Do you have to pray at school?

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Do you have to pray at school?

In July 2019, atheist parents Lee and Lizanne Harris took their children’s primary school to the High Court in the UK. The parents did not agree with the mandatory praying in assembly and the practice of biblical reenactments, saying that these activities are a breach of the children’s human rights. Specifically, they argued that assembly prayers hindered their children’s rights to receive an education without religious interference.[1] Every English school, however, is legally required to have its students take part in collective daily worship.[2]

This case of the Harris family illustrates a wider trend of the changing role of religious education at schools. On the one hand, various countries have seen a decreasing number of students choosing to study the subject of religion. This is the case in, for example, the United Kingdom.[3] In other countries, such as Spain, political debates have centred on removing religion as a mandatory part of the education syllabus. In Finland and Iceland, there have been similar demands to make religious studies optional. However, an opposite movement can be seen in Wales, where religion classes will soon become obligatory.[4] Therefore, in order to have a better idea of the patterns throughout Europe, this article will assess the changing role of religion in education across the continent.

United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, a decreasing number of students is taking religious studies. In fact, 700 schools even stopped offering the subject altogether.[5] However, in Wales, the opposite has been true, as lessons on religion will soon become mandatory in the country. These plans have caused concern because under current laws, parents can withdraw their children from these classes. They are worried that the new legislation will mean they lose this right. The new rules will be tested in 2021, with the aim to be fully implemented in 2022.[6]

In Northern Ireland, religion is still one of the most popular subjects. However, statistics have shown a slight drop in recent years.[7] Alongside a decreasing number of students choosing religious classes, Northern Irish Catholic schools are also facing a declining number of enrolments. As evidence of this change, two formerly exclusively Catholic schools in the country have now adopted an ‘integrated’ status. This means that any student – whether Catholic or not – will be able to attend the school. The schools hope to avoid closure by allowing more students to enrol.[8]

Whereas in the United Kingdom, the move away from the popularity of religious studies has been led by students’ choices themselves, the Spanish government has taken more direct action to change the status of the subject. As a result of a new programme, the subject of religion will no longer count to academic grades and choosing the course will be voluntary. Currently, no other subjects have such a status in the Spanish education system. Unsurprisingly, the government’s initiative has been met with criticisms, particularly from those within religious institutions and organisations in Spain. For instance, Pedro Caballero, the President of the National Catholic Confederation of Parents of the Family and Parents of Students, called the programme an “abuse against the freedom of families” and stated that the subject of religion should be mandatory and count in students’ grades.[9] Ricardo Blazquez, Archbishop of Vallodolid, has also responded to the matter. He called for citizens to be “very alert”, in defending the status of both religious classes and assemblies at schools.[10]

Despite the government’s new programme for changing the status of religious studies in education, other changes can also be seen in Spain. The President of the region Comunidad de Madrid, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, has announced that she will add content about the presence of Judaism to curriculums of schools in the region. Diaz Ayuso revealed these plans at the 2020 Holocaust memorial ceremony in Madrid, where she also took the opportunity to remind the audience of how Jews in Spain have made important contributions to the history of the country.[11]

The leader of the Norwegian ‘Young Left’, Sondre Hansmark, believes that, since Norway is a secular and modern society, religious education should not be part of the school system. Given this belief, Hansmark has made it clear that there is no reason that school children should be required to attend mass at Christmas. However, not everyone agrees with his statements. Members of the education and research committee Roy Steffensen and Mathilde Tybring-Gjedde have stated that Christianity has a special status in Norway. Not only is it the traditional state religion, but it is also a key part of modern Norwegian values and society, they argue.[12]

In Germany, the question has not been so much whether or not to teach religion in schools, but rather who should teach the subject. Recently, Hamburg schools decided they will welcome teachers of all religions to teach the class. These teachers will first have to undergo a course which will enable them to present different visions on the various religious themes. This initiative has been seen as a challenge for the Catholic Church, who have historically viewed teaching as a key part of their religious mission. However, school authorities have made it clear that religious education should not be used as an opportunity to convert people to religion, but rather to educate them on the subject.[13]

A survey by Maskina shows that over 45 percent of Icelanders believe that religious ceremonies, prayers, and reading from the Bible should be kept out of the public school system in the country. Of particular interest is that this number has increased by 10 percent compared to a survey from 2015. Especially younger people are likely to believe religion does not belong in schools. By contrast, roughly 35 percent of Icelanders believes that religion should be included in education.[14]

Nearly 80 percent of polled Finns would like a subject focused on economic skills to be included in the curriculum of public schools. When asked what subject it could replace, half of the respondents chose religious education.[15]

The changing importance of religion in education in the country was illustrated during Christmas 2019. As a result of a government decision to ban schools’ Christmas celebrations being held in churches, schools across the country were required to find new locations to hold these events. However, this caused problems in many smaller Finnish towns, because not many alternative spaces were available. In response to the situation, several school principals expressed their disagreement with the new requirement, stating that most celebrations were not even explicitly religious in nature.[16]

Finland already has strong laws which seek to separate religion from education. One of these states that, when students do attend a religious event as part of a school day, nonreligious pupils or those of minority religions should be able to take part in an alternative event.[17]

A wider trend
Lee and Lizanne Harris, by disagreeing with religious assemblies,[18] are a clear example of the situation across Europe. Overall, most countries see a declining number of students taking voluntary classes, and face criticism regarding obligatory religious education. With Spain removing the mandatory status of religious education,[19] Finns preferring economic skills over religion lessons,[20] and Icelanders opposing religion at public schools,[21] we can speak of a wider trend. And whilst there are exceptions like that of Wales, where parents will no longer have the choice to withdraw children from religious classes,[22] it is clear to see that the role of religion in education is undergoing drastic changes all across Europe.

Anne Clerx

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[1]Atheist parents take primary school to court as they say assembly prayers breach children’s human rights
[2]Let’s replace religious assembly in schools with a ‘thought for the day’ | Laura McInerney
[3]Fears GCSE religious studies becoming ‘niche’ subject – The Irish News
[4]Welsh parents lose opt-out for sex, relationship and religious education
[5]Fears GCSE religious studies becoming ‘niche’ subject – The Irish News
[6]Sex education and religion classes ‘compulsory’ in Wales
[7]Fears GCSE religious studies becoming ‘niche’ subject – The Irish News
[8]Ballyhackett school in North learning valuable survival lesson
[9]Gobierno socialista de España marginaría asignatura de Religión
[10] La Conferencia Episcopal siente “inquietud” y atisba “un futuro incierto” ante el pacto de PSOE y Podemos
[11]Madrid incluirá en la ESO contenidos sobre la presencia judía en la Península
[12]Sondre Hansmark i Unge Venstre vil avskaffe skole­guds­tjenesten i jula
[13]Germania, l’ora di religione? Soltanto con docenti di tutte le fedi
[14]45% of Icelanders against religion in schools
[15]Kysely: Taloustieto halutaan peruskoulun oppiaineeksi – uskonnon opetusta voitaisiin vähentää
[16] Koulut ympäri Suomen siirtävät nyt joulujuhliaan pois kirkoista – Rehtori: “Meillä on vähän perinteitä, ja lopuistakin ollaan luopumassa”
[17] Rehtori pakinoi koulujen kirkkokäynneistä, ja some-kansa suuttui – ”Ei ollut tarkoitus naureskella vanhempien kustannuksella”, sanoo rehtori nyt
[18]Atheist parents take primary school to court as they say assembly prayers breach children’s human rights
[19]PSOE y Podemos planean marginar asignatura de Religión
[20]Kysely: Taloustieto halutaan peruskoulun oppiaineeksi – uskonnon opetusta voitaisiin vähentää
[21]45% of Icelanders against religion in schools
[22]Fears GCSE religious studies becoming ‘niche’ subject – The Irish News