THE Catholic Church has been accused of “threatening to isolate” pupils who withdraw from religious assemblies on faith grounds.

The Herald reports that the attack comes after the Church said such pupils would face wider exclusion from "charitable fundraising, Nativity plays and feast day celebrations".

Officials from the Humanist Society Scotland and Secular Scotland said denominational schools could even face legal action if they followed the advice.

Earlier this month First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish Government intended to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots Law.

Such a move is significant because the UN's Children's Rights Committee recommended the current right of parents in Scotland to opt out of religious observance should be extended to pupils.

Responding to the suggestion a spokesman for the Catholic Church said: "Current guidance, allowing pupils to express their views on religious observance, allows them to be given an explanation of the advantages of religious education and religious observance, following which many pupils continue to attend."

The spokesman said schools would organise "purposeful work" for those pupils who still wanted to opt out.

But he added: "Parents and pupils who wish to opt out on grounds of conscience are advised that, in order not to contradict their wishes, schools will ensure they are not part of any other religious education and religious observance activities such as religiously-motivated charitable fundraising, Nativity play or feast day celebrations. Very few wish to be excluded in this way from the life of the school."

The statement provoked an angry backlash from Gordon MacRae, chief executive of the Scottish Humanist Society, who described it as “disturbing”.

He said: “This suggests denominational schools coerce or threaten to isolate children and young people from the school community because of their faith or belief.

"Following such a course of action would put denominational school headteachers in potentially actionable situations and completely distract them from the professional work they do educating pupils and running inclusive school environments.

"All schools in Scotland, including denominational ones, have a responsibility under law to respect and uphold the independent human right to freedom of religion and belief."

Robert Canning, chair of Secular Scotland, added: “We would not agree that children opted out of religious observance, by themselves or their parents, should automatically be excluded from all activities connected with religion, since not all such activities involve worship or prayer.

"Children acting in Nativity plays are obviously expressing the outlook of the characters and not their own beliefs, and a child might want to be part of a fundraising effort without having the religious motivation that other participants might claim."

Professor Paul Braterman, from the Scottish Secular Society, said: "Parents and pupils should be allowed to decide for themselves regarding matters such as Nativity plays and Feast Day celebrations, on a case-by-case basis.”

Meanwhile, teaching unions welcomed the Scottish Government’s intention to incorporate the UN's convention on children's rights into Scots Law.

A spokesman for the Educational Institute of Scotland said the union would support the right of children, at a suitable point in their development, to be able to withdraw from religious assemblies if they wished.

He added: "We would support children at a suitable point in their development having the right to withdraw if they wish and note that Scottish Government guidance makes it clear that in no circumstances should a pupil be disadvantaged as a result of withdrawing from religious observance.

"Under the terms of the Equality Act, schools have a legal duty to prevent discrimination against those who hold particular religious or philosophical beliefs and to actively ensure that they have equal opportunity to participate in the life of the school.

"To actively exclude children from activities which may be religion-related, but which would not be classified as religious observance, is likely to invite strong legal challenge."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The existing statutory guidance recognises that when a parent chooses a denominational school ... there is an expectation that they have opted into the school’s ethos and practice including activities relating to religious faith and observance.

"Our guidance also states no pupil should be disadvantaged as a result of withdrawal from religious observance."

In Scotland, all young people require parental permission to pull out of religious observance, unlike England and Wales where sixth form pupils – typically aged between 16 and 18 – have the right to opt out.

The law which governs religious observance, originally dating from 1872, has not been updated since 1980 and the latest guidance from the Scottish Government was issued in 2011.

The guidance states: "Where a parent chooses a denominational school for their child’s education, they choose to opt in to the school’s ethos and practice which is imbued with religious faith and religious observance.

"In denominational schools, it is therefore more difficult to extricate a pupil from all experiences which are influenced by the school’s faith character.

"Where a pupil is withdrawn from religious observance schools should make suitable arrangements for the pupil to participate in a worthwhile alternative activity. In no circumstances should a pupil be disadvantaged as a result of withdrawing from religious observance."