New case shows that the Irish State directly imposes a Catholic ethos in ETB Schools

A recent case at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) vindicates the position of Atheist Ireland in relation to religion in the Education & Training Board (ETB) schools and colleges. We have consistently argued that ETB schools are run as religious schools, and that most of them have a Catholic or Christian ethos.

This new case at the WRC is in relation to a second level school which is under the full Patronage of an ETB. There is no religious Patron involved, yet the school is imposing a Catholic ethos. You can read the WRC decision here.

In this article, we analyse the consequences of this new case for secular education in Ireland. We also examine the Religious Education policy of this particular school, which was not published as part of the WRC judgment.

Five main concerns raised by this case

This new case is particularly concerning for five reasons:

Firstly, the State claims that the slow pace in addressing the problems of religion in schools is because the State has to convince the religious Patron bodies, particularly the Catholic Church, to agree to changes. But ETB schools are directly run by State bodies, so there is no religious Patron involved. The State is directly imposing a Catholic ethos on children of parents who are not Catholic. This type of ETB school is held up as an alternative to publicly funded schools with a religious Patron.

Secondly, this confirms a pattern of the State directly imposing a religious ethos on children in schools that do not have a religious Patron. There are also nine primary schools, called Model Schools, where the Minister for Education is the Patron. Those schools also have a religious ethos. Five are Catholic and four are Protestant.

Thirdly, the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, is now pushing for the ETBs to open up Community Schools at primary level as an alternative to publicly funded denominational schools. Clearly, these schools will not be an alternative if they are imposing a religious ethos. The options that parents will have will be a Church religious school or a State religious school.

Fourthly, the specifics of the RE policy of this school clearly do not respect the human rights and philosophical convictions of atheist, secular and minority faith students and their parents. We include below details from this school’s RE policy, which was co-signed by a Roman Catholic Diocesan Advisor. Also, this has been used to argue that ETB schools have the same legal right to discriminate on the ground of religion as do schools with a religious Patron.

Fifthly, the WRC Decision cites part of the judgment of the Lautsi case at the European Court, to the effect that a crucifix on the wall of an Italian school was a passive symbol. But it leaves out the part of the Lautsi judgment that linked this with the fact that the crucifix in Italy was not associated with compulsory teaching about Christianity, and was in a school environment that was opened up in parallel to other religions.

Other questions raised by the case

This new case has raised more questions in relation to the ETBs than it has answered. The Minister and the ETBI need to spell out what is going on in ETB schools and colleges in relation to religion, because it is not at all clear.

We have been informed by parents that they are not made aware that there is religious instruction/faith formation in ETB schools, or that there is a specific Catholic ethos.

Up to around 2006/2008, all ETB schools and colleges were registered with the Department of Education as Interdenominational. These are Christian schools. They are now referred to as Multi-denominational, even though we have never been informed of what this means for the practical application of their ethos on the ground. It look like nothing has changed at all and that the ETBs are firmly in the grip of the Catholic Church.

There was a previous case in relation to an Interdenominational school at the then Equality Authority. You can read about that here.

The only nominal legal Document in relation to the teaching of religion in this particular ETB school is Circular Letter 73/74 issued by the Department of Education. Circular letter 73/74 refers to religious instruction and worship, and does not expand to integrating religion into other subjects and the daily life of the school.

But now we have an ETB school that has put in place Religious Education policies that sanction specific religious instruction and worship in their schools, but also a specific religious ethos that informs all subjects, and has used that religious ethos in a Workplace Relations Commission to justify its treatment of a teacher. This has consequences not only for pupils, but also for teachers.

The ETB and Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act

In this case, the ETB cited Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which allows certain schools to discriminate against teachers on the ground of religion. This means that the school is claiming that it is ‘an educational institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes, or whose objectives include the provision of services in an environment which promotes certain religious values.’

The case stated that:

“The Respondent is an Education and Training Board established under the Education and Training Boards Act 2013 and provides a range of education programmes including Second Level Education, Post Leaving Certificate Programmes, Further Education and Adult & Community Education. The Complainant is employed by the Respondent and at the relevant time was a teacher of computer science and maths at a regional Central Technical Institute (CTI) which is a constituent college of the Respondent. The CTI has a Christian ethos as outlined in the School’s Religious Education Policy. In addition to the provision of religious education, CTI has, traditionally, taken various steps in preservation of its primarily, but not exclusively Christian ethos such as a prayer at morning assembly, an end of year Mass for graduate students and the provision for students, if they so desire, to receive ashes at Lent.”

The ETB is the Patron and the employer of the teachers. The Board of Management, who make policy, are accountable to the ETB for that policy, and in this case for the Religious Education policy. We can find no record that this school was established for religious purposes. The Religious Education policy is dated 3.12.2014, there is no record or mention of a previous Religious Education policy.

We would be very surprised to learn that all teachers employed by the ETBs are aware that Section 37 applies to their employment in all ETB schools and colleges. Section 37 is an opt out of equality law for institutions with a religious purpose. When teachers were employed by the ETB in this particular school it is not clear that they were aware that Section 37 applied to them. We are not referring here to Religious Education teachers but to all teachers, the teacher concerned was a computer science teacher.

Section 37 states that:

“A religious, educational or medical institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes or whose objectives include the provision of services in an environment which promotes certain religious values shall not be taken to discriminate against a person for the purposes of this Part or Part II if—
* it gives more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or a prospective employee over that person where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution, or
* it takes action which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution.”

Are the Teacher Unions aware that their members working in ETBs are subject to Section 37 of the Employment Equality Acts? We now seem to have a situation in Ireland that nearly all schools at primary and second level operate on a religious basis, and teachers are employed on that basis.

The Religious Education Policy of this ETB school

The WRC found that the school had a Christian ethos, based on the Religious Education Policy. This is the Religious Education Policy that is dated 3.12.14.

It stated that:

“The CTI has a Christian ethos as outlined in the School’s Religious Education Policy. In addition to the provision of religious education, CTI has, traditionally, taken various steps in preservation of its primarily, but not exclusively Christian ethos such as a prayer at morning assembly, an end of year Mass for graduate students and the provision for students, if they so desire, to receive ashes at Lent. In addition to the various prayer elements, from time to time religious symbols have been put up in the building such as a Christmas tree and crib, the May altar is erected each year comprising a small table, a statue and flowers, in 2013 a statue of Buddha was on display in the context of solidarity with the victims of the earthquake in Nepal and in 2014 a talk was arranged from a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.”

However, the school’s Religious Education Policy also states that because the majority in the school are Roman Catholics, the ethos reflects this. The Religious Education Policy is signed by a Catholic Diocesan Advisor. Again we would point out here that the school does not have a religious trustee. The Policy also refers to faith formation, and says that ETB schools are directed to have two hours of Religious Education per week. There is no indication in the Religious Education policy that there is two hours per week for Religious Education and another two hours for faith formation.

The school’s Religious Education policy also states that:

“Faith Formation is governed by the majority religion, 90% of the students being Roman Catholic. Students are offered faith formation in addition to RE as a subject.”

In fact, the direction for two hours of religion per week comes from Circular Letter 73/74 issued by the Department of Education. Teachers of Religion are employed at per circular-1979. Another Circular Letter issued by the Department of Education and under which these ETBs operate. This means that the teachers of religion in this type of ETB school are sanctioned by the relevant Religious body. In this case it is the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church has recently stated the following to the NCCA in relation to Pluralism and Freedom of religion.

“These approaches require teachers to adopt and promote a pluralist approach to religion. This is an approach to religion that goes against the philosophical basis of Catholic religious education. Such a contradiction would place teachers in a very difficult position where conflicting philosophical approaches to religious education would have the potential to create significant confusion.”

The ethos of this ETB which is based on Roman Catholic teaching is not pluralistic as that goes against the educational philosophy of Catholic Religious Education, the ethos reflects Roman Catholic teaching. This religious ethos is not passive, its purpose is to influence.

Circular Letter 73/74 does not refer to Religious Education, but to Religious Instruction and Worship. Like all ETB schools and colleges, this particular school is combining the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic Students with the State Religious Education course and presenting it to all families in the school as suitable for their children.

Religious instruction and religious education are not legally defined in Ireland and can mean whatever a particular body or institution claim they mean. The opt out in the Constitution refers to religious instruction, not religious education.

The ETBs are not obliged to have available the State Religious Education Course. If they do make it part of their curriculum, there is nothing stopping them making it an optional subject. This means that students could take another subject. This Religious Education policy was never meant to be inclusive, its very purpose is to evangelise and coerce students to take Catholic religious education.

Scope of the School’s Religious Education policy and opt-outs

The Religious Education policy says of its scope:

“Our Religious Education Policy permeates the life of the whole school community. Religious Education is a compulsory subject Regardless of Religious Belief all students are obliged to follow the RE programme, because it is a fundamental component of the curriculum.”

After declaring that Religion is compulsory, the Policy goes on to state that students can opt out if their parents put that in writing. The RE Policy gives the three options for parents who want to opt out their children. There is no suggestion here of students picking another subject. The options are:

“1. Staying within the R.E classroom following specific/educationally appropriate work assigned by teacher.
2. Parents/Guardians removing their son or daughter from the school premises for the duration of RE.
3. Parents Guardians providing supervision within the school for their son or daughter during RE classes.”

We are left here wondering what would constitute ‘appropriate work’ assigned by the teacher in a school which claims mass is inclusive?

Parents who send their children to ETB schools and colleges are simply not aware of what is going on in relation to religion, because the ETBs keep it a secret and pretend that their schools are inclusive and respect human rights. But in practice, there is no difference between the religious ethos of an ETB school and a school under the Patronage of a Catholic Bishop or Catholic religious trustee. The Religious Education policy is not published on the websites of most ETBs.

Faith Formation and the Liturgical year

As well as Catholic faith formation classes, the Religious Education Policy outlines the specific Catholic ethos that permeates the life of the school. The Policy States:

“Faith Formation and the Liturgical year — In keeping with the ethos and traditions of the school, a number of liturgical events are marked in the school. These celebrations are inclusive of all faith traditions and students are encouraged to participate.”

When did celebrating Catholic religious ceremonies become inclusive of other religions? The school’s Religious Education policy describes these as follows:

“Mass for opening of the school year held in the Franciscan Church
Celebrations of the sacrament of Reconciliation (This is the new name for confession)
Advent and Lenten Liturgies
Blessing of Throats on St Blaise’s day
Application of Ashes on Ash Wednesday
Graduation Mass/service for Leaving Cert Students
Other prayer services as appropriate, e.g. bereavements etc
School Assembly every Monday morning with prayers, reflections.
Religious symbols that are visible in our school environment are drawn from Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu and Jewish traditions.
Symbols used will have a written explanation to educate staff and students of their meaning.
To celebrate Christmas, it is a tradition to display the crib. Likewise, it is part of our tradition to have a May alter during the Month of May.”

Note the absence, in this claim, of any symbols of nonreligious philosophical beliefs, despite such the holding of beliefs enjoying equal respect and protection under human rights law. Note also that, despite using majoritarianism to choose its Catholic ethos, the school ignores that there are more nonreligious people in Ireland than people of all of the non-Catholic religious beliefs combined.

However, in the WRC case, the only reference to other religious symbols came under the heading Summary of the Respondent’s Case:

“in 2013 a statue of Buddha was on display in the context of solidarity with the victims of the earthquake in Nepal and in 2014 a talk was arranged from a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.”

Based on that, it seems that the inclusive nature of symbols in the school was a statue of Buddha in 2013 and a talk from a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.

Sex Education, RE Books, and Abortion

Staff support and development is provided by a Catholic Diocesan Officer. The Religious Education Policy states that:

“Our Mission Statement and our school ethos guide staff in their work in the school. Thus the cross-curricular support for Religious Education is enshrined as a fundamental tenet of the school ethos.”

Cross-curricular here means that the Catholic Diocesan Advisor has an input into how Sex Education is delivered in the school and can support and develop the teachers in this area.

Are parents in this school made aware that any Sex Education in the school is in accordance with a Catholic ethos?

A look at the Religion Book identified in the Religious Education Policy will give you an idea of what the teaching in this ETB school is in relation to abortion.

According to the Religious Education Policy the Text book to be used for Junior Certificate is “Pathways to God 1 & 2 by Kevin Mulally. It is difficult to understand how the ETB can believe that “Pathways to God” is a suitable religious education text book for the children from Atheist and Secular families.

It is also difficult to understand why the ETB is sanctioning a book that teaches students, who are from a variety of religious and non-religious philosophical convictions, the following:

“Abortion
All people are made in the image of God.
You shall not kill the unborn by abortion nor cause the newborn child to perish.
Life begins at the moment of conception. The tiny life has rights and is a person.
Abortion is to deny the ‘right to life’. Human life is sacred – a gift from God.”

The above is what the ETB has sanctioned as a text book for what they claim is a multi-denominational school. This is for a Religious Education course that they claim is for all religions and none!

Lautsi v Italy Case

The WRC decision relies on part of the Lautsi case judgment at the European Court, but it leaves out an important part of the Lautsi judgment. The WRC decision stated that:

“5.10 I am satisfied that there are parallels between the Lautsi case and instant case.

“In considering this matter, I have taken cognisance of the case of Lautsi –v- Italy[14] where the European Court of Human Rights considered the impact or otherwise of the presence of religious symbols in a building with the overall scheme of what might constitute discriminatory treatment on the grounds of religion. The Court held that “a crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol and this point is of importance in the Court’s view, particularly having regard to the principle of neutrality. It cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities” (see Paragraph 72).”

But the following extract is also from the Lautsi Case, and was not quoted at the WRC. The reasoning behind the finding in the Lautsi case was that the school environment in Italy is opened up in parallel to other religions. That is not the case in this particular school. The Religious Education policy is Christian but reflects Roman Catholic teaching which is not pluralistic. In addition, the RE policy is not passive and neither are the symbols in the school. The very purpose of the RE policy is to influence.

The European Court stated:

“74. Moreover, the effects of the greater visibility which the presence of the crucifix gives to Christianity in schools needs to be further placed in perspective by consideration of the following points. Firstly, the presence of crucifixes is not associated with compulsory teaching about Christianity (see the comparative-law information set out in Zengin, cited above, § 33). Secondly, according to the indications provided by the Government, Italy opens up the school environment in parallel to other religions. The Government indicated in this connection that it was not forbidden for pupils to wear Islamic headscarves or other symbols or apparel having a religious connotation; alternative arrangements were possible to help schooling fit in with non-majority religious practices; the beginning and end of Ramadan were “often celebrated” in schools; and optional religious education could be organised in schools for “all recognised religious creeds” (see paragraph 39 above). Moreover, there was nothing to suggest that the authorities were intolerant of pupils who believed in other religions, were non-believers or who held non-religious philosophical convictions.

In addition, the applicants did not assert that the presence of the crucifix in classrooms had encouraged the development of teaching practices with a proselytising tendency, or claim that the second and third applicants had ever experienced a tendentious reference to that presence by a teacher in the exercise of his or her functions.”

According to the Religious Education policy in this case, the presence of the religious symbols is meant to have a proselytising effect. That is the purpose of the Religious Education Policy and the ethos. It is cross-curricular, and the May Altar comes under the Section called Faith Formation and the Liturgical year. This Section also stated that:

“The symbols used will have a written explanation to educate staff and students as to their meaning.”

It is also worth taking into account that in the case Campaign to separate Church and State v Minister for Education, the Irish Courts have already recognised that a religious ethos is not something passive. It is difficult to understand how the Adjudication Officer/Equality Officer found that the purpose of the May Altar was a passive symbol.

The ETB said at the WRC that:

“In all cases where there are competing religious beliefs, an employer is required to strike some form of balance between them.”

The school’s Religious Education policy is clear in its intention not to strike any balance between competing religious beliefs, or even non-religious beliefs. According to the Religious Education policy, the school is made up of a majority of Roman Catholics, and the ethos reflects this. Roman Catholic education policy does not support a pluralistic approach, so there was never any competing religious beliefs. That policy reflects Roman Catholicism because they are the majority in the school.

The European Court has stated that in order to respect parents convictions, the State should take care that the curriculum is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. The Religious Education policy of this ETB is clear in that it does the opposite to what is required under human rights law.

Conclusion

This new case is particularly concerning for five reasons.

  • The State is directly imposing a Catholic ethos on children of parents who are not Catholic, in ETB schools that do not have a religious Patron.
  • Alongside the nine Model Schools, this confirms a pattern of the State directly imposing a religious ethos on children in schools that do not have a religious Patron.
  • The Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, is now pushing for the ETBs to open up Community Schools at primary level as an alternative to publicly funded denominational schools.
  • The specifics of the Religious Education policy of this school do not respect the human rights and philosophical convictions of atheist, secular and minority faith students and their parents.
  • The WRC Decision cites part, but not all, of the judgment of the Lautsi case at the European Court about the placing of a crucifix on the wall of an Italian school.

Atheist Ireland will continue to campaign for a secular education system that respects equally the rights of all children, parents, and teachers.

Atheist Ireland

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