Respect youth choice on religion and belief

December 21, 2017

A coalition of Scottish charities and youth representatives have written to the Cabinet Secretary for Education calling for young people’s rights to be respected when it come to religion in school.

John Swinney
John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Education received the joint letter calling for action

This follows a campaign, led by the Humanist Society, to respect young people’s right to choose if they attend religious services during school hours.

The open letter, attached below, to John Swinney MSP is jointly from Humanist Society Scotland, Scottish Youth Parliament, LGBT Youth Scotland, Together – Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights and Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. The call is also supported by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, Bruce Adamson, who is making separate supporting representations to ministers.

Polling figures by Survation, commissioned by Humanist Society Scotland, reveal that over two thirds (67%) support allowing young people to choose.

Commenting on the joint action Gordon MacRae, Chief Executive of Humanist Society Scotland, said:

Gordon MacRae

Given that 2018 is the Scottish Government’s Year of Young People, we can’t think of any better way to start the year than John Swinney confirming that he will respect young people’s rights on freedom of religion and belief.

The Scottish Government have properly placed universal rights at the heart of their plans for social security, health and justice. However when it comes to education there is a danger that ministers are talking the talk, but not walking the walk on young people’s right to freedom of thought, belief and religion.

Gordon MacRae, Humanist Society Scotland

Amy Lee Fraioli, Chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP), said:

Amy Lee Fraioli

At SYP, we believe all young people have the right to determine, for themselves, whether they wish to opt out of religious observance in school.

Under the United Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is protected, and by forcing Scotland’s young people to participate in religious observance, this right is being flouted.

SYP’s new national campaign, Right Here, Right Now, will focus on making Scotland’s young people not only aware of their rights, but empowered to defend them. The campaign calls on policymakers to ensure young people’s rights are at the forefront of the decision-making process, and will also call for the incorporation of the UNCRC into Scots law, ensuring these rights – including that of religious freedom – are fully enshrined.

SYP is proud that Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament (MSYPs) follow all faiths, and none, and we believe that forcing anyone to participate in a practice against their will is not only unjust but a flagrant breach of their human rights.

Amy Lee Fraioli, Scottish Youth Parliament

Fergus McMillan, Chief Executive of LGBT Youth Scotland, said:

Fergus McMillan

We believe that children and young people’s rights, articulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), should be fully realised in Scotland. No child or young person should be forced to take part in religious observance in school settings; they have their own thoughts, opinions and beliefs which should be considered and respected.

Fergus McMillan, LGBT Youth Scotland

Juliet Harris, Director of Together (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights), said:

Juliet Harris

Together (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights) welcomes the range of recent Scottish Government commitments to further children and young people’s rights.

In supporting proposals to give children equal protection from violence, increasing the age of criminal responsibility and conducting an audit of UNCRC implementation, the Scottish Government is progressing a number of recommendations made by the UN in 2016.

We hope that the Cabinet Secretary will build on this welcome progress by giving children and young people the right to choose if they attend Religious Observance in schools in line with the UN’s recommendation.

Juliet Harris, Together

John Downie, Director of Public Affairs at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), said: 

John Downie

The idea of compulsory religious observance in school settings is archaic and ignores the fact that many people in Scotland are of no faith. You need only look at the Scottish Youth Parliament to see that society is changing and passionate, empowered young people are now more engaged and involved in decisions affecting their lives.

Of course, we recognise the benefit of learning about religious and cultural practises from all quarters, but compulsory observance surely has no place in our education system. It is now time to recognise the individual values of children and young people in Scotland and respect their right to choose to opt out of religious observance in state schools.

John Downie, SCVO

In the letter, the authors call for the Scottish Government to follow the recommendation of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to allow children and young people the right to choose if they attend religious services during the school day. Currently parents and guardians can withdraw their children, but pupils, including those 16 and 17, are banned from exercising their own choice.

Text of the joint letter

Religious Observance Opt Out
Dear Cabinet Secretary,
We write as a coalition of organisations who uphold the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Firstly we welcome the commitment that the Scottish Government have made in the 2017-18 programme for government to:

embed the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into policy and legislation, including the option of full incorporation into domestic law.”

As part of this we ask for you to implement the right for children and young people to opt out of religious observance in Scottish state schools.

As you are aware the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child have called on the Scottish Government to implement this change previously, as have others. Most recently in 2016 the UN committee’s fifth periodic review report stated:

In Northern Ireland and Scotland, children do not have right to withdraw from collective worship without parental permission. The Committee recommends that the State party repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective workshop in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious worship at school.”

This change also has broad public support with independent polling research carried out in September 2017, showing 67% of people in Scotland support respecting the right of children and young people to make their own choice regarding attendance at religious observance.

We would request that the Scottish Government make a statement at the earliest opportunity confirming that they will seek to implement this change and respect children and young people’s right to choose in line with your commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Yours Sincerely,

Amy-Lee Fraoli: Chair, Scottish Youth Parliament
Gordon MacRae: Chief Executive, Humanist Society Scotland
Fergus McMillan: Chief Executive, LGBT Youth Scotland
Liz Millership: Director, Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights
John Downie: Director of Public Affairs, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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