A Secular State Protects A Pluralist Society – Part 4 of 5 – Education

In July 2019 Atheist Ireland took part in a meeting of the Dialogue Process between the Government,  Churches, and Non-Confessional Organisations in Ireland.

This page is part 4 of Atheist Ireland’s policy document submitted to the Irish Government as part of this process. The parts of the document are as follows:

Contents of this Document
1. Overview of Atheist Ireland’s Contributions
2. Effective Structured Dialogue
3. Inclusive and Diverse Communities
4. Education
5. Other Issues

4. Education

4.1 The Underlying Problem Is Multiple Patronage and Ethos

Multiple patronage and multiple ethos as the basis for policy is the underlying problem in Irish schools. The Oireachtas Education Committee has already concluded that this brings about segregation of children and inequality.

Divesting some schools will not solve this. Even with the maximum implementation of the proposed Government plan of 400 multi-denominational or non-denominational schools, that would still leave about 85% of schools with a denominational ethos.

Also, given that most areas have standalone schools, parents in those areas will have no chance other than to send their child to a denominational school, where the ethos is not in conformity with their philosophical convictions.

Indeed, given that the Catholic Church wants to trade off any potential divestments for a stronger Catholic ethos in the schools they retain, these parents would have no choice but to send their children to a school with an even stronger Catholic ethos.

It is not a just response to say that, in these areas, the State must give preference to the wishes of the majority of parents in a given area. That is precisely the response that European Court of Human Rights has said would undermine the basic premise of human rights law, which is to protect individuals from the tyranny of the majority.

In any case, the question of determining parental wishes has been compromised because debates about school divestment have taken place in an emotional and misleading atmosphere. However, ten years ago, in a calmer and more neutral atmosphere, the Department of Children produced a report on Parents’ Perspectives on Parenting Styles.

On page 47 of the report, parents rated their perception of nine skills or values in raising children. Personal moral values came top, with 94% rating it very important. The next seven skills or values all had ratings of between 70% and 90%. Religious faith came last of the nine, with only 32% rating it very important. And that was in 2009, ten years ago.

But more importantly, as the Catholic Church representative at the Plenary Meeting confirmed, the divestment process is in practical terms over. It is not happening and it will not happen. Ultimately the State must put in place a secular education system based on human rights and equality before the law for everybody, regardless of their religious or atheistic beliefs.

4.2 The State Has a Duty to Respect the Rights of All Parents

Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty equally respects non-confessional minorities. But the Irish State does not respect us equally in Irish schools. The European Union, the European Court, and the United Nations all give us the exact same rights in schools as religious parents.

The European Court has said that the right to respect for parents convictions is an absolute right, and not one to be balanced against the rights of others.

The Irish Constitution speaks of the inalienable rights of parents, and the Irish Courts have never found that the State can disregard the rights of secular parents (whether atheist or religious) who seek secular education for their children.

In the Irish High Court case in 1996 Campaign to Separate Church and State v Minister for Education, Justice Costello cited the rights guaranteed to parents under the European Convention and the United Nations. He said:

“The parties to the First protocol of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms agreed that States when assuming functions in relation to education “shall respect the rights of parents to ensure such education and teaching in accordance with their own religious and philosophical convictions (Article 2). The Irish Constitution has developed the significance of these parental rights and in addition has imposed obligations on the State in relation to them.”

The Minister and the Department of Education are simply ignoring this part of the ruling. The Irish Courts have never suggested that these rights apply only to Catholic parents or only to the majority faith parents in any given locality.

The Forum in Patronage and Pluralism stated that:

“The current situation for children opting out of Denominational Religious Education in primary school is inappropriate and inadequate on human rights grounds” (page 88)

It seems to us that Human Rights law is used to support and protect the rights of Catholic and some other religious parents, but when it comes to supporting the human rights of non-religious parents and their children the Minister and the Department of Education ignore those rights.

You can find the High Court case here

4.3 The State Ignores Its Duty to Respect the Rights of All Parents

In practice, in Irish schools, the State aims to contribute to the moral and spiritual education of nonreligious children through religion. It teaches our children the relevance of religion to their lives, and to respect religious beliefs and practices arising from them. Article 42.3.2 obliges the State to ensure that children receive a basic moral education. It purposely does not say that this moral education should be delivered through religion.

Those aims are indoctrination. They disrespect our right to ensure that the teaching of our children is in conformity with our convictions. Imagine the outcry from religious parents if Irish schools sought to contribute to the moral education of their children through atheism, and taught them to respect atheistic beliefs and practices arising from atheism.

For context, we have described earlier in this document the difference between on the one hand respecting people, and respecting their right to hold beliefs (which is good), and on the other hand insisting that people respect the content of other people’s beliefs (which is both bad, and is a violation of human rights).

We have described earlier in this document how this distinction has been stressed by various UN and Council of Europe Human Rights Rapporteurs and Commissioners, as well as by the Venice Commission.

4.4 The Right to Respect Includes a Negative and a Positive Right

The State has a duty, under the Constitution and international human rights law, to protect the right of all parents to have their children educated in accordance with their religious or atheistic philosophical convictions. That means all parents, not just those of religious majorities in particular areas.

The European Court in Lautsi v Italy 2011 has stated that secularism is a philosophical conviction alongside religious beliefs under the Convention.

“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 right to have our children educated in conformity with our convictions includes a Negative and a Positive Right.

The negative right is to not be indoctrinated in beliefs contrary to our own. The positive right is to the same active help that you give to parents of the majority religions.

With regard to our negative right, the Constitution allows our children, without prejudice, to not attend religion classes in Irish schools. But that right is often not vindicated in practice. And when it is, it is not vindicated without prejudice. Even State ETB schools do not offer an alternative subject to the NCCA religion course at second level and the Goodness Me Goodness You course in Community National Schools.

Even worse, with regard to our positive right, the State simply ignores this. One of the General Principles of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to education and respect for all parents convictions states that:

“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).”

And the European Court in Airey v Ireland 1979 stated:

“Furthermore, fulfilment of a duty under the Convention on occasion necessitates some positive action on the part of the State; in such circumstances, the State cannot simply remain passive and “there is … no room to distinguish between acts and omissions” (see, mutatis mutandis, the above-mentioned Marckx judgment, p. 15, para. 31, and the De Wilde, Ooms and Versyp judgment of 10 March 1972, Series A no. 14, p. 10, para. 22)”(para 25)

“The Convention is intended to guarantee not rights that are theoretical or illusory but rights that are practical and effective (see, mutatis mutandis, the judgment of 23 July 1968 in the “Belgian Linguistic” case, Series A no. 6, p. 31, paras. 3 in fine and 4; the above-mentioned Golder judgment, p. 18, para. 35 in fine; the Luedicke, Belkacem and Koç judgment of 28 November 1978, Series A no. 29, pp. 17-18; para. 42; and the Marckx judgment of 13 June 1979, Series A no. 31, p. 15, para. 31).”(para 24)

If you actively help Catholic parents to ensure that their children’s education is in conformity with Catholic beliefs, you must also actively help secular parents (whether atheist or religious) to ensure that our children’s education is in conformity with secular beliefs.

4.5 How the State Helps Religious But Not Minority Belief Parents

Here are some examples of how the State positively helps religious, but not minority belief, parents with the religious education of their children:

  • Funding religious schools.
  • Funding teacher training in particular denominational religion courses.
  • Funding the salaries of teachers to deliver denominational religion courses.
  • Funding the roll out and development of the NCCA Religious Education course and the GMGY course in Community National schools.
  • Funding state exams and recognition of studies in the NCCA Religion course at junior and leaving certificate level.
  • Funding the inspection of the delivery of the courses in schools.
  • Funding Catholic Chaplains in ETB schools.
  • Funding denominational religion classes, and worship in ETB schools.
  • Funding the NCCA Religion class in ETB schools.
  • Funding religious retreats.
  • Funding the training of teachers to do retreats.
  • Funding Catholic courses in ETB schools for students to evangelise other students and become faith leaders in their community.
  • Funding Accord to deliver Catholic sex education classes in denominational and ETB schools.
  • Funding Catholic Youth Ministry Services.

Helping religious parents in this manner with the religious education of their children, while refusing to help non religious parents with the philosophical education of their children, and refusing to ensure that students from non religious families can choose another curriculum subject, is religious discrimination and contrary to Article 40.1, Article 44.2.4 and Article 42.1 of the Constitution.

Informing ETB schools that it is up to them to decide if the NCCA Religion course is mandatory or not incentivises religious discrimination.

4.6 The State Must Rebalance Its Approach to These Rights

You must do this both to ensure pluralism, and to fulfil your duties under the Constitution, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention, and the various UN Conventions that Ireland has ratified.

You must respect both the negative and positive sides of the right to education in conformity with our convictions, as part of the wider right to freedom of conscience, religion, belief, and expression, free from religious discrimination.

Importantly, the right of all parents to have their children educated in accordance with their religious or atheistic philosophical convictions does not mean that the State has a duty to provide schools that explicitly promotes or supports a parents specific religious belief.

An education system that explicitly promotes or supports every parents specific religious belief would be impossible in practice, because you could not have that many schools in each area of the country. It would also be undesirable as social policy, as it would be based on segregation of children because of their parents’ beliefs.

4.7 Constitutional Conditions for State Aid to Schools

The Constitution Review Group Report in 1995 was clear that the State is not Constitutionally obliged to give aid unconditionally to schools. Article 44.2.4 has conditions for State aid and it is not unreasonable or unfair for the state to interfere in how Patron bodies manage their own affairs (Article 44.2.5).

The argument that the state cannot interfere in how publicly funded schools manage their ethos (Characteristic spirit) is unfounded. The State already interferes in characteristic spirit, because it obliges schools to respect all parents convictions (Section 15.2(e) of the Education Act) and to permit parents to opt out their children from anything that is against their conscience (Section 30.2(e) of the Education Act). However the State has issued no guidelines, statutory or other, as to how that interference is managed on the ground.

Article 44.2.4 was meant to safeguard the rights of members of minorities so it is reasonable and  proportionate that the state takes positive and practical steps to protect that right.

The state ‘provides for’ (Article 42.4) the education of members of minorities in publicly funded schools with a religious ethos (denominational and some ETB). Our inalienable right to respect for our convictions and our right to not attend any religious teaching must be given practical application on the ground, and given without discrimination or else those rights are meaningless.

Article 42.3.1 must also be taken into account here. The State obliges us against our conscience and lawful preference to send our children to schools where the State has failed to give practical application to our inalienable right to respect for our convictions and the right of our children to not attend religious teaching.

Parents are deterred from seeking an opt out in schools because of how the exemption is applied. There is no procedure in place and the burden placed on parents in seeking an opt out deters them from exercising their rights. In some schools they are even coerced to permit their child to attend religious teaching.

The understanding and practical application of our Constitutional and Human Rights rights cannot be left to the educational philosophy or mission of a given Patron body. Parents cannot be expected to constantly challenge school authorities as this is far too much of a burden and deters them from exercising their rights. It is the state that is obliged to respect the inalienable right of parents under Article 42.1, that is a positive obligation to respect and it should be given a practical application without discrimination.

The Education Act 1998 has failed to guarantee respect for our Constitutional and Human Rights and we now need a rebalancing of those rights in order to give them practical application on the ground.

4.8 What the Constitution Review Group Said in 1995

The Constitutional Review Group Report stated that:

“Article 44.2.4° may be thought to represent something of an exception to the general rule contained in Article 44.2.3° that the State shall not endow any religion. Accordingly, if a school under the control of a religious denomination accepts State funding, it must be prepared to accept that this aid is not given unconditionally. Requirements that the school must be prepared in principle to accept pupils from denominations other than its own and to have separate secular and religious instruction are not unreasonable or unfair.

If Article 44.2.4° did not provide these safeguards, the State might well be in breach of its international obligations, inasmuch as it might mean that a significant number of children of minority religions (or those with no religion) might be coerced by force of circumstances to attend a school which did not cater for their particular religious views or their conscientious objections. If this were to occur, it would also mean that the State would be in breach of its obligations under Article 42.3.1°”

“In summary, therefore, the present reality of the denominational character of the school system does not accord with Article 44.2.4°. The situation is clearly unsatisfactory. Either Article 44.2.4 should be changed or the school system must change to accommodate the requirements of Article 44.2.4.”

4.9 The Right to Not Attend the NCCA Religious Education Class

There is currently a major Constitutional and human rights issue relating to the right to opt out of the NCCA Religious Education class in ETB schools and to be provided with an alternative timetabled subject.

Under recent circular letters, this right is granted to students who choose not to attend what the Department calls ‘Religious Instruction’ but is denied (or undermined) to students who choose not to attend what the Department calls ‘Religious Education.’

But that depends on the Department making a new definition of Religious Instruction, that does not match with the way the law uses the term. The NCCA Religious Education Course is still legally Religious Instruction, whatever its name or content. Students therefore still have the right to not attend it (under both Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution and Section 30 of the Education Act).

Instruction simply means teaching any subject, whether the subject is religious or secular. Both the Constitution (Article 44.2.4, Irish language version) and the Education Act (Sections 22, 25, 30, 41) describe Instruction in this way.

Religious Instruction includes any class teaching religion. You can choose for your child to not attend any class teaching religion (Constitution, Article 44.2.4), and to not attend any class teaching anything that is contrary to your conscience (Education Act Section 30).

In the Supreme Court ruling in the Campaign to Separate Church and State case in 1998, Justice Barrington legally defined the distinction in a directly opposite way to the way the Department of Education is now defining them.

Referring to Article 44.24 (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 that school.) He said:

“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.”

4.10 The Right to an Alternative Subject to the NCCA RE Class

Justice Barrington’s Supreme Court ruling brings us back to the duty of the State to treat all parents and students equally in the education system.

Article 44.2.4 says that the State may not “affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.”

But, given that Religious Instruction legally encompasses both the Patrons Programme course and the NCCA course, the State is affecting prejudicially the rights of one set of students over another in this circumstance.

  • Students who exercise their right to not attend the Patron’s Religious Instruction class get an alternative timetabled subject, whereas
  • Students who exercise their right to not attend the NCCA Religious Instruction class (which the Department refers to as Religious Education, contrary to the Constitution, Supreme Court, and Education Act) do not get an alternative timetabled subject.

There is no legal justification for treating these children differently.

There is no legal justification either for treating children differently in denominational schools with a religious Patron. These schools combine their Patron’s Programme with the NCCA Religion course and in some instances make it compulsory.

It is clear from Circular Letter 0062/2018 that the Department of Education are aware that schools combine Catholic instruction with the NCCA course.

“In addition, parental experience conveyed to the Department suggests that in some schools there has been a practice of delivering Catholic religious instruction within class periods where the NCCA Religious Education syllabus is time- tabled.”

The above is happening in all second level denominational schools that offer the NCCA Religious Education course. This is an example of the failure of the State to respect all parents’ convictions in the education system and to ensure that a practical application is given to the right to not attend religious teaching (Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution). These schools and their Patrons have gone way beyond ‘influencing to some degree’ minorities, who have no option but to attend the school.

4.11 The Effect of the 1998 Ruling on Denominational Schools

Within the above quoted paragraph, Justice Barrington said:

“… the Constitution cannot protect (a child who does not attend religious instruction) 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.”

There are two important caveats within this paragraph.

  • Justice Barrington refers to a child being influenced, “to some degree”, by the religious ethos of the school. This is not a carte-blanche for the ethos to influence a child to any random extent, and the extent that ‘some degree’ refers to has never been determined.
  • Justice Barrington refers to a child “who wishes to attend that school.” But, as the European Court ruled in the Louise O’Keeffe case, she did not in reality have any choice other than to attend that school. So the Supreme Court ruling would not extend to a child who did not wish to attend that school, but in practice was obliged to attend the only standalone school in the area.

4.12 Ethos May Influence But Only ‘To Some Degree’

Section 15(2) – e of the Education Act 1998 states that:

“(e) have regard to the principles and requirements of a democratic society and have respect and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions, languages and ways of life in society,”

The State recognises and obliges schools to ‘respect’ the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions and ways of life in society. However it has not legally defined what exactly ‘respect’ means and given it a practical application on the ground. It has left it up to Patron bodies to define what ‘respect’ means to them.

Patron bodies define ‘respect’ according to their educational philosophy and the mission of the schools under their patronage. The European Court has defined ‘respect’ and given it practical application through their General Principles.

The State must stop absolving itself of the Constitutional and Human Rights obligation to give practical application to the right to respect parents convictions by delegating that to private bodies and institutions. The State has a positive duty to respect the philosophical convictions of parents that seek secular education for their children.

Justice Barrington said that an ethos can ‘influence’ to some degree, non co-religionists if a parent chooses to send their child to a particular school. The Irish courts recognise that there is a limit to how schools can influence non-co-religionists if they choose to attend that school. If the courts recognised that an ethos influences (the general atmosphere of a school) and seeks to influence children, then the state has a positive duty to ensure that such influences ‘respect’ the inalienable right of parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.

The phrase “influence to some degree” must have some practical meaning on the ground. The state cannot continue to leave it up to private Patron bodies to decide what respecting the inalienable rights of parents means on the ground.

For example, the Catholic Church does not accept a pluralist approach to teaching about religion. In its submission to the NCCA on Education about Religions, Beliefs, and Ethics, the Commission for Education and Formation of the Irish Episcopal Conference said:

“The Catholic school exists to educate children in Catholic religious life and in Catholic religious beliefs which are normative for them.

[Under the NCCA proposals] young children could be given the impression that beliefs are things which they create themselves, as if human beings were the source of religious beliefs.
In secular approaches to Religious Education, reason is primary… In Catholic schools, Revelation is primary and the learner’s experience and reason are brought into dialogue with it.

These [NCCA] 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.”

4.13 The State Cannot Absolve Itself of Legal Responsibility

The European Court has said that:

“(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.).”

Despite requiring schools to respect the diversity of values (S. 15 2(e) Ed Act), the State obliges Boards of Management (S. 15 2(d)) to uphold the ‘characteristic spirit’ of the Patron. This is the state absolving itself of its positive duty to respect the right of all parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.

In addition the words ‘Characteristic Spirit’ are not defined in the Education Act. It can mean different things to different schools and Patron bodies. The Education Act does not even oblige schools to write down their ethos and inform parents exactly where and how it will influence their children.

This leaves parents in the position that they cannot ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions. It leaves schools and Patron bodies in the position that they can ignore the words of Justice Barrington in the Supreme Court because the State is not vindicating the right to respect for the inalienable rights of all parents, despite recognising that the right exists, and is instead delegating its duty to Patron bodies.

ETB/VEC schools are presented as the alternative to denomination schools so if a parent chooses not to send their child to a denominational school or an ETB school because of the religious influence and discrimination, where are they to access education? Home schooling is not a valid option.

The European Court has already told Ireland in the O’Keeffe case that:

“151. Finally, the Government appeared to suggest that the State was released from its Convention obligations since the applicant chose to go to Dunderrow National School. However, the Court considers that the applicant had no “realistic and acceptable alternative” other than attendance, along with the vast majority of children of primary school-going age, at her local National School (Campbell and Cosans v. the United Kingdom, 25 February 1982, § 8, Series A no. 48). Primary education was obligatory (sections 4 and 17 of the School Attendance Act 1926), few parents had the resources to use the two other schooling options (home schooling or travelling to attend the rare fee-paying primary schools) whereas National Schools were free and the National School network was extensive. There were four National Schools in the applicant’s parish and no information was submitted as to the distance to the nearest fee-paying school. In any event, the State cannot be released from its positive obligation to protect simply because a child selects one of the State-approved education options, whether a National School, a fee-paying school or, indeed, home schooling (Costello-Roberts, cited above, § 27).”

4.14 European Court Case-Law Guide on the Right to Education

Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights states that:

“No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

The European Court of Human Rights has published a Case-Law Guide to inform legal practitioners about the fundamental judgments and decisions delivered by the Strasbourg Court regarding Article 2 of Protocol 1. Here are some relevant extracts from this document:

4. It cannot, however, be inferred that the State only has obligations to refrain from interference and no positive obligation to ensure respect for this right, as protected by Article 2 of Protocol No. 1.

14. Furthermore, the State is responsible for public but also private schools (Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen v. Denmark). In addition, the State cannot delegate to private institutions or individuals its obligations to secure the right to education for all. Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 guarantees the right to open and run a private school, but the States do not have a positive obligation to subsidise a particular form of teaching (Verein Gemeinsam Lernen v. Austria (dec.))… Lastly, the State has a positive obligation to protect pupils in both State and private schools from ill-treatment (O’Keeffe v. Ireland [GC], §§ 144-152).

58. The word “respect” means more than “acknowledge” or “taken into account”; in addition to a primarily negative undertaking, it implies some positive obligation on the part of the State (Campbell and Cosans v. the United Kingdom, § 37).

66. The second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 prevents States from pursuing an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions (Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen v. Denmark, § 53).

4.15 European Court Folgero v Norway 2007

The European Court, in the case of Folgero v Norway in 2007, addressed the question of exemption from religious education. The court found that there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol 1.

Here are some relevant extracts from this ruling.

General Principles

(b)  It is on to the fundamental right to education that is grafted the right of parents to respect for their religious and philosophical convictions, and the first sentence does not distinguish, any more than the second, between State and private teaching. The second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 aims in short at safeguarding the possibility of pluralism in education, which possibility is essential for the preservation of the “democratic society” as conceived by the Convention. In view of the power of the modern State, it is above all through State teaching that this aim must be realised (see Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen, cited above, § 50).

(f)  Although individual interests must on occasion be subordinated to those of a group, democracy does not simply mean that the views of a majority must always prevail: a balance must be achieved which ensures the fair and proper treatment of minorities and avoids any abuse of a dominant position (see Valsamis, cited above, § 27).

(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.).

4.16 The Right to Objective Sex Education

Atheist Ireland welcomes the Oireachtas Education Committee report on Objective Sex Education. The report has recommended, as Atheist Ireland asked it to do, that the law must be changed to remove the role of ethos as a barrier to the objective and factual delivery of sex education curriculums. It has set a target date of the end of the year for this to happen.

This is the first time that an Oireachtas Committee has recognised that students have a right to an objective education for the State curriculum, even in denominational schools, outside of the patron’s religion or values programmes. All students have a human right to have the state curriculum delivered in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner.

The Committee has recommended that the Education Act 1998 be amended or at least reviewed, so that ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective, objective and factual teaching of the RSE and SPHE curriculum to which every student is entitled.

The Committee has also recommended that the necessary legislative amendments required to remove the role of ethos as a barrier to the objective and factual delivery of the RSE and SPHE curriculums be made as soon as possible and at the latest by the end of 2019.

This is the second time that an Oireachtas Education Committee has accepted Atheist Ireland’s arguments against the use of religious ethos in in Irish schools. In 2014 the Committee concluded that multiple patronage and ethos as a basis for policy can lead to segregation and inequality in the education system.

4.17 The Catholic Bishops and RSE

The Catholic Bishops have issued Guidelines on RSE in schools under their patronage which you can find here

Those Guidelines state that:

“3. The Catholic school, in the formulation of its policy, should reflect Catholic moral teaching on sexual matters. Even more fundamentally, it needs to be specific in excluding approaches which are inconsistent with the very foundations and formulations of Catholic moral thought.”

“Because RSE is an integral part of both the RE curriculum in a Catholic primary school and of the SPHE curriculum, schools are not required to ask parents to sign a permission slip to allow their child to attend lessons on the sensitive issues in RSE.”

This is an example of how ethos (Characteristic Spirit) goes beyond what Justice Barrington in the Campaign case referred to as ‘influence to some degree’. The vast majority of parents are not aware that it is Catholic sex education that their children will be taught, they are never informed that ethos (Characteristic spirit) influences sex education or that their children will be receiving sex education that they have campaigned against.

Christian charities such as Accord and Pure in Heart deliver sex education classes in denominational and ETB schools, as well as in some Educate Together schools. The State funds this. This teaching delivers the State curriculum according to the mission of the Catholic Church. Parents can have Catholic sex education or no sex education at all for their children.

Many parents have campaigned on Issues such as Marriage Equality and Abortion and see Catholic teaching on these issues as undermining the dignity of the human person. Many Catholic parents voted for marriage equality and abortion and they do not agree with Catholic teaching in these matters.

The inalienable right of parents takes second place to the mission of the Catholic Church. Section 9 of the Education Act obliges schools to consult with Parents. Again there is no no practical application given to consulting all parents and ensuring that they are informed that it is Catholic sex education that their child will  be taught. Most schools do not even have a written policy in this area.

The State has failed to ensure a balance in relation to the rights of all children and their parents. Children have a right to objective sex education which is ignored.

Some schools can and do ignore Catholic sex education guidelines. However, all it takes is a change in the Principal of a school, teacher or Board of Management for that same school to stick to these Catholic Guidelines rigidly.

4.18 The Rights of Atheist and Minority Faith Teachers

As well as being able to legally discriminate against pupils and their parents, State funded Irish schools can also legally discriminate against teachers on the ground of religious belief.

Conscientious atheists, secularists and religious minorities are an under-represented group in the teaching profession. Indeed, they are effectively barred from accessing the teaching profession, because they cannot get a job teaching consistently with their religious or philosophical convictions, given Section 37.1 of the Employment Equality Act 1998.

This gives a religious, educational or medical institution that 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 permission to discriminate on religious grounds.

In order to train as a teacher and gain employment, trainee teachers must take a Certificate in Religious Studies (CRS). As the vast majority of schools in the state are religious, it is nearly impossible to gain employment as a teacher without a CRS.

St. Patricks Teacher Training College and the Mater Dei Institute are now colleges of Dublin City University. Both colleges still retain their religious ethos which is incompatible with human rights.

The DCU website says of the Certificate in Religious Studies that:

“The part-time Certificate in Religious Studies prepares primary teachers to teach in Catholic schools in accordance with the requirements of the Council for Catechetics of the Irish Episcopal Conference. In making appointments, Catholic school management boards will normally require the CRS as a condition of employment.”

The Mater Dei Centre section of the DCU website states that:

“Within the DCU Institute of Education, the MDCCE seeks to ensure that teachers and other educators, graduating from DCU programmes, will have a deep appreciation of the Catholic understanding of the full development of the human person which informs every aspect of work in a Catholic setting.”

So we now have a secular University promoting religious discrimination in access to the Teaching profession.

Dublin City University has a public sector duty under the Human Rights and Equality Act 2014. To date, there is no indication from Dublin City University how they intend to comply with their public service duty to eliminate discrimination and promote human rights in the teaching profession.

The Joint Managerial Body AMCSS Secretariat’s ‘Guidelines on the Inclusion of Students of Other Faiths in Catholic Secondary Schools’ states that “The general programme of the school will be considered as a form of pre-evangelisation.”

Teachers would fall foul of Section 37 if they refused to pre-evangelise, as they would not be upholding the religious ethos of the school. In essence, in order to take up employment as a teacher, a person must be willing to undermine the human rights of minorities who have no option but to send their children to school.

Contents of this Document
1. Overview of Atheist Ireland’s Contributions
2. Effective Structured Dialogue
3. Inclusive and Diverse Communities
4. Education
5. Other Issues

Atheist Ireland

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