Why ETB schools should give an alternative subject to students who opt out from the NCCA religion course

Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland will be meeting the Department of Education to follow up on issues raised at our last meeting.

At that meeting, the Department confirmed to us that students can in fact opt out from the NCCA religion course in ETB schools, despite their recent Circular letter suggesting the opposite.

In preparation for our next meeting, we have sent this report to the Department, outlining why ETB schools should give an alternative subject to students who opt out from the NCCA religion course.

1. All students who opt out of religion should be treated the same

Firstly, we made the point at our last meeting that there is no legal basis, under either the Constitution or the Education Act, to make a distinction between how a student is treated if they choose not be present at religious instruction (in accordance with one particular denomination) or religious instruction (in accordance with the NCCA curriculum).

While using informal language, people might use the phrase ‘religious instruction’ to mean evangelising or indoctrinating, and the phrase ‘religious education’ to mean teaching about religions and beliefs in an objective manner. But that distinction does not legally exist in the Constitution or Education Act, and the Department is bound to act in accordance with the law.

We therefore ask the Department to issue another Circular Letter to explicitly clarify that parents or students who choose not to be present at religious instruction (using the legal meaning of the term instruction, which simply means the teaching of a subject), under either a patron’s programme or the NCCA course, will be treated the same as each other, and that each will be given an alternative timetabled subject.

2. The NCCA course is not in accordance with the rights of parents

Secondly, we want to demonstrate why the NCCA course is contrary to the conscience of secular parents and students, who may either be atheists or religious, who believe that the State should not be enforcing religious instruction contrary to their conscience. 

The legal test here is not whether

The legal test here is not whether the religious instruction promotes one particular religious denomination or religion generally. The legal test is whether it respects all parents’ conscience, regardless of whether their beliefs or convictions are religious or philosophical.

We will show that the NCCA Religious Education course disrespects the philosophical convictions of secular families (whether they are atheist or religious) and that it is not in accordance with the rights of parents under Article 42.1 and 44.2.4 of the Constitution and breaches our human rights. It promotes adherence to a philosophy of life that conflicts with directly with our convictions.

Contents

1. All students who opt out of religion should be treated the same
1.1 First Circular Letter
1.2 Second Circular Letter
1.3 Request for new Circular Letter
2. The NCCA course is not in accordance with the rights of parents
2.1 Aims of the NCCA course
2.2 European Convention
2.3 Equal Status Act
2.4 Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission Act
2.5 Education Act
2.6 Professional Development Services for Teachers (PDST)
2.7 New specification for Religious Education 2019

1. Why all students who opt out of religion should be treated the same

There is no legal basis, under either the Constitution or the Education Act, to make a distinction between how a student is treated if they choose not be present at religious instruction (in accordance with one particular denomination) or religious instruction (in accordance with the NCCA curriculum).

We want schools to be able to offer an option of education about religions, beliefs, and ethics, as the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism proposed, and as the NCCA tried to develop until the Catholic Church blocked it. We believe that it is useful for students to learn about these topics. But such a course, if it happens, must meet the human rights standards of being objective, critical and pluralistic, and also being delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.

If it was to be the case, in the future, that such a course was to be developed (one that genuinely taught about religions, beliefs, and ethics in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner), then human rights standards would allow a State to make such a course mandatory.

But at present our Constitution would not allow such a course to be mandatory, as Article 44.2.4 allows students to attend schools without being present at religious instruction. Also, the Catholic Church would object to an objective course being mandatory, because they believe that you cannot teach about religion objectively as it puts children’s faith in peril.

However, all this speculation is currently hypothetical, as (a) the NCCA course is not objective, and (b) even if the content of the NCCA curriculum was to be revised, it would also require a change in the Education Act to oblige schools to deliver the curriculum in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner instead of in accordance with their ethos.


1.1 First Circular Letter

We welcomed the Department’s original Circular Letter because its purpose was to address the practicalities of students opting out of religious instruction based on Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution and Section 30 of the Education Act.

 These rights are legally based on the right to not be present at (a) religious instruction in the case of the constitution and (b) instruction in any subject contrary to conscience in the case of the Education Act (s.30).

1.2 Second Circular Letter

The second Circular Letter attempts to create a distinction between religious instruction (in accordance with one particular religion) and religious instruction (in accordance with the NCCA curriculum that is labelled religious education).

But the documents that we gave the Department at our last meeting show that there is no legal basis to make such a distinction. The NCCA curriculum does not cease to be religious instruction just because it is given the title of religious education. In legal terms, instruction is simply the word used for teaching any subject.

Putting aside the words ‘instruction’ and ‘education’, the second Circular Letter creates the impression that the patrons programme is evangelising, and the NCCA course is objective. But that is not the case. The patron’s programme is hard evangelising, the NCCA course is soft evangelising, and there is no objective course.

The Department mentioned at our last meeting that you are not entitled to an alternative subject if you opt out of, for example, history. But opting out of history is not explicitly protected by the Constitution, while opting out of religious instruction (including the NCCA course) is. In addition Article 42.1 obliges the State to respect the right of parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.

So if you choose to exercise your right to not be present at religious instruction (in accordance with the NCCA course) you should be treated the same as if you choose to exercise your right to not be present at religious instruction (in accordance with one religious denomination).

The second circular letter does not contradict this analysis. It merely glides over it by predicting that, because of the content of the NCCA curriculum, the issue of withdrawing will not arise. But that decision is not up to the Department. It is up to the parents and students.

This issue was addressed in a recent Dail question, when the answer included a statement that the new Circular Letter had no impact on a parent’s right, under the Constitution or Education Act, to opt out of any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student. But it was included at the end of the answer, looking like an afterthought. It should have been the starting point, with the remainder covering how to vindicate that right. That was the whole point of the first Circular Letter, which has been undermined by the second Circular Letter.



1.3 Request for new Circular Letter

On this basis we ask the Department to issue another Circular Letter to explicitly clarify that students who choose not to be present at religious instruction (under either version) will be treated the same as each other, and that each will be given an alternative timetabled subject.

2. Why the NCCA course is not in accordance with the rights of parents 


We want schools to offer an option of education about religions, beliefs, and ethics, such as that being proposed by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, and being developed by the NCCA until the Catholic Church blocked it.

We want schools to offer an option of education about religions, beliefs, and ethics, such as that being proposed by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, and being developed by the NCCA until the Catholic Church blocked it.

But such a course must meet the human rights standards of being objective, critical and pluralistic. It should not promote religion over atheism, or promote atheism over religion, or promote any religious or philosophical conviction over any other.

The NCCA course is not in accordance with the rights of parents, under the Constitution and Education Act, as well as the European Convention, the Equal Status Act, and the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission Act.


2.1 Aims of the NCCA course

The Main Aims of the NCCA Religious Education Course are:

  • To foster an awareness that the human search for meaning is common to all peoples, of all ages and at all times
  • To explore how this search for meaning has found, and continues to find, expression in religion
  • To identify how understandings of God, religious traditions, and in particular the Christian tradition, have contributed to the culture in which we live, and continue to have an impact on personal life-style, inter-personal relationships and relationships between individuals and their communities and contexts
  • To appreciate the richness of religious traditions and to acknowledge the non-religious interpretation of life.
  • To contribute to the spiritual and moral development of the student

The NCCA course does not respect the philosophical convictions of atheist and secular parents. Contributing to the moral and spiritual education of our children through religion is not promoting respect for our rights as parents under Article 42.1 of the Constitution and Article 11 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention and Article 13 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The NCCA course does not see the non-religious tradition in Ireland as contributing to the culture in which we live. The search for meaning is explored through religion and religious expression while the non-religious interpretation of life is acknowledged in passing in a section of the course called ‘Challenges to Faith’ alongside materialism and fundamentalism.

Merely acknowledging the non-religious interpretation of life does not constitute respect for parents’ convictions under Article 11 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention. We would equally object if an NCCA course aimed to ‘appreciate the richness of the non-religious interpretation of life and to acknowledge religious traditions.’

Also, in practice, under the NCCA course, children are being forced to attend places of worship and to engage in religious practice. This ranges from Muslim children being forced to attend Catholic Mass and being forced to put ash on their foreheads, to non-Muslim children being forced to attend a Mosque without the Imam being told that some of the children had not been given the option to attend or not attend. Also, Evangelical parents have felt pressured to comply with the majority ethos in the school in order to fit in. This is coercion, however subtle it may seem. It affects all minority parents and children who have objections on conscientious grounds.

2.2 European Convention

Article 11 of Protocol 1 (the Right to Education) of the European Convention obliges the State to respect parents convictions be they religious of philosophical throughout the entire education system. One of the ‘General Principals’ of the European Court in relation to Article 11 of Protocol 1 is that:

“(c) Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 does not permit a distinction to be drawn between religious instruction and other subjects. It enjoins the State to respect parents’ convictions, be they religious or philosophical, throughout the entire State education programme (see Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen, cited above, p. 25, §51). That duty is broad in its extent as it applies not only to the content of education and the manner of its provision but also to the performance of all the “functions” assumed by the State.

The verb “respect” means more than “acknowledge” or “take into account”. In addition to a primarily negative undertaking, it implies some positive obligation on the part of the State. The term “conviction”, taken on its own, is not synonymous with the words “opinions” and “ideas”. It denotes views that attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance (see Valsamis, cited above, pp. 2323-24, §§ 25 and 27, and Campbell and Cosans, cited above, pp. 16-17, §§ 36-37).

“In particular, the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 does not prevent States from imparting through teaching or education information or knowledge of a directly or indirectly religious or philosophical kind. It does not even permit parents to object to the integration of such teaching or education in the school curriculum, for otherwise all institutionalised teaching would run the risk of proving impracticable (see Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen, cited above, p. 26, § 53).

(h) The second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 implies on the other hand that the State, in fulfilling the functions assumed by it in regard to education and teaching, must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. The State is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions. That is the limit that must not be exceeded (ibid.).” (Folgero V Norway 29/06/07)

There is no distinction between religious instruction and religious education under Article 11 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention. This is exactly the same as the Irish Constitution. There is a Constitutional and Human Right for parents to opt their children out of this course on the basis of conscience because it does not respect their convictions. Not providing another subject is discrimination.

It is quite clear that the NCCA RE subject disrespects the philosophical convictions of secular parents (who might be either atheist or religious) because it is not objective, critical and pluralistic and it contributes to the moral education of their children through religion. The NCCA course is indoctrination under European Court law, as it disrespects the philosophical convictions of these parents.

The State has granted religions (mainly the Catholic Church) the privilege of being able to evangelise through a State RE course because of the control and influence that they have had over the years. Despite the claims that it is suitable for all parents as it obviously disrespects the convictions of secular parents. Such parents can legitimately consider that the NCCA RE subject is likely to give rise in their children to a conflict of allegiance between the school and their own values.

The view that only religion promotes the ‘common good’ by contributing to the moral and spiritual education of all students is indoctrination. It would be just as wrong to suggest that only atheism promotes the ‘common good’ by contributing to the moral and spiritual education of all students.

The Irish State is obliged to respect secular parents and their children. The European Court has stated that:

“58. Secondly, the Court emphasises that the supporters of secularism are able to lay claim to views attaining the “level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” required for them to be considered “convictions” within the meaning of Articles 9 of the Convention and 2 of Protocol No. 1 (see Campbell and Cosans v. the United Kingdom, 25 February 1982, § 36, Series A no. 48). More precisely, their views must be regarded as “philosophical convictions”, within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, given that they are worthy of “respect ‘in a democratic society’”, are not incompatible with human dignity and do not conflict with the fundamental right of the child to education (ibid.).”

This is not just an issue about opting out of religion. There is a positive duty on behalf of the State to respect secular parents and their children. The NCCA RE course does not recognise or protect this right to respect, it does the opposite.

2.3 Equal Status Act

Section 7 2 – of the Equal Status Act states that – An educational establishment shall not discriminate in relation to:

(b) The access of a student to any course, facility or benefit provided by the establishment,

A condition of access to the NCCA RE course is that students from secular families (whether they are atheist or religious) must endure the disrespect that the State has for the convictions of their parents. This is religious discrimination and it has been solidified by the comments of the recent clarification of the Circular Letter 0062/2018 which states:

“This clear separation of religious instruction from the NCCA Religious Education syllabus has the effect of ensuring that withdrawal does not arise for students studying the NCCA Religious Education syllabus where the school provides the subject as part of its normal range of subjects.”

The clarification is the State telling secular families (whether they are atheist or religious) that there is no basis for any conscientious objection that they have to a course that contributes to the moral education of their children through religion. This is not in accordance with the inalienable right of parents under Article 42.1 or the Equal Status Act.

The non-religious are now the second largest group in society after Roman Catholics. It is difficult to accept that it is the policy of the Department of Education to promote the moral education of children from secular families (whether they are atheist or religious) through religion.

2.4 Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission Act

Section 42 of the IHREC Act obliges ETBs to:

(a) eliminate discrimination,
(c) protect the human rights of its members, staff and the persons to whom it provides services

The NCCA RE course can hardly be said to promote the human rights of atheist and secular families when it disrespects their philosophical convictions. Not providing another subject is religious discrimination.

“135. Furthermore, the right to manifest religion in “teaching” does not go so far as to entail an obligation on States to allow religious education in public schools (Savez crkava « Riječ života » and Others v. Croatia, § 57). Nevertheless, if the State decides to grant this kind of privilege to certain religious communities, the special rights and privileges fall within the scope of Article 9, such that the prohibition of discrimination enshrined in Article 14 of the Convention becomes applicable (Savez crkava « Riječ života » and Others v. Croatia, § 58).”
https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Guide_Art_9_ENG.pdf

2.5 Education Act

Section 9 (d) of the Education Act states:

“promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and provide health education for them, in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school,”

This Section of the Education Act 1998 was never meant to promote the moral education of all children through religion. Unfortunately this is exactly what this Section is used for. It has enabled various bodies to claim that the State obliges them to promote the moral and spiritual development of all students through religion. It is also claimed that this is the policy of the State and that that policy is reflected in the introduction to the Primary school curriculum and consequently at second level all schools are obliged to promote the moral and spiritual education of all student through religious education. In many cases this NCCA course is made compulsory on that basis.

This is what the Introduction to the Primary School Curriculum says about Religious Education. It equates religion with spirituality despite the fact that the meaning of the word ‘spiritual’ in the Education Act is not confined to religion.

“Religious education
In seeking to develop the full potential of the individual, the curriculum takes into account the child’s affective, aesthetic, spiritual, moral and religious needs. The spiritual dimension is a fundamental aspect of individual experience, and its religious and cultural expression is an
inextricable part of Irish culture and history. Religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God.”

2.6 Professional Development Services for Teachers (PDST)

In the curriculum resources section for junior cycle religious education under Section D – The Question of faith there is a Document called ‘Factors that can influence religious belief and practice’. This Document is for teachers of the NCCA Religious Education course. This is what they say.

“Teachers, chaplains, religious and priests can also be good role models for young people. Sometimes if young people have a good experience of Religious Education in school their belief in God can be strengthened. R.E. class can open their minds and hearts to the mystery of God and how faith can be lived. In schools they can be exposed to meditation, liturgies, opening year masses, graduation ceremonies etc which involve them in a meaningful way.

This can provide a sense of union with one another and with God. It can encourage them to continue to pray, worship and to live by religious moral values in their daily lives. Seeing adults such as religious sisters and clergy who have a vocation to follow Christ, and who offer their lives in service of God and one another, can be a living example of the love of God in the world and the importance of religious faith. It reminds young people that religion has a valuable role to play in life.”

“We often end up believing the lie that only what is observable, proven, measurable and scientific has any validity. Anything else is seen as delusion or wishful thinking. This blinds us to the realm of the spiritual.”

Teachers are trained to indoctrinate our children and disrespect our philosophical convictions. The State through funding the PDST sanctions and supports the training of teachers to indoctrinate and disrespect the convictions of atheist and secular families.

2.7 New specification for Religious Education 2019

The new specification for the NCCA Religious Education course due to be introduced in 2019 will not change the premise of the NCCA course. The language is the specification is more inclusive but there is no change to the purpose of the course.

We have sent in a Submission and objected on the grounds of conscience to this new specification. The Religious Education Development Group is chaired by a priest from the Mater Dei Institute whose purpose is to evangelise not protect our Constitutional and Human Rights.

The NCCA don’t promote or make any attempt to protect our Constitutional and Human Rights. The development of any Religious Education course from the NCCA is based on a Catholic philosophy which promotes evangelisation not the rights of parents and their children.

3. Conclusion

We are asking the Department to issue another Circular Letter to explicitly clarify that students in ETB schools who choose not to be present at religious instruction (under either version) will be treated the same as each other, and that each will be given an alternative timetabled subject.

Atheist Ireland

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