of Scotland marriages for the first time. By the middle of 2017, Humanist Society Scotland registered celebrants had legally married 50,000 people.

Evidence suggests something similar could be expected in England and Wales. Despite indications that legal recognition of humanist marriages would be popular, fair and easy to introduce, in December 2014 the Government chose to ignore over 90% of respondents to a consultation and reject legalisation. Consultations are ongoing.

One law for all?

In history the Church of England’s canon law and its courts were deeply entangled with the secular law and courts but by now, although canon law is still part of the law of the land, the ecclesiastical system is almost entirely concerned with internal matters to the Church. Other denominations and religions often have their own internal tribunals but again in most instances there is little conflict between the systems. The emergence of sharia councils (not courts) run by local Muslim imams has, however, raised concerns. Their business is almost entirely to provide (or refuse) religious divorces to Muslim women, and there is strong evidence of patriarchal and misogynist behaviour by some councils. A Muslim Arbitration Tribunal operates under the general law on arbitration and occasionally sharia councils are also reported to do so. Concern focuses on rulings that may stray into matters not legally open to sharia councils – child custody, inheritance and criminal matters. The campaign group One Law For All explains, “Proponents argue that those who choose to make use of Sharia courts and tribunals do so voluntarily and that according to the Arbitration Act parties are free to agree upon how their disputes are resolved. In reality, many of those dealt with by Sharia courts are from the most marginalised segments of society with little or no knowledge of their rights under British law. Many, particularly women, are pressured into going to these courts and abiding by their decisions.”

The Census shows 4.8% of the UK population as Muslims. The number contained within this figure who in fact are secular or non-religious is difficult to establish as the position of those who, having been raised as Muslim, are non-religious, sometimes identifying as ex-Muslim, is difficult: they may be forced to hide their non-religious views, either by social taboo against “apostasy” or outright threats of ostracism or in extreme cases against their lives. Similar problems are sometimes reported within other extremely conservative religious groups – Christian Exclusive Brethren and Charedi Jewish communities, for example. In November 2015 the hashtag #ExMuslimBecause trended in the UK for several days, as part of a ‘coming out’ campaign.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

UK law, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights, protects freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly, and the UK is known for its strong and diverse media and active civil society.

However, some sections of the British press have a reputation for subtly or not so subtly playing into far-right nationalist views. A report for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2015 comparing press coverage on the migration crisis in Europe, found that “coverage in the United Kingdom was the most negative, and the most polarised. Amongst those countries surveyed, Britain’s right-wing media was uniquely [aggressive] in its campaigns against refugees and migrants.”

In 2019, in responding to campaigning by Humanists UK and other religion or belief groups working with asylum seekers in the UK, the UK Home Office, which deals with all immigration matters, introduced new specific training on processing and understanding claims made on the basis of religion or belief. This followed several high-profile media cases where claimants were turned down for spurious or unfair reasons, including a humanist who was denied asylum on the basis that he could not name Plato and Aristotle as humanists, even though neither was.

The libel laws of England and Wales, which previously had been over-reaching, were reformed in 2013 to make it more difficult to use them to suppress free speech. However, the same libel laws as previously applied are still on the books in Northern Ireland. There is an ongoing campaign for reform there, too.

“Blasphemy” laws in Scotland and Northern Ireland

“Blasphemy” law in England and Wales was abolished under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act in 2008. However, two distinct laws in Scotland and Northern Ireland are still on statute. The last successful prosecution for “blasphemy” in Scotland was in 1843, when a bookseller Thomas Paterson was handed a fifteen-month prison term.

Some commentators believe that the Human Rights Act (1998) effectively makes the “blasphemy” laws in Scotland and Northern Ireland inapplicable. The Scottish Government’s official position in a letter from the Justice Secretary in 2017 supports this view and therefore has rejected calls to scrap the common law of Blasphemy.

This is because under the Human Rights Act all courts in the United Kingdom must interpret the law such that it is compatible with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which includes freedom of expression under Article 10. However, prior to the passage of the Human Rights Act, the claim that “blasphemy” law is inconsistent with the right to free expression was tested in the case of Wingrove v UK (1997) and was rejected on the basis that the state’s margin of appreciation on free speech could include restrictions on “blasphemy”. It therefore remains unclear whether there could be a prosecution under the laws in Northern Ireland and Scotland as they stand.

In December 2016 the Humanist Society Scotland repeated its call for the Scottish government to abolish the “blasphemy” law and in September 2017 the Scottish Parliament considered a petition on the matter. Citing the Freedom of Thought Report, they noted the existence of numerous “blasphemy” laws around the world which remain in use, and “the cruelty with which those who are accused of violating these laws are often punished, by state agents or by non-state actors, including neighbours and relatives.” To have such laws on statute “should be a badge of shame for any progressive nation.” The Scottish National Party, which currently forms the Scottish Government, committed to repeal the blasphemy laws as official party policy in 2018.

In 2019, Humanists UK launched a campaign to repeal the blasphemy laws in Northern Ireland. As a result of this campaign all of the major political parties in Northern Ireland came out in support of repeal, with the exception of the Democratic Unionist Party, which is opposed, and the Ulster Unionist Party, which is still forming its policy. Due to the current collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly it is currently not possible for legislation to be passed to enact this change. <heraldscotland.com/news/14947934.Humanists_urge_Holyrood_to_repeal_Scotland_s_blasphemy_law/>

Social and ethical issues

There are mixed fortunes in the UK for advocacy of humanist values. In 2014 same-sex marriage was legalised across the UK, except in Northern Ireland, but humanist marriage in England and Wales has been blocked whilst flourishing in Scotland (see above). Legislation to legalise assisted dying has consistently been rejected by both UK and Scottish Parliaments, despite popular support.

Abortion, while generally legal in most of the UK, remains significantly more restricted in Northern Ireland where it is illegal even in the case of rape and any approved abortion must satisfy the purpose of “preserving the life of the mother”. This can cover adverse physical and mental health risks other than immediate life-or-death situations, but many women from Northern Ireland still need to travel to other parts of the UK (or elsewhere) to obtain the procedure, always at their own expense. From 2017 women from Northern Ireland can now obtain an abortion legally on the National Health Service elsewhere in the UK. Legislation passed by the Westminster Government in June 2019 compels the UK Government to make regulation for safe and legal access to abortion in Northern Ireland in at least cases where there is a fatal foetal diagnosis or the pregnancy has arisen as a result of sexual crime and declare a moratorium on prosecuting women who illegally obtain an abortion. This legislation came into force on 21 October 2019; there were attempts by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to reform the Assembly to prevent the reform, but the Northern Ireland Assembly is still suspended as of October 2019.

Abortion also remains in criminal law across the UK, meaning women can be sent to jail for not following the correct procedures around abortion, even if the abortion would otherwise have been performed in circumstances that are allowed. In 2015 the campaign We Trust Women was launched to decriminalise abortion.

The Scotland Act 2016, devolved the power to legislate on abortion to the Scottish Parliament. Scottish Ministers currently have no plans to change the law on abortion

In 2017, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer wrote to all health boards to say the drug misoprostol, known as the abortion pill, can be taken at home. Home use of misoprostol was introduced in Wales in 2018.

Communications privacy and civil liberties concerns

In November 2016 the UK parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act, sometimes referred to as “the Snooper’s Charter”. The law grants new “hacking powers” to police and security services, requires internet service providers to store all their customers’ website visits (at domain level) for a year, and requires phone companies to keep metadata on all phone calls. The data may be made available on request, without judicial oversight, to various public authorities, including some bodies which have no direct relationship to national security (e.g. the Department of Work and Pensions and the Food Standards Agency). The Investigatory Powers law has been severely criticised by civil liberties groups and privacy advocates. American whistleblower Edward Snowden called it “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.” Amnesty UK said the law would “violate the human rights of every single person in the UK.” Open Rights Group (ORG) said the law set a dangerous international precedent.

Another new law, the Digital Economy Act, came into force in April 2017. It was set to require age verification procedures on all pornographic websites, and restricts the provision of “extreme” pornography, vaguely defined as material that is “grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character”. Open Rights Group criticised the bill prior to parliamentary approval as constituting “censorship of legal content”, and argued that it increased the risk of credit card fraud and personal data leaks by requiring sites to collect personal information. ORG adds: “Blocking websites is a disproportionate, technical response to a complex, social issue. The UK’s children need education, not censorship, to keep them safe.” After multiple delays, the plan to require age verification measures on pornographic websites was finally dropped in October 2019.

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