Why religious education must be neutral and objective, and how the Irish State is ignoring our human rights

Ireland is due to appear before the UN Human Rights Committee in July this year. The UN have asked Ireland to explain what it is doing to protect minorities in Irish schools and how many non-denominational schools has it established since 2008.

It seems that the Irish State is again going to ignore the human rights guaranteed under international treaties, and argue that the Constitution protects minorities, when it is clear that despite all the guarantees we still do not enjoy basic rights.

Opting out of religion in Irish schools is a theoretical illusion, and not operable in practice. This government are refusing to deal with the religious integrated curriculum, by saying that it is religious education and not religious instruction, which is not the relevant point.

This article explains that:
1. The UN expressed concerns in 2008
2. Since then nothing has changed
3. Schools have a constitutional obligation
4. What happens in practice
5. What the Supreme Court said in 1998
6. What the Catholic Church says
7. Why religious education must be neutral and objective
8. What the Irish government should do
9. What the Irish Government is doing
10. How the State is ignoring our human rights

1. The UN expressed concerns in 2008

In 2008 the UN Human Rights Committee had raised concern about the human rights of secular parents and their children in denominational schools, they stated that :-

“22.The Committee notes with concern that the vast majority of Ireland’s primary schools are privately run denominational schools that have adopted a religious integrated curriculum thus depriving many parents and children who so wish to have access to secular primary education. (Arts. 2, 18, 24, 26).

The State party should increase its efforts to ensure that non-denominational primary education is widely available in all regions of the State party, in view of the increasingly diverse and multi-ethnic composition of the population of the State party.”

The human rights that the UN are concerned about are: freedom from discrimination, freedom of conscience, equality before the law, and the rights of the child.

2. Since then nothing has changed

Since the recommendation of the UN Human Rights Committee in 2008 nothing has changed on the ground for secular parents and their children. There has been no change in the Education Act 1998, no new statutory guidelines have been produced to protect the rights of minorities in denominational schools and the religious exemptions in equality legislation are still present. No non-denominational schools have been opened up.

There are not only religious instruction classes in denominational schools but religion is integrated into the curriculum as well and this is the particular issue that this UN Committee is concerned about. The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism and the IHRC have both recommended removing the religious integrated curriculum. The Forum recommended that as a first step the religious integrated curriculum should be removed (Rule 68 – Rules for National Schools).

3. Schools have a constitutional obligation

Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution sanctions state funding of denominational schools but one of the conditions of that funding is that minorities can opt out of religious instruction.

Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution states that:-

Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at the school.

That Constitutional obligation and condition on state funding of denominational schools is reflected in Section 30 2 (e) of the Education Act 1998:-

The Minister “ shall not require any student to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student.“

4. What happens in practice

The Education Act does not refer particularly to religious instruction but refers to ‘any instruction’ and the ‘conscience of parents’, but it is a reflection of the guarantee in Article 44.2.4. Despite opting out being a condition of funding denominational schools there is no supervision provided if children are opted out.

The state has not taken any positive measures such as putting in place statutory guidelines to ensure that the Constitutional and Human Rights of minorities are guaranteed in practice.

Article 42.3.1 of the Irish Constitution forbids the state from obliging parents to send their child to a school that is against their conscience and lawful preference. Parents are legally obliged to send their children to school and home schooling is not a valid option.

The state does oblige minorities to send their children to publicly funded schools with a religious ethos as they simply have nowhere else to go given the fact that the vast majority of schools in Ireland are under the patronage of the Catholic Church.

5. What the Supreme Court said in 1998

In the Supreme Court case, Campaign to Separate Church and State 1998, Barrington J stated:

“The Constitution therefore distinguishes between religious ‘education’ and religious ‘instruction’ – the former being the much wider term. A child who attends a school run by a religious denomination different from his own may have a constitutional right not to attend religious instruction at that school but the Constitution cannot protect him from being influenced, to some degree by the religious ‘ethos’ of the school. A religious denomination is not obliged to change the general atmosphere of its school merely to accommodate a child of a different religious persuasion who wishes to attend that school.”

As you can see the Supreme Court distinguished between religious instruction and religious education but stated that the Constitution cannot protect children from being influenced to ‘some degree’ by the ethos of the school.

The state has never defined what is meant by ‘some degree’. The court also referred to parents choosing to send their child to a school and has never examined these issues in the light of parents having no other choice but to access these publicly funded religious schools. The state ‘provide for’ the education of minorities in publicly funded National schools with a religious ethos.

6. What the Catholic Church says

The Council for Education of the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference, in its preliminary response to the report from the Forum on Patronage, stated:

“In Catholic primary schools we have a curriculum in Religious Education which is currently undergoing review. Care needs to be taken not to equate Religious education with Religious Instruction. Religious Education in Catholic schools has been carefully crafted pedagogically over several decades in response to a changing society. It includes strands of faith formation and religious instruction as part of an overall introduction to a spiritual and moral world opened up in a child friendly way.”

The religious education programme in primary schools has been developed over many years as part of this integrated curriculum. The aim is not that all elements of the curriculum must be used for religious purposes, but that the various strands of the curriculum can inform and support each other in promoting the moral, spiritual, social, and personal development of students in the context of the characteristic spirit of the school. (see EdAct 9(d)).”

While this denies that all elements of the curriculum must be used for religious purposes, the rest of the sentence contradicts that denial. If the strands are supporting each other ‘in the context of the characteristic spirit’, and the characteristic spirit is religious, then the curriculum is in fact used for religious purposes.  It also states clearly that the Religious education includes strands of faith formation and religious instruction.

Also, it is not neutral and objective, which is the key human rights standard. The Catholic Church’s policy is that “religious education in schools fits into the evangelising mission of the Church” and cannot be taught “in a comparative or neutral way” as that “creates confusion or generates religious relativism or indifferentism.

7. Why religious education must be neutral and objective

It is clear that under human rights law, and in particular the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights and the European Convention, that religious education must be neutral and objective in order to protect minorities who have no choice but to attend these faith schools.

The religious education that is integrated into the curriculum in the majority of public funded National schools is not neutral and objective as this is against the educational philosophy of the Catholic Church.

Why would any government think that minorities could have no objection on conscientious grounds given the comments of the Supreme Court, the various obligations of the state under human rights law, the recommendations of the IHRC and the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism and the Constitutional Review Group Report in 1995.

The Constitutional Review Group Report in 1995 stated that if Article 44.2.4 did not provide these safeguards the state might be in breach of its international obligations and consequently Article 42.3.1. It is difficult to understand how the state can claim that the funding of these faith schools is not an endowment of religion (forbidden under Article 44.2.2), as the constitutional condition for that funding is a theoretical illusion and not operable in practice. This state funding has given the Catholic Church enormous privilege and control over the rights of minorities without any practical conditions.

8. What the Irish government should do

At this stage one would think that the government would move to protect the Constitutional and Human Rights of minorities given these concerns and the recommendations of various bodies.

They should define in legislation what religious instruction and education mean, and also legally oblige all schools to deliver the curriculum in a neutral and objective manner in order to protect the rights of minorities. Obliging schools to write down their ethos would also help.

Unfortunately that is not happening. It seems that, despite all the assurances about change in our education system, the government are accepting the view of the Catholic Church that the Constitution does not protect minorities from the religious education that they integrate into the state curriculum as it is not religious instruction.

9. What the Irish Government is doing

In their Reply to the List of Issues from the UN under the ICCPR the Government stated that:

“In September 2013, the Minister for Education and Skills published a Draft General Scheme for an Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013, as well as Draft Regulations on the Content of Admission Policies and Draft Regulations on Admission Processes, for discussion ahead of enacting legislation. The aim is to improve the admissions process and to ensure that the way schools decide on applications is structured, fair and transparent.

From the perspective of the parent, the framework makes clear that, inter alia, the enrolment policy will include a statement setting out the position of the school in relation to its arrangements for upholding the constitutional right of students not to attend religious instruction.”

The above proposals will not legally define religious instruction/religious education, oblige schools to deliver the curriculum in a neutral and objective manner and write down their ethos.

In addition to the above, the Leaflet for Parents from the Dept of Education, regarding the consultation on inclusiveness in schools, omitted the main human rights issue that the UN Human Rights Committee has raised concern about in 2008 (the religious integrated curriculum). Atheist Ireland wrote to the Minister asking why he omitted the main human rights issue that the UN had raised. To date we have not had a reply.

10. How the State is ignoring our human rights

As mentioned earlier, it seems that the Irish State is again going to ignore the human rights guaranteed under international treaties, and argue that the Constitution protects minorities, when it is clear that despite all the guarantees we still do not enjoy basic rights. This government are refusing to deal with the religious integrated curriculum, by saying that it is religious education and not religious instruction, which is not the relevant point.

It seems that this is just another government that will not protect the right of minorities in the education system and are willing to continue to let our laws and policy reflect the educational philosophy of the Catholic Church.

Jane Donnelly
Promote Secularism in Ireland
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