As Pope Francis visits Dublin, Jane Donnelly calls for secular schools at People Before Profit public meeting

While Pope Francis was speaking in Croke Park in Dublin, Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland was making the case for a secular education system free from Catholic Church influence. Jane was speaking at a public meeting convened by People Before Profit, about Separation of Church and State.

Here is the text of Jane’s speech.

Ireland used to be a Catholic country. Today it is a pluralist country, but with Catholic laws.

The Catholic Church no longer controls the people, but it still controls our schools and hospitals, because of laws that were put in place when they did control the people.

We now have to get our politicians, our laws, and our constitution, to catch up with the people.

Today I will be talking about the most fundamental issue in separating Church and State: the control that the Catholic Church still has over our publicly-funded State schools.

To change this, we need four things: political pressure, legal changes, policy changes, and a focus on human rights.

1. Political Pressure

The first thing we have to do is intensify the political pressure for secular schools.

Ireland’s school system is unique in the world. No other State cedes control of its schools to private religious bodies on the scale that Ireland does.

The Holy See has told the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that Catholic schools come under Canon law. In Ireland, they are talking about our national State-funded school system.

Remember that the Catholic Church evangelises. That means that they see teachers in publicly funded denominational schools as lay evangelisers. 

They are tightening their grip in that area, because there is a shortage of priests and religious in general in the Church. 

They are also, with their new Grow in Love course in National schools, training children to evangelise.

Atheist Ireland gets complaints from parents and students all the time in relation to the school system. This means that we are able to identify the rights that are being breached.

Those complaints come from atheist and secular families and also come from religious minorities and even Catholic parents. Atheist Ireland works alongside the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahymadiyya Muslim Community who are also seeking secular education for their children.

Many parents contact the Dept of Education when an issue in relation to religion comes up in their child’s school. But the Department tells parents to sort the issue out with the school themselves. 

Parents are then left on their own dealing with Principals and Boards of Management who have no idea how to deal with them and in some instances resent their complaints.

I know it would surprise many people to hear about the absolute disrespect that some teachers have towards religious and nonreligious minorities.

Many parents then come to Atheist Ireland for help, often through our secular education website Teach Don’t Preach.

Even with our help, it is very difficult for parents to challenge the system. Their first priority as parents is to get their child through the school system with as little hassle as possible. 

They are often afraid that, if they challenge the school that their child attends, their child would be further victimised in the school.

If they were to take a court case, it would cost them money that they don’t have. In any case their child would have left school before the case came to court. 

Even taking a case to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) is an issue, as you would need a solicitor and that costs money.

It is difficult in this 10 minutes to explain sufficiently the upset and hurt that this religious discrimination causes. 

The only way to address it is through political change. The State has to stop supporting this unsustainable system of religious privilege in a democratic republic.

Atheist Ireland has a detailed policy on this, called the Schools Equality PACT.

PACT is an acronym for the four areas of change that need to happen at the same time — Patronage, Access, Curriculum, and Teaching.

There is no point in just changing one of these. What use is getting equal access to a school that discriminates against you once you get in?

After years of campaigning, the Government is finally beginning to realise that it has to change. But it is making the smallest changes that it can get away with, consistently with the human rights breaches that we keep highlighting.

And so far, it is simply fine-tuning the religious discrimination rather than ending it.

But everything has changed with the scale of the abortion referendum victory. It is increasingly clear that we need full separation of church and state.

2. Legal Changes

The second thing we have to do is identify the legal changes that are needed. 

Some of those changes might be constitutional.

The 1937 Constitution was designed to protect the Catholic Church’s control of our schools.

It does not say that the State will provide education. It says that the State will provide ‘for’ education. It also protects the assets of the religions who control our schools.

The Constitution also protects freedom of religion, but the State interprets this as protecting the rights of the institutional churches, over the rights of individual people.

So when Atheist Ireland lobbies for secular schools, the State tells us that it has a constitutional obligation to maintain the religious privilege and discrimination.

This might or might not be true.

The Constitution always envisaged minorities attending publicly funded denominational schools. Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution sanctions the state funding of denominational schools. 

However it also has conditions.

One of those conditions was that all children could attend these schools and another one was that they could opt out of religious instruction.

In 1995 the Constitutional Group Report actually recommended no change to Article 44.2.4. The reason was that they believed that Article 44.2.4 protected minorities in state funded denominational schools. They also believed that it protected pluralism within the state.

They stated that any change to Article 44.2.4 would cause conflict with our International obligations, and it would also mean that the state was not fulfilling its obligations under Article 42.3.1.

(42.3. 1° The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State.
2° The State shall, however, as guardian of the common good, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social.)

But that all changed after the introduction of the Education Act 1998, which obliged schools to uphold the ethos of the patron. 

The exemptions to religious bodies permitted in the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Employment Equality Act gave legal sanction to religious bodies to discriminate.

So the constitutional conditions for state funding of denominational schools have been undermined. There is a right to opt out of religion in the Education Act but there is no practical application given to it and it is impossible to opt out of an ethos that is integrated into the state curriculum.

Rights are meaningless if there is no practical application given to them. If the state does not move to protect them, they are not worth the paper they are written on.

At a minimum, we need to amend Sections 9, 15 and 30 of the Education Act, which enable patrons to run schools through their religious ethos, and the exemptions in our Equality laws that allow schools to discriminate against students and teachers in order to protect that ethos.

3. Policy Changes

The third thing we have to do is change the Department of Education’s policies under the existing laws.

These policies promote religion within the state curriculum at primary and second level.

In the introduction to the primary School curriculum, it requires schools to bring all children to a knowledge of god and to promote their moral education through religion, supposedly because the majority of people in Ireland believe this.

At second level, the State Religious Education course is an exam subject at junior and leaving certificate. The State claims that it is suitable for all religions and none, and many schools make this course compulsory or a core subject.  How can they even think this in 2018?

Putting pressure on the Department of Education and politicians to be neutral with regard to religion, and to not promote morals through religion in the state curriculum, would really help.

Of course, that change of policy must also be supported by changes in the Education Act, or else schools will just implement the new policies in accordance with their own religious ethos.

4. Human Rights

Atheist Ireland bases our education policies on human rights,

In the last few years the UN and COE have started giving Recommendations to Ireland to change our education system to meet human rights standards.

There are now 11 Recommendations from various UN and COE bodies in this area. 

Human rights standards are basic rights for the protection of the individual. They are not some higher rights that are difficult to achieve, they are basic rights.

These various Recommendations show that the Constitutional Review Group were correct in 1995 — Either Article 44.2.4 protects minorities, or if it doesn’t, then we are in breach of all our international obligations in this area.

Those rights are; freedom of religion and belief, freedom from discrimination, the right to equality before the law and the right to an effective remedy.

Article II of Protocol 1 of the European Convention obliges the state to respect secularism as a philosophical conviction, and there is a positive obligation on the State to respect this conviction throughout the entire State education system.

A positive obligation means that the State must actively do something. Just allowing us to opt out of religious instruction classes will not fulfill the States obligations under human rights law.

And this right to respect is legally an absolute right, not one to be balanced against the rights of others, or the ethos of the school, or to be gradually achieved.


To summarise, Ireland used to be a Catholic country. Today it is a pluralist country, but with Catholic laws.

This has been changing in recent years. That change will intensify when we get secular schools. 

Atheist Ireland will continue to work towards this, alongside everyone else who supports separation of Church and State.

Atheist Ireland