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How Kent County Council splurged £90k battling a retiree in the High Court…and lost

The year is 2021 and a Tenterden man clicked ‘send’ on a remarkably plain email to the council.

Yet in the days to follow, the retiree would find himself in the eye of a fierce legal storm having triggered an unprecedented chain of events.

Steve Bowen, second from right, and his legal team: Pic Mr Bowen
Steve Bowen, second from right, and his legal team: Pic Mr Bowen

It saw the county council hire top brass lawyers, then battle Steve Bowen in the High Court, only to lose.

Having racked up a £90k legal bill footed by the taxpayer, one of the country’s most experienced judges ruled Kent County Council had been “discriminatory” and its actions “unlawful”.

As the authority this month moved to defend its position, KentOnline has taken a deep dive into the curious case of Mr Bowen versus KCC.

The mild-mannered father describes himself as a Humanist, a well-established branch of philosophy, where people make decisions based on reason and empathy.

Chairman of the Kent Humanists collective in his spare time, Mr Bowen applied in August 2021 to become a voting member of KCC’s Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE).

But KCC decided having him onboard would be “unlawful” and prepared to fight its position all the way up to the High Court.

Yet after a hearing at The Royal Courts of Justice in May, the judge, Mr Justice Constable KC, quashed the authority’s bid to block humanists from SACRE.

Handing down his ruling, Mr Constable described KCC’s decision as “clearly discriminatory” and “unlawful”.

"It is, in my view, clearly discriminatory to exclude someone from SACRE Group A solely by reference to the fact that their belief, whilst appropriate to be included within the agreed syllabus for religious education, is a non-religious, rather than a religious, belief,” he added.

Following the hearing, KCC said the total cost of its legal battle was £88,373, of which £35,000 went towards Mr Bowen’s costs.

Mr Bowen explained he is no anti-religious activist.

In fact he is a co-convener of Ashford Interfaith Group, where people of all faiths - and none - come together.

Mr Bowen explained the philosophy is “similar to religion in the sense that we address all of those existential, ethical issues that religion attempts to address from a theistic point of view, and we try to address them from a non-theistic point of view”.

County councils up and down Britain have SACREs, which meet several times a year to advise authorities on the content of the religious education curriculum.

The Royal Courts of Justice in central London (Nick Ansell/PA)
The Royal Courts of Justice in central London (Nick Ansell/PA)

SACREs have several groups, Group A of which hosts representatives of faith groups who can vote on decisions and recommendations.

Kent Humanists’ founder and former chairman, Emeritus Professor Richard Norman, had previously sat on the body as an observer member.

When he chose to step down from that post, Mr Bowen thought it worth applying for full membership.

“I’m quite invested in RE as a subject in schools,” he explained, adding: “In my opinion it’s one of the few areas of the curriculum that allows enough space for critical thinking now because everything else is so regimented,” he told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS).

“I'm not interested in turning up to listen to people drone about what they think should be on the curriculum especially if I can’t contribute to it,” he explained.

Religious education curricula around the country mention non-religious worldviews should be taught.

In Kent’s curriculum, humanism is mentioned specifically as one such view.

The committee’s voting members include representatives of Christian denominations, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, and even a member of the obscure Baha’i faith - but no humanists.

As such, Mr Bowen argues: “The SACRE has no expertise to form a curriculum including a non-religious world view.”

Some time after he applied for the seat, in June 2022, KCC’s leader officially decided, as per officers’ recommendations, that humanists could not be full members of the committee, arguing it would be unlawful to include Mr Bowen, as humanism is not a religion.

However, Mr Bowen and Humanists UK had already told the council that around the country many humanists already do sit as voting members on SACREs, with the High Court later confirming it is the case in about 40% of local authorities.

In the face of the council’s refusal, Mr Bowen, with the support of Humanists UK chose to challenge the decision in court.

“Kent so far are the only county council that has bothered to push back so far that Humanists UK have actually backed a legal action, and the county council has then defended it,” he said.

Cllr Kelly Grehan: Pic KCC
Cllr Kelly Grehan: Pic KCC

Speaking after the high court’s decision, a KCC spokesperson explained: “External specialist legal advice was taken at the outset of this process which indicated that the appointment of Humanist UK (or any other non-religious group) to Group A of SACRE would be unlawful.”

The authority argues that, under the advice, allowing a humanist onto the committee as a voting member would present the risk of legal action from religious groups already involved with the body.

“It is not reasonable for a council to agree to requests for unlawful action from relevant parties on any given matter just to avoid having to pay court costs (regardless of the eventual outcome of any court proceedings),” the spokesperson continued.

The council says it was “not pursuing the claim from an ideological perspective”, and chose not to appeal the High Court’s decision.

“The council has always been clear that litigation is a last resort but the claimant chose, as they are entitled to, to progress in that way.”

The authority says that, as the High Court’s decision clarifies the law, it may “reduce the need for other legal costs in other council areas”.

However, Dartford representative on KCC and Humanists UK member, Cllr Kelly Grehan, (Lab) doesn’t buy it.

“I'm constantly hearing from KCC how the budget is such that services are cut or rolled back,” she told the LDRS.

“It’s beggars belief that they have wasted £88k on a pointless court case, which, had they understood the law, they would have known would result in a loss.

“I am worried that KCC did not understand the need to have people without belief on the SACRE.”

Richy Thompson of Humanists UK
Richy Thompson of Humanists UK

Since the judgement, Mr Bowen has resubmitted his application to join the SACRE.

The Department for Education has released updated guidance for councils in the wake of the decision, confirming that humanists are eligible for voting membership of SACREs on Group A.

KCC added that in Autumn the council’s cabinet will decide on an updated membership structure for the committee, taking into account the High Court decision.

Richy Thompson, a director at Humanists UK, said: “The judgement in this case is hugely significant in sending a clear message that humanists and humanism must be included equally alongside religions and religious people in public life.

“We very much regret that Kent County Council chose to fight this case. The law on this should have been clear before the case began.

“But we are grateful that it is even clearer now, and this clarity will hopefully be beneficial in a range of circumstances.

“We now look forward to working with the council to include humanists in its business equally to religious groups, including through membership of the council that oversees local RE.”

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