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Pupils' religious symbols facing potential restriction

12-05-2008


09/05/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: News Letter

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane hopes to issue guidance before the end of term which could restrict religious symbols being worn by pupils on school uniforms.

Catholic Maintained Schools and the Presbyterian Church have expressed concern but a spokesman for the Minister says she will not be consulting on the matter and that schools will be free to ignore the advice.

Unionists have been provoked in recent weeks by reports that the Minister may use similar guidance to disuade schools from using in-house academic selection tests, thus bypassing the Executive's legal veto on the matter.

In a letter to Catholic campaigner, Greg Carlin, the Minister said that "similar" English school uniform guidance to that which she is considering does not give students the right to manifest their belief "at any time, in any place or in any particular manner".

The English guidance says schools should act reasonably but that a school uniform policy that restricts the pupils' freedom to manifest their religion "may be lawful" so long it is justified by the Human Rights Act.

The guidance says this principle has been upheld in three court cases where school uniform policy prevented pupils "from wearing particular forms of dress or artefacts associated with a religious belief".

Both the Catholic Council of Maintained Schools (CCMS) and the Presbyterian Church said they would prefer that Government did not get involved in such matters.

The spokesman for the Presbyterian Church emphasised that they had not been consulted. "We are not aware either of any recent consultation on this matter or any difficulties with the present system which relies on the good common sense of principals and governors working at local level," he said. "We would be reluctant to see this kind of area being overly regulated".

Jim Clarke, Deputy Chief Executive of CCMS, said he would prefer not to comment in detail until the minister issues the guidance. "But this area does not require the involvement of Government," he added.

Mike Judge of the Christian Institute, a social policy research charity, said: "This is a dangerous area for the Government to stray into. The English guidance judges whether religious symbols should be allowed in schools based on whether or not the Government deems they are 'required' by that faith."

In a case in England in 2006, a court ruled that a Christian girl could not wear a silver ring which expressed her religious intention to keep sex for marriage. The court decided her ring was not required by her faith but that Sikh jewellery could be worn in school because it was a requirement of that faith.

A spokesman for Minister Ruane said the guidance would not be "instructions or legislation" and that there will not be consultation. "Schools can follow it or not," he said. "Essentially it is their responsibility to decide on uniform policy. The process is that the guidance is developed, submitted to the Minister for her comments and approval. When this is completed it is issued to schools.

"The position is that it is up to schools to decide on their uniform policy, including the wearing of symbols."

 

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