Thursday, 30 June 2011

East Sussex SACRE excludes Humanists

On Wednesday two of us, George Jelliss and Stephen Milton, attended the East Sussex SACRE (Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education) as Humanist Observers. Any member of the public is permitted to attend these meetings as an observer, although the room would have been overfull had all the 30 or so eligible members turned up. As it was there was some danger of the AGM being cancelled as being non-quorate, until one C0fE representative and a second teacher arrived late. Even then the interpretation of 1 out of 4 CofE representatives as meeting the requirement of "one third" being present seems very questionable arithmetic, but we've not seen the exact wording of the constitution.

One of the items on the agenda was to consider "Membership/make up of East Sussex SACRE" which mainly meant us presenting our case for a Humanist to be included on one of the four subcommittees. George Jelliss had prepared a one-page submission on this, and there was a short question and answer session to follow. We were then excluded from the meeting while the members debated the issue. The outcome we were told was that all four subcommittees had voted against our inclusion, although we could remain as Observers. The four subcommittees consist of A: Various Christian denominations and other religions (16); B: Church of England (4); C: Teacher Associations (6); D: Local Authority Councillors (5). Each group has one vote, regardless of number of members.

I give here the text of the submission:

The Case for Humanist Representation on the SACRE

Religious Education as taught today evolved from Religious Instruction, as it was when I was at school in the 1950s, and is now a much more widely based introduction to the beliefs and customs of people around the world, and of the pupils in our schools. There is a strong case for teaching it as "Ethics and Philosophy" or even "Humanity". This very issue was debated a few days ago, 24 June, in an interview by John Humphrys with the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, and the Director of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteus Wood. [1]

Current non-statutory guidance from the Government is that Religious Education should examine religious and non-religious perspectives, and cover issues such as meaning and purpose of life, the self, the nature of reality, right and wrong, what it means to be human, and worldviews that offer answers to such questions. Secular Humanism is a widely held worldview which covers all these questions. [2]

Human Rights law means that there should be no discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. Under the European Convention it does not matter whether the beliefs are categorised as religious. Freedom of thought and conscience (Article 9) applies as much to atheists and sceptics as to religious believers. [3]

Under the Equality Acts there are specific statutory requirements for Local Authorities not to act in a discriminatory way, and to promote equality of treatment, and the law defines religion or belief to include non-religious beliefs. [4]

As a matter of actual practice the British Humanist Association confirms that almost half of the SACRE in England and Wales have a humanist representative, either as a full voting or non-voting co-opted member, and there are now numerous examples of humanists as full members of group A. Other SACRE are actively seeking to appont a humanist representative. The guidance states that the numbers of persons appointed to represent each "denomination" should reflect broadly its proportionate strength in the area. On this basis it could be argued that the Sacre and ASC should have more than one humanist member!

To summarise. Exclusion of humanists is evident discrimination against a large group of the population, including the school population. It is only fair that Humanists should have a role in monitoring how their views are taught. The inclusion of humanists will be good for the democratic reputation of East Sussex Council. I hope that you would regard me personally as a suitable candidate, but I hope that you will vote for my inclusion not on personal grounds but as a matter of principle, of conscience, of anti-discrimination and fairness.

[1] See:
[2] Religious Education guidance in English schools: Non-statutory guidance 2010
[3] European Convention
[4] Equality and Human Rights Commission,

G. P. Jelliss 27 June 2011.

Clearly we may need to reconsider our future strategy on this issue. Statistics from the BHA indicate that 43 SACREs already have Humanist members on Group A, and 17 others have co-opted Humanist members.