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
Mostly Satisfactory

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) 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% 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, most faith schools are Roman Catholic in nature.

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.

However, in late 2016 the Government proposed lifting a 50% limit on religious selection in admissions that has applied to all new state-funded schools since 2007. <>

Separately, the British Humanist Association (BHA) also had a long-running legal complaint against the UK Government at the European Commission, challenging the breadth of permissible employment discrimination. It believes that religious schools in Great Britain are allowed to discriminate more broadly than EU law permits. <>

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. However the Department for Education (DfE) recently 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 British Humanist Association. 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 Scotland, 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.

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 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 6+). 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.

The BHA 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.

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 2014 it found that 49% declaring no religion, while 43% are Christian. A 2015 Scottish Household Survey found that 47% of people in Scotland are not religious.

There is a wide range of Humanist and other non-religious organizations. The British Humanist Association (BHA) is operates principally England, Wales and Northern Ireland and collaborates with the Humanist Society Scotland, and there are other groups including the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland: all these are Members of the IHEU.

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, non-religious people have no option other than the civil registrar. Each year many hundreds of people in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland 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 2015 outstripped Church of Scotland marriages in number. <>

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 focusses 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, sections of the British press have won a wide reputation for malign and unsavoury reporting, 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.”

The libel laws of England and Wales, which previously had been infamously 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. 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. 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.”

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 has been blocked (see above) except in Scotland. 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.

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 in circumstances that are allowed. In 2015 a campaign was launched to decriminalise abortion. <>

Communications privacy and liberties

In November 2016 the UK passed the Investigatory Powers Act, commonly 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 whisteblower 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 proposed law, the Digital Economy Bill, still passing through parliament as of November 2016, would require age verification procedures on all pornographic websites and would ban content featuring “non-conventional” sex acts. Open Rights Group said the law would constitute “censorship of legal content”, and increase the risk of credit card fraud and personal data leaks. 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.”